Drive-by Truckers: “The Big To-Do”

The Drive-by Truckers were never prodigals, exactly; it’s just that they’ve seen and done a lot over the past few years, arguably more than any of us ever thought they would. As it turns out, their interests far exceed churning out the same ol’ southern rock songs year after year, and their songwriting prolificacy is such that not even a double-disc rock opera can contain it. So they cranked their guitars down– just a bit– and ratcheted up the grooves for a couple of ace session dates with soul and R&B luminaries Bettye LaVette and Booker T. Jones. They made an album that plumbed their country and folk roots, and ended up being almost as long as the rock opera was. They had enough leftover stuff for head Trucker Patterson Hood to cut a solo album, and for the band to release both a live set and an odds-and-sods compilation.

So maybe they never went that far from home; even so, The Big To-Do marks their coming back. It’s not a repudiation of anything they’ve been involved with for the past several years– just a deliberate return to their roots, informed by all the lessons they’ve learned and all the places they’ve been.

The Truckers have called it their “rock and roll record,” an odd thing to say coming from a band who smokes clubs and bars night after night with white-hot, barn-burning intensity, but give it a listen and you’ll see what they mean: Their last studio album, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, was their mellowest, and their most sprawling. This one is relatively compact– thirteen songs, about as trim as you’re going to get with a band housing three songwriters. And it’s more or less loud, sweaty, pummeling guitar rock from floor to ceiling. The last album explored their infatuation with the twangy stuff; this one’s all about the heavy stuff. And that makes the diversions stand out all the more: Mike Cooley provides most of these, ranging from the swinging rockabilly of “Get Downtown” to the country-ish “Eyes Like Glue,” one of the band’s most striking ballads.

But the prodigal wanderings, or whatever you want to call them, were not in vain. This may be the kind of album they made when they were a slightly younger band– you’d have to go back to The Dirty South for something this rock-oriented, and even farther back for something as straightforward and unadorned– but make no mistake: A younger model of the Drive-by Truckers couldn’t have made an album quite like this, one that hangs its heavy guitar thunder on rocksteady grooves that sound like lessons learned from the LaVette/Booker T. sessions, an album that explores different textures even as it keeps the volume on high, an album that is as comfortable with brief, punkish bursts as it is with longer songs that unfold with a storyteller’s flair for drama.

Speaking of storytelling, theirs has gotten better. The band used to receive some flak for playing up their regional mannerisms on early albums, and they received even more flak for excising those elements on A Blessing and a Curse; ever since then, they’ve been finding better and better balance, writing sharply-observed character sketches about Southern outcasts on the edge of society, capturing life in a particular region but not making that the focus. The Big To-Do is, once again, an album set in the South, but that’s hardly the point: As long as there are losers and screw-ups, drunks and lowlifes, the Truckers will never be starved for material.

And this album finds them presenting some of their most thoughtful. It’s an album concerned with, yes, prodigal songs– and, perhaps surprisingly given the continued involvement of Shonna Tucker, it’s an album about men– some of them well-intentioned, some of them evil, all of them seeming to have lost their way back home. The album opens with a father abandoning his kids before moving on to a grim account of alcoholism. These are men who have cracked under the pressure; “This Fucking Job” is about a man’s strength being sapped from working long hours at a futile job, and in the album’s best song, “Birthday Boy,” Cooley gives a sigh of resignation as he says “one day you’ve got everything, the next day it’s broke.”Later, Hood tells of a man who’s running low on “Valium, courage and self-respect.” These are men who have been worn down by the world– and so they’ve simply run away.

Women are present here, but mostly to offer commentary on the men: “Birthday Boy” is sung from the perspective of a stripper, and her keen insights into the man she’s with are matched by Cooley’s own insight into how she’s been objectified and used, partly her own fault but partly because of the carelessness and callousness of the men. In “Drag the Lake Charlie,”a woman named Wanda is invoked humorously at first– a man named Lester has gone missing, and the men of the town are afraid his wife killed him– but it becomes clear that Wanda represents not just an overbearing spouse, but the very wages of sin: Her husband was wayward and unfaithful, and the other man almost couldn’t blame her for bumping him off.

Shonna Tucker only gets two songs– one of which, a piano ballad called “You Got Another,”  seems like a bit of a wasted opportunity to provide a greater level of female perspective here, particularly since it isn’t nearly as memorable as any of her cuts from Brighter. But that’s a minor flaw in an album that shows that, though the Truckers never strayed too far, they’ve nevertheless circled back to their roots, wiser and more confident than ever.


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