The idea of a “Collection of Oddities and Rarities” would normally stink of lazy cash in to me. But since I’ve spent the last year or so obsessed with Drive-By Truckers and listening to pretty much nothing but Drive-By Truckers (when not listing to things to write about on Bored and Dangerous), I’m more than willing to give these dudes the benefit of the doubt. More than that, I’m prepared to love The Fine Print before I even hear a single note. How’s that for objective, sycophantic criticism?
Opening with a slide guitar filled yarn in that quintessential Patterson Hood style, George Jones Talkin’ Cell Phone Blues is just one more chapter in his massive novel of the south and the people who populate it. Hood can tell a more compelling tail, filled with more fully formed characters in a three or four minute song, than most movies accomplish in two hours. Then it’s time to let his southern rock influences shine on Rebels. Less country, more rock fan friendly, it’s still just as heavy on story and character.
One of the few alternate versions of a song that appears on a previous Truckers album, Uncle Frank is Mike Cooley’s story of the TVA dam project and how it made the Alabama rich richer, while basically ruining the lives of the not so rich. Cooley’s drawl is always the perfect match for these dark stories, while his rockier approach to playing the guitar means this slightly louder take on of the song might be more fitting to his sound than the album version from a few years earlier on Pizza Deliverance.
With the first appearance of Jason Isbell’s vocals on The Fine Print, we get TVA, another song about the effect of the project on the band’s collective home state. With its ironic refrain of “God bless the TVA”, Isbell’s older than his years voice conveys a weariness that this band has always excelled at. It’s a great example of why Isbell was such a perfect fit for this band at the time.
Mamma Backed a Pie (Daddy Killed a Chicken) might be the epitome of a Drive-By Truckers song title to get me intrigued. That’s such a perfect encapsulation of the world that inspires these guys, especially Hood. These families filled with depressed mothers, drunk uncles and warn down grand parents should never sound as invitingly tight knit as they somehow do. And after the dozens of Patterson Hood songs I’ve heard before this, “I don’t think I can drink her off my mind” could be a front runner for my favourite lyric of his ever.
Like a lot of his contributions to A Blessing and a Curse, Isbell’s last album with the band, When the Well Runs Dry is a clear sign of his growing as a song writer, and a clear sign of why he couldn’t stay with the Truckers for much longer. While Hood and Cooley perfectly balance each other, sometimes with contrasting, sometimes with complementary sounds, the Isbell sound was so clearly heading in a different direction. This is the sound of an individual. And it’s a great sound. It’s just not the sound of this band.
Covered in darkness and cigarette smoke, Mrs Claus’ Kimono is a walking bass line, blues infused strut through a dark alley. It sounds like it knows something bad is going to happen, but it will confidently walk into that doom, come what may.
While a scant 300 words ago I was stating Cooley’s guitar rock sound to be a signature of his song writing, when he does get tender, his finger picking acoustic guitar is one of the best in the business. Little Pony and the Great Big Horse is nothing but Cooley, his guitar, a fable about the titular equines and a whole lot of sincerity that only a middle aged southern man can provide.
With duelling vocals from Hood, Cooley and bass player Shonner Tucker, the Drive-By Truckers take on Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone is pretty cool cover, as far as covers go. But it’s the also the albums’ one and only instance where ‘rarity and oddity’ is actually code for ‘filler’. It’s OK, it’s also pretty inessential. It sounds like the kind of song that they decided to have a bit of fun with when they had some extra studio time up their sleave.
I first became aware of Drive-By Truckers around 2009, when Brighter Than Creations Dark was their latest release. Over years of every casual listening, I made my way through their back catalogue and always liked them, a lot. But there was something about English Oceans last year that burst the dam. While The Fine Print came out around the same time as my initial exposure to this band, I’m glad I didn’t get around to listening to it until now. With the context of the albums that came before and the evolution of the band during this period, this is an awesome biography of this massive five years in Drive-By Truckers lore.