I stumbled across Drive-By Truckers thanks to an A.V Club article about bands with multiple songwriters. That was around the release of their 2008 record, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. An album that made me go back and listen to everything they made before then, and be aware of everything that came after. For about five years, I really liked the Truckers. Then, in 2014, they released English Oceans, and my music listening has been completely dominated by the band ever since. My like turned to love, turned to obsession, with the only substantial breaks in listening to them coming via listening to Jason Isbell, who used to be a member of… Wait for it… Drive-By Truckers.
Longest serving Truckers and main songwriters, Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood (as well as Isbell) have made me appreciate lyrics and storytelling in music in a way that just didn’t exist for me a few years ago. Plus, they just know how to rock in the most unabashed, raw way. I’ve never been lucky enough to see them live, but I have obsessed over dozens of Youtube clips, basking in Hood’s irresistible charisma and stage presence, as well as Cooley’s casual ease with the guitar, that sometimes takes away from just how intricate and accomplished he is as a player. He makes it look as natural as breathing.
All of this gushing is to say that on the weekend, when I received a fan club email announcing the coming of a new Drive-By Truckers, American Band, I was a little excited. And the more I have obsessed over that email, the statement included from Hood, the link to the Cooley penned lead single Surrender Under Protest, sneak peaks provided by Hood playing songs like What it Means (below) and the album artwork, the more intrigued and excited I’ve become.
For two decades now, Hood and Cooley have mined their southern roots to tell stories about a wider view of the overall human condition and the universal issues that go beyond their time and place. They’ve never shied away from issues like politics and race, but they were generally told through a filter of fictional characters, fictionalised versions of historical figures from their lifetimes, and plenty of creative license.
Now, it looks things have become a little more focused on specific issues of the here and now. In the fan email regarding the forthcoming record, Hood says, “American Band is a rock and roll call to arms as well as a musical reset button for our band and the country we live in… some people are trying to define what it is to be American. Definitions based on some outdated ideology of prejudice and fear. We are loudly proclaiming that those people don’t speak for us. America is and always has been a land of immigrants and ideals. Ideals that we have often fallen short of achieving, but it’s the striving that has given us whatever claims to greatness we have had. That’s what America means to us and “We’re an American Band”.
At the risk of over thinking things, I think the new record’s cover might say even more about the attitude of the band right now than Hood’s statement above. This is their first ever studio album cover to have a photograph, instead of a painting or drawing. It’s their first since 2001’s breakthrough Southern Rock Opera to not be adorned with a painting by long time visual collaborator Wes Freed. Between his record sleeves and hundreds (if not thousands) of tour posters, Freed’s twisted, horror tinged look is almost as synonymous with Drive-By Truckers as Hood and Cooley’s voices and music.
But on American Band, there are no lush, layered, spooky Wes Freed brushstrokes. Instead, it’s a simple, stark photo of an American flag, waving over a lot of empty sky wiht the picturesque landcsape all but ignored, while the red, white and blue are muted to the point of almost black and white. Between the directness of Hood’s statement and the simplicity of the cover, I feel like the theme of American Band might just be, “Alright, enough fucking around. It’s time to take a stand and sort this shit out.” And I couldn’t be more excited about hearing the results. It’s gonna be a long wait until my pre-ordered copy arrives in September.