Patterson Hood is the gangsta rapper of country rock. He sings with a deep, raspy torn-up voice that screams of broken dreams and a hard-knock life. His songs revolve around sad and funny stories about growing up in what he appropriately (and ironically) calls “the dirty south,” and although he does have a sense of humor, I wouldn’t t want to run into him in a dark alley.
Looking back at the beginnings of The Drive-By Truckers is a process of examining Hood and his band mates’ evolving songwriting. While they always focused on real stories about the struggles of being poor and white in the south, (a topic that few others even come near), the songs on Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance rely heavily on humor and irony and less on the social and historical (often poetic) statements about the south that have made them famous.
Yet the two albums, which where recently re-released in anticipation of their forthcoming full-length, do contain moments where the irony collides with the heartbreaking to produce flashes akin to Southern Rock Opera’s brilliance. “Bulldozers and Dirt” from Pizza Deliverance is a very funny (opens with “Bulldozers and dirt/ what’s your momma got up her shirt?”) but addictive song about an older man seducing the daughter of his ex, with the simple way the music evolves revealing the absurdity and loneliness of the narrator. There is no subject too strange for the Truckers, evidenced by their songs “The President’s Penis is Missing” and “Buttholeville.”
But for every comedic sidetrack there are at least two stinging satirical observations. “Zoloft” is a sad look and comment on the effects of medicated happiness in America: “All my family problems disappeared overnight/We’re all taking Zoloft and everything is fine,” while “The Living Bubba,” from Gangstabilly, examines the cathartic power of performing music. “Wife Beater” is yet another compelling story about a man, the woman he loves and her abusive husband. While telling stories about poverty, alcoholism and racism in the places where he grew up, Hood quietly causes you to stop laughing at his severe irony and start thinking very hard about his words.
Neither of these records has the musical grace of the Truckers more recent works, lacking the ’70s rock influence or some of the innovations seen on The Dirty South or Decoration Day. But they do reveal the beginnings of the band’s writing style, showing hints and manifestations of the genius that is now in full-force.
The Truckers will be playing Champaign’s own Highdive this Wednesday, Mar. 30, at 9:30pm. Cover is $15 and the opener is Heartless Bastards.