Ten years; nine studio albums; two live ones; a couple of collaborations; and a reputation for serving up live concerts that never disappoint. Yet this is a band that still remains below the radar. That’s what I like about the hard-working southern rockers from the US, Drive-By Truckers. That and the fact that this is a band that is unabashedly upfront about their red-neckish background – they are based in Athens (Georgia) but originally hail from Alabama. I also like the fact that they nearly always record their albums on retro analog tapes. And insist on vinyl releases.
I caught DBT first on their third concept album, Southern Rock Opera, which came out in 2001 and featured stereotypical southern characters, such as a long-serving governor, a locally famous football coach and, of course, the gritty Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that definitely appears to have had a huge influence on them. Southern Rock Opera was an ambitious project but it was successful too, bringing the band some fame and popularity but still not as much as they deserve. Some classify DBT as an alt-country band. I disagree. I think they are a rock band with a distinctive southern sound – be it the vocals of Patterson Hood or Mike Cooley or Shonna Tucker or the guitar riffs (Cooley and Hood play the guitar as does John Neff).
Best heard for their rock ballads, the DBT love telling stories – of course, always with a southern twist. Alcoholic ne’er-do-wells, small-town murders, cheap prostitutes, cheating preachers… DBT’s songs conjure up an American life in the south that is not commonly encountered in popular music. And they’re prolific. Last year, they released their eighth studio endeavour – The Big To-Do. The sound was large with songs dealing with apparently quotidian things but with an overtone of drama and irony – a savvy stripper at a birthday bash, a young boy dealing with his father’s death, a sex scandal that rocks a small community, binge-drinking and so on.
This year, true to their prolific nature, the band released what you could call the leftover of The Big To-Do. Go-Go Boots, DBT’s latest album is almost entirely composed of whatever remained of the large batch of songs from which The Big To-Do was culled. It’s a darker album that fits in more with the alt-country classification that critics like to slot the band into. But even that is not entirely fair. Go-Go Boots has soul and R&B inflected into it – bassist Shonna Tucker, whose manner is restrained yet rich, and quite a counterpoint to bespectacled frontman Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s songs, delivers upbeat yet soulful songs, such as Dancin’ Ricky and Where’s Eddie. If The Big To-Do was a big rock album, its sequel is broodier and darker but remarkably accessible.
Drive-By Truckers are a band whose albums make you long to be able to hear them live (alas, I haven’t) and that in my lexicon is the hallmark of a great band. Patterson Hood and his mates (guitarist Cooley, bassist Tucker, keyboardist Jay Gonzalez, pedal steel player John Neff and drummer Brad Morgan) are late starters – DBT became a band when most of these people were in their thirties – but I think with nine studio albums in just ten years they have played catch up and have emerged as the new face of southern rock, albeit below the radar! As for me, I’m hoping they drop another album before the year is out.
While on the subject of the south, South By Southwest (SXSW in short), the annual festival in Austin, Texas, will kick off a couple of days after you read this. It’s a music, film and interactive (discussions, workshops, conferences) extravaganza but the music part of it will begin around March 15. As always, NPR does the best coverage of the festival, organising special gigs, streaming and offering for downloads a host of music and expert views on existing bands as well as cherry-picking of the best of the new ones. It’s a mammoth fest, by the way. Between March 15 and 20, there could be around 2,000 bands at more than 75 venues in Austin playing virtually round-the-clock. Just before I started writing this column, I went to NPR’s website and began listening to their selection of 100 songs by an equal number of bands that are going to perform at SXSW. I’ve heard and written about a few of them and, to be sure, SXSW does feature bands as famous as The Strokes, Bright Eyes and TV On the Radio, but, every year, the number of bands that you can discover at SXSW far outnumber the ones you have heard of.
Going by my first glimpse of NPR’s Austin 100 list (replete with downloadable or, at least, stream-able links for each of them), this year’s not going to be any different. It’s a certainty that I shall not be in Austin in the next few weeks for SXSW. But sitting here in Delhi, I’m quite sure I’ll catch more than just a bit of the action on the web. You can too.