Drive-By Tidings

“Bobby went out for a joy ride with my best girl/Left me at the party,/He was my best friend and I miss him,” begins “Days of Graduation,” the first track on the Drive-By TruckersSouthern Rock Opera, and it constitutes an opening both horrific and hopeful. In the song, horrifically, the focal character’s car rams a telephone pole—“Bobby’s skull was split right in two”—and the unnamed girl, pinned in her seat by the dashboard, spends the next 20 minutes screaming while Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” keens from the stereo.

In life, happily enough, things have proceeded far more hopefully for the Drive-By Truckers, who will play Blueberry Hill’s Duck Room this Wednesday, February 4. More specifically, Southern Rock Opera, their fourth release, marked a breakthrough for the band. Originally issued on their own Soul Dump label in 2001 and then reissued by Lost Highway a year later, the 20-track double disc enjoyed widespread acclaim; Rolling Stone, for example and for what it’s worth, dubbed it “a contemplative, thoroughly developed piece of modern southern fiction.”

Nowadays, of course, the band’s touring in support of the successor to Southern Rock Opera, the 15-track Decoration Day, released last June by New West. According to the Drive-By Truckers’ Web site, its title alludes to “the day many southern churches set aside to place flowers on the graves of their departed loved ones,” and in that vein, various of the disc’s tracks focus on frivolities—incest and suicide, for instance.

If the jest in the preceding sentence seemingly leans from the mordant to the morbid, rest assured that the band in question likely wouldn’t flinch at it. Shrinking violets by no means, they characterize themselves on their Web site as “[f]our big, loud Southern Men, 1 purty Southern Gal.” As Grant Alden, co-editor of No Depression, observed in a cover feature in that magazine last summer, the Drive-By Truckers “don’t like to be told where to stand, what to wear, or when to put down their beer.” Harp has also recognized their country-punk fusion; in its September 2003 issue, the magazine showcased the Drive-By Truckers as part of a story on the Southern rock revival, dubbing them, in a subhead, “THE HARDEST WORKING (& ROCKING!) BAND THIS SIDE OF THE OZARKS.”

To be sure, in all likelihood, even the most mercurial of mavericks in music appreciate recognition. Also to be sure, a bit more detail likely wouldn’t displease readers trying to decide whether to spend $12 (“adv”) or $14 (“dos”) for the band’s 9:30 performance on Wednesday night. So—fronting the Drive-By Truckers are three singer-songwriters who double as guitar heroes, the first two of whom have been performing together for almost two decades: Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, and Jason Isbell. Backing them are bassist Shonna Isbell (replacing Earl Hicks) and drummer Brad Morgan.

The quintet will visit the Duck Room less than a week after playing the Muscle Shoals High School. Southern? Oh, just a bit. Still, sophisticates in a border state like Missouri should resist the temptation to dismiss them as latter-day Snopeses with Strats, as the latest in a long line of practitioners of cracker-barrelhouse boogaloo: that dog won’t hunt. As those who attend Wednesday’s performance should learn, this band defies clichés. By way of example, on “Shut Up and Get on the Plane,” the antepenultimate track on Southern Rock Opera, the Drive-By Truckers observe, “Living in fear’s just another way of dying before your time.” In 2004, in the South, in the North, in the U.S. in general, a line like that should resonate like the thunder of a coming storm.

Drive-By Truckers on the Web

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