Asheville’s a Trucker town. Not just via the glory road of a soon-to-be official I-26 corridor cutting through these mountains, but also by virtue of loving a rock ‘n’ roll outfit born on the warmer side of the Mason-Dixon dubbed the Drive-By Truckers. The six-headed DBT touring machine has made Asheville one of its growing parish strongholds (a laundry list including such un-Dixie locales as Spain, Germany and California) by simply writing and playing great rock songs — then returning often to remind the faithful why they pray.
Even Asheville’s still-reigning Elvis, philanthropist and slide-ax man Warren Haynes counts himself as a fan. Haynes put it this way about the Truckers when he spoke to Xpress about last year’s Xmas Jam, where an incomplete version of the band appeared for the first time: “I love those guys. I think they’ve carved out their own niche in the music scene, and they’ve kind of reinvented Southern rock in a time and place where people were scared to say ‘We’re a Southern rock band.’ [But the Truckers] said, ‘Hey, this is what we are, but don’t expect us to be what you expect us to be.'”
What Warren was getting at was the Truckers’ unabashed confidence in what they can’t help being: an honest-as-hell Southern rock band. This ain’t no nostalgic nod to Skynyrd or some flute-peddling Marshall Tucker either. The Truckers are thick, contemporary and inviting to the ears of many respectable rock fans from both sides of the Mason-Dixon line.
They’re also nearly impossible to pin down. They’ve written a four-star concept record inspired loosely by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s rise and fall (2001’s Southern Rock Opera), generated a sadly neglected — but vast and intriguing — acoustic catalogue and riffed on gangsta rap by conjuring its hillbilly twin on their mean and sprawling 2004 masterpiece, The Dirty South.
Above all else, the Drive-By Truckers like to cuss, drink and turn it up all the way to 10: “Rip the knob off,” as sorta-frontman Patterson Hood would say.
Their latest record, A Blessing and a Curse, was released earlier this year to wide critical praise, but fell under bigtime radar. Hood offers up his typically jaded brand of old-timer wisdom on the album’s capstone track, “World of Hurt”:
“I was 27 when I decided that blowing my brains out wasn’t the answer…/My good friend Paul was 83 when he told me “To love is to feel pain.”/I thought about that a lot back then, I’ve thought about that again and again.”
It certainly translates better in song, but the point’s made: Hood, like his bandmates, holds very little back when imparting his tales of murder, love, deception and family (though not necessarily in that order). He is, at times, as accomplished a storyteller as Walker Percy ever was, with his narratives — which explore the merits of Steve McQueen versus Paul Newman and burying dead bankers in dark holes — testifying to his skill.
Hood is joined up front by “Stroker Ace,” Mike Cooley, who doesn’t write nearly as many tunes, but makes the ones he pens count like they were his last. Instant-classic lyrics and Keith Richards-quality riffs are Cooley’s gold standard on tunes like “Daddy’s Cup,” “Zip City,” and, of course, “Women Without Whiskey.” This all comes from a man who takes his nickname from a 1983 Burt Reynolds flick about NASCAR and fried chicken — a feat few could pull off in the first place.
Cooley’s latest kiss-my-grits anthem, “Gravity’s Gone,” reeks of the unrepentant sin the Truckers are turning into franchise success. He wryly observes: “She woke up sunny side down, and I was still thinking I was too proud to flip her over/ Between the champagne, hand jobs and the kissing a•• by everyone involved/ I’ve been falling so long it feels like gravity’s gone, and I’m just floating.”
This is good, family-friendly stuff from both Cooley and Hood — the band’s founding fathers and Jedi masters. And it’s plainspoken enough to keep them off most radio stations (but not WNCW, thank heavens).
Still, the cussing and carrying on hasn’t stopped DBT from bouncing from a half sold-out Orange Peel less than two years ago to a fall tour full of theater gigs, including the substantially roomier Thomas Wolfe.
The Trucker’s “third” guitarist since 2002’s Decoration Day, Jason Isbell splits songwriting duties with Hood and Cooley, but shares an even more unique arrangement with his wife, bassist Shonna Tucker. Tucker steadies the Trucker rhythm alongside the deceptively small but sturdy Brad “EZ-B” Morgan on drums, while pedal steel master and unofficial sixth Trucker John Neff is now on tour full time.
Isbell, meanwhile, is a bit like young Skywalker, with all the potential in the world in his fingertips and perhaps the best chance of making a successful run on the dark side of things.
Isbell’s two tunes from A Blessing and a Curse are not his finest to date, but they’re miles up the road from bad. The songs find him again poking around the sinister underbelly of love and life, something he called a “cathartic” songwriting tendency in a 2004 Xpress interview.
But Isbell’s panache and presence — what one local fan likened to a fiery bull chomping at the bit — more than compensate for any subpar tunes in his repertoire. After all, he’s already written some of their finest, including “Goddamn Lonely Love” and “Decoration Day.”
There’s plenty more where that came from, too, as Isbell has a solo record wrapped that Xpress was instructed not to inquire about by the band’s PR personnel. We asked anyway and got this classic dark-side response from Isbell: “The label doesn’t want me to talk about it because I told them to f••• off when they made an offer for it. I don’t mind talking about it a bit … I’ll be putting it out through somebody else.” (Maybe before year’s end, he says.)
What will definitely happen at the end of the year is a Truckers’ return to Warren’s Xmas Jam, marking their fourth appearance in a dozen months in Asheville: A near-constant presence most bands couldn’t pull off in twice the time.
Which brings us back to Asheville as a Trucker town. Strange as it may seem when counting drum circle dreadies, war protesters or those dangerous organic spinach varieties at the grocery store, Asheville’s still the perfect town for a rowdy Southern outfit like the Truckers. There’s an affinity for honest tunes and performers of all stripes here, and in a metropolis that occasionally forgets its own Southern past (and present), it’s good to have Alabama Jedi nearby keeping it real. (And turning it up loud).
[Stuart Gaines is an Asheville-based freelance writer and former Mountain Xpress music columnist.]
The Drive-By Truckers and Bobby Bare Jr. perform at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium on Saturday, Sept. 30. 8 p.m, $26. 251-5505 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.