Droppin’ the hammer

Advice on how to live from an Alabama house painter to his aspiring-musician son:

Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit.

Don’t ever say your car is broke.

Don’t worry about losing your accent;

a Southern man tells better jokes.

Have fun but stay clear of the needle.

Call home on your sister’s birthday.

Don’t tell them you’re bigger than Jesus.

Don’t give it away.

Drive-By Truckers member Jason Isbell wrote the song “Outfit” as — no lie — a Father’s Day gift to his old man.

“Most of it’s pretty spot-on, the kind of stuff he told me when I was a kid,” Isbell confirmed via cell phone during a road trip to Fayetteville, Ark., following a show in Baton Rouge, La.

“He definitely always told me to speak and act like where I was from,” continues Isbell, who hails from the north-Alabama town of Green Hill. “And when I went off to college, the first couple times I called home, I was like [he puts on a stilted, decidedly un-Southern accent], ‘Hey, father!’

“He said, ‘What the hell are you doin’? You ain’t my boy. You better start talkin’ right, or I’m gonna come whup your ass!'”

“Outfit” is one of several standout cuts on the superb Decoration Day (New West Records), released this summer by veteran road warriors the Drive-By Truckers, whom Isbell joined — in classic rock ‘n’ roll fashion — in 2001.

His tender, nearly perfect song, pairing hope for one generation with the faded dreams of another, is among the album’s best — and is certainly its most openly optimistic.

Decoration Day is 15 tunes thick with rural flame-outs, self-doubting fumblers, Hatfield-and-McCoy fighters, rock ‘n’ roll fugitives, and just your average, everyday f••k-ups. “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy,” declares one cut. “Your Daddy Hates Me,” confesses another.

The five-piece Truckers’ newest surely ranks as the only album out right now that spins the tragic tale (“The Deeper In”) of the real-life brother and sister whose romance produced four kids before they were locked up — the only two Americans currently serving time for consensual sibling incest.

“The Deeper In” is a Patterson Hood tune. The bulk of the Truckers Southern-goth-rock songs, in fact, are penned by the exuberant Hood, interspersed with accomplished cuts by singer/guitarist Mike Cooley and, now, Isbell (who fills the slot once held by Rob Malone).

It was Patterson’s growing interest in fellow Alabama band Lynyrd Skynyrd — long after the fiery demise a quarter-century ago of the iconic group’s classic lineup — that led to the Truckers’ highly celebrated fourth album: The double-disc Southern Rock Opera (originally on Soul Dump Records, 2001; now Lost Highway, 2002) used Skynyrd’s struggle-to-success-to-sorrow story as a mirror on life in the modern South.

The three-guitar-strong Truckers, as they’ve evolved from the goofy-humor days of their first three little-indie-label albums, are actually kinda Skynyrd-feeling — that is, if someone had popped the late Ronnie Van Zandt upside the head with a Flannery O’Connor short-story collection. Imagine Missouri alt-country rockers The Bottle Rockets caked in Alabama-trailer-park mud — that is, after somebody poured stale beer on them.

Taking a Hatchet to stereotypes

Not surprisingly, the Truckers have been called, on more than one occasion, the keepers of the vaunted Skynyrd flame, the modern saviors of Southern Rawk.

Not so fast, cautions Isbell, who joined the band as an Opera fan not long after that album’s release.

“I don’t know if it needs savin’,” he counters. “I don’t necessarily think any sort of rock ‘n’ roll needs savin’. I think the people that aren’t payin’ attention to it need savin’.

“There’s still people out there that make great rock, and great Southern rock, and great rural rock — which is really kind of more what we do than Southern rock. It’s about what we know about, which happens to be Southern things.

“I dunno,” he adds, “nobody called The Who a pinball band, and they wrote a whole damn record about pinball.”

To be fair, no one’s ever accused Pete Townshend of being an actual Bally-table king — though Van Zandt was a dyed-in-the-wool ‘Bama boy, often sounding downright belligerent about it.

The Truckers still have a good chunk of that Southern chip on their shoulders, though their songwriting is a lot more broken dreams and a lot less chest-thumping than Van Zandt’s, while the DBT’s South is a far different place than that of Southern rock’s heyday. (Truckers drummer Brad Morgan sometimes wears a T-shirt with ’90s R&B crooner Luther Vandross on it — but it’s hard to picture Molly Hatchet’s Danny Joe Brown, for instance, giving props to, say, Isaac Hayes, now isn’t it?).

Isbell was already a fan of these existential New South hillbillies by the time he’d heard Opera, and had moved back home to Alabama from college up in Memphis.

Which made what happened later pretty damn cool.

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