Call it contemplative music set below the Mason-Dixon line

My daddy played poker on a stump in the woods
Back when the world was gray
Before black and white went and chose up sides
And gave a little bit of both their way

The only blood that’s any cleaner
Is the blood that’s blue or greener
Without either you just get meaner
And the blood you gave gives you away.

Welcome to the The Dirty South — the album and the way of life.

These ominous lines from “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” the grueling track that opens the Drive-By Truckers’ new record, offer a bitter little taste of the often dark, strangely poetic, unimpeachably Southern stew fortifying the triple-guitar assault of these gifted Alabama boys (and girl).

The song recounts a ragged family tale of illegal moonshiners holing up deep in the woods of Bama during 1930s prohibition. Founding Trucker Mike Cooley borrowed some of the song’s lyrics from a poem written by his uncle.

In a recent interview, Cooley was characteristically matter-of-fact in his explanation of the lines quoted above. That part of the song, he admits, “wasn’t in [my uncle’s] poem. That was my contribution. … The rhythm in my head was going, and those words just kind of came out.”

Simple enough. And while some folks call that inspiration, here in the Dirty South, you can just call it rock ‘n’ roll.

“Devil Don’t Stay,” if not the entire band, vaguely evokes another blackish, literary tale of Southern family madness, one set in the same basic era as “Devil,” in neighboring Mississippi. William Faulkner’s tragedy The Sound and the Fury reveals the crumbling Compson family through four distinct narrative voices — three of them brothers who recall the same events in markedly different ways.

Ace in the hole

So, too, the Drive-By Truckers contain a trio of distinct songwriting “brothers” (and blistering guitar mules) in Cooley, 38; de-facto front man Patterson Hood, 40; and not-so-newcomer Jason Isbell, who’s a ripe old 24. (Eerily, the third brother in Faulkner’s tale is also named Jason.)

All three have their own, often gritty, tales to impart, and each does so in his own vibrant way. Collectively, the new record’s lyrics fearlessly probe the stiff price of love and failure, cancer and narcotics, unemployment and murder: “stories of corruption, crime and killing, yes it’s true,” warns one ruthless track.

The sixth album from the Truckers in as many years, The Dirty South (New West, 2004) marks the second studio effort with shining upstart Isbell, who replaced DBT’s original “third guitarist” in 2001. It’s also the first record with new bassist Shonna Tucker, 26, who doubles as Isbell’s loving bride when she’s not busy hammering whiskey and rocking ass on the Truckers’ endless touring schedule. Tucker joins longtime drummer Brad “Easy B.” Morgan in holding down the album’s driving rhythm. Musically, the masterful Dirty South has more than its own share of sound and fury, poured forth in broodingly rich ballads and classic-derivative, Southern-rock romps.

Cooley’s “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” explores a bit of Sam Phillips’ famous Sun Records lore in a tongue-in-cheek, country-rock tribute. The late Phillips in the 1950s introduced the world to no less than Perkins, Elvis and Johnny Cash via Sun, effectively changing the face of popular music.

But the Truckers aren’t in the business of penning blind tributes. A pair of songs further along in Dirty South shoots holes in the hero rep of legendary redneck sheriff Buford Pusser.

And in “Carl Perkins,” Cooley boldly quips: “Mr. Phillips never said anything behind nobody’s back/ Like ‘Dammit Elvis don’t he know, he ain’t no Johnny Cash.'”

Asked if he thought the Presley family would balk at the line, Cooley (whose porn-quality stage nickname is “the Stroker Ace”) coolly responds: “If they don’t agree with me, they can kiss my ass. I mean, I’m sorry, I only compared him to the coolest man in the world [laughs].

“I could have said, ‘You’re no John Lennon,’ and they might’ve gotten pissed. But it’s Johnny Cash, man. You can’t say s••t.”

The living Bubba

Standing alongside the Stroker Ace these many years you’ll find the grizzly, bearded Patterson Hood. (The pair grew up near one another in North Alabama and have played music together since 1985.) The biggest chunk of the Drive-By Truckers’ formidable catalogue comes from Hood’s pen; his songs often unloose the grittiest details, the most unforgiving nuggets of honesty.

“I don’t really necessarily ever sit down and go, ‘OK, I’m gonna write a song about a disgruntled Wal-Mart employee that used to sell cocaine, and his wife died,'” Hood tells Xpress, referring to Dirty South‘s stark “Puttin’ People on the Moon.” Served up by Hood in a spooky falsetto — his “normal” singing voice is considerably more gruff — the song outlines a bleak picture of ’80s-era Huntsville, Ala., where everyday citizens struggled with the fallout of Reaganomics in the rich glow of nearby NASA.

“I didn’t know his wife was gonna die until that line happened,” Hood insists.

In concert, the front man will sling his guitar behind his back and grab the microphone in passionate abandon — much like a biker might grab his old lady after a month-long stint in county lockup.

Occasionally as ornery as the characters he mythologizes, Hood stubbornly resists the obvious, aching-to-be-applied Southern-rock label when it comes to the Truckers’ music — this from a man who immortalized the legendary life and death of Lynyrd Skynyrd in a double-disc tour de force called — what else? — Southern Rock Opera (Soul Dump Records, 2001).

“Sometimes a lot of people read [‘Southern rock’] and go, ‘It’s gonna be some band with their rebel flags and their right-wing lyrics,'” Hood protests. “And nothing could be farther from the truth with us than a lot of that. So it’s kind of a cautious thing.

“I’ve never really wanted to get pigeonholed in anything because I listen to all kinds of stuff.” (The Dirty South, for instance, was partly titled as a tribute to Atlanta’s same-named hip-hop scene.)

“I obviously have a very heavy Southern drawl when I talk, and it comes across in my singing,” continues Hood (who isn’t the only one in the band with an accent). “I’ve lived in the South most of my life, so a lot of our songs are set here, but I’ve never really set out to be Southern rock.”

Maybe “Contemplative Mason-Dixon Rock” or “Gritty, Cranium Rock based in the Southern U.S.” are more just descriptions — and certainly avoid the stigma Hood rightly identifies with the genre.

But the Truckers ride both sides of the rails on the Southern-rock train, a once badly wounded contraption for which they now serve as both conductor and steam engine. No, they don’t wave the Stars and Bars, but they joyfully embrace any number of other Southern-rock cliches — pounding whiskey on stage; using the rural South, namely Alabama, as their most consistent song setting; ripping loud and ridiculous before they break your heart with their myriad accomplished ballads.

The Truckers plundered popular stereotypes and further “dualities of the Southern thing” head-on with Southern Rock Opera. The unapologetic concept record effectively gave the band its first taste of national spotlight, snagging rave reviews from around the horn, including a 4-star plug from Rolling Stone. The album’s stated intention is to pay tribute to the original Skynyrd lineup — permanently dismembered, of course, in the deadly 1977 plane crash.

“When we set out to do Southern Rock Opera, we were shooting for something that we really couldn’t hit yet,” admits Hood. “We made that record on like $5000, and recorded it in a hot, miserable warehouse while everybody was getting divorced and fighting. It’s almost a miracle we got as decent of a record out of it as we did.”

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