Always go to the show
Celebrating the salvation of live music on the occasion of the Drive-By Truckers' newest album
One of the finest moments in any life is that brief split-second just before a concert when the recorded music shuts off — always right in the middle of a song — and the lights go dark. In the dim glow of the emergency exit signs, you’ll see the band working their way onstage. There’s nothing quite like that moment, the anticipation, the tension, the exultant release as the first chords hit the open air.
The whole idea of a rock concert-as-spiritual tent revival was a rusty cliché even before Bruce Springsteen made it the core of his identity back in the 1970s. But like a cold beer on a hot summer day or the right Christmas carol in December, a cliché can still be pretty damn enjoyable.
What was your favorite concert? Metallica? Madonna? The Wiggles? Let me know right here.
There’s something sublime about the community at a concert, the way that hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of people come together for a couple of transcendent hours, a moment in time that won’t ever come around again, a moment that neither audience phone pics nor professional soundboard recordings can truly capture. Those people there onstage are creating something that wasn’t here before and won’t last, something just for you and the lucky few around you. It’s alchemy that’s as close to magic as you can get in a place where beer is ten bucks a pour.
Enough blather. Let’s talk about the Drive-By Truckers.
Back around the turn of the millennium, there was a brief, cringey trend of white artists doing ultra-white covers of rap songs. You had genius piano maestro Ben Folds crooning Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” country jam band The Gourds sawing through Snoop’s “Gin and Juice,” and a this-never-would-happen-in-2022 folk cover of “Straight Outta Compton.” When a dewy-voiced white woman is dropping the full hard-r n-word in a song that sounds like it could be played at a wedding, well, things have gone a wee bit sideways. (The always-brilliant Atlanta skewered the trend with one word: “Nope.”)
So when I first heard of the Drive-By Truckers, I assumed they were a one-joke band in that same vein, slapping a coat of white paint on a Black genre. Drive-bys are an LA gang thing, see, and truckers are rural white Southerners! Get it? It’s so IRONIC!
But the goofy-stupid band name — right up there with “Pearl Jam” and “Limp Bizkit” — turned out to be a false flag. (For the record, DBT front man Patterson Hood now concedes the name was a stupid joke that got way out of hand.1) The Truckers were every bit as serious about deconstructing the mythologies of the South as Springsteen had been about celebrating the common man in New Jersey … the main difference being, the Truckers didn’t exactly become world-famous telling their tales of Alabama back roads and bad choices in the small hours.
Born in Athens, the creation of a couple Alabama musicians who’d seen dream after dream stomped flat year after year, the Truckers have spent the last quarter-century wrestling with what Hood, in his most-quoted lyric, calls “the duality of the Southern thing” — trying to figure how to reconcile all the region’s beauty and grace with its deeply ugly history and still-flawed present. They’re Southern guitar rock with deep roots in Nashville country and Muscle Shoals soul, crafting operatic, epic-length tales of ecstasy and desperation and salvation about the kinds of people who live on society’s invisible edges, people who want their lives to change but don’t know how to make it stick.
Here’s a 14-song, 70-minute DBT primer I whipped up just for you, a healthy compilation of wall-rattling rockers, contemplative storytelling and family reckoning, capped off with two epic meditations on What It All Means, with guitar solos. Listen here on Spotify:
The DBTs never did get their “Born in the USA” to vault them to megastardom. Instead, they took their act on the road — hundreds of dates a year, every single year — and built a fan base one blissful, ears-ringing audience member at a time. Which brings us back around to the headline of our story.
The Truckers just released their 14th studio album, “Welcome To Club XIII.” I stayed up late Thursday night so I could stream it the moment it hit Spotify at midnight — you know, just like our grandparents used to do. After three albums of searing political rage and protest, DBT opted to go back to their roots this time around — literally, in the case of the title track, a tribute to the nasty little concrete-walled bar in Muscle Shoals that they used to play back when they were known as Adam’s House Cat.
The Truckers’ two lead voices, Hood and Mike Cooley, trade songs on this and every album. (Jason Isbell, the band’s third singer in the early 2000s, has gone on to carve out a nice little career for himself.) Their songs and vocal styles are completely distinctive, yet somehow mesh perfectly together. Hood’s songs are like the big-hearted guy at the bar who’s telling you his secrets half an hour after meeting him — and threatening to deck you a half hour after that. Cooley’s are more sinuous, like the quieter cat a few stools down who can get you whatever you need, just take a ride with him to his cousin’s place, you’ll be back before your beer gets cold …
(Cooley’s instant-classic “Every Single Storied Flameout” is the newest track on the ongoing F&AB playlist. Listen, enjoy.)
There’s a very good chance the Truckers are playing in your town tonight. Hell, there’s a halfway decent chance they’re setting up to play outside your front door right now. They’re relentless road warriors, still delivering mesmerizing performances night after night. “Always go to the show” is one of their mantras, and it’s a damn fine one.
I last saw the Truckers this past November at a small theater near downtown Atlanta. (If you’re interested, here’s that show for your listening pleasure.) It was a night of stories about drifters and schemers and dreamers and people trying to make the best of bad situations and bad choices, the kind of night that makes you glad to be alive. We came out of the Variety Playhouse wrung out but feeling saved.
Here’s the art from that show, and yes, I have a print of this myself:
In the pre-COVID days, I had gotten out of the habit of seeing shows — family, work, finding a parking place, all the usual excuses. But now, I’m all in on any concert that even remotely interests me. (Hell, I paid good money to see The Offspring in the Year of our Lord 2022, and I wasn’t alone.) Going to a concert doesn’t just feel like a luxury any more, it feels like a necessity — to connect, to admire artistry and genius, to stand among others who love the same band we do and build all the common ground we possibly can.
Get out there and get your ears ringing, my friends. See you next week.
One more chance: hit me with your finest concert memory.
This is issue #58 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. Feel free to email me with your thoughts, tips and advice. If you’re new around here, check out some of our recent hits:
A Memorial Day story of heroism and loss in the South Pacific
What is a Diablo Sandwich, anyway? Solving a “Smokey and the Bandit”mystery
A journey to the heart of the real America: Buc-ees.
What it was like to cover the Beijing Olympics inside a locked-down China
Beneath the waters of the South’s most haunted lake
The joy of a really terrible Southern accent
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