Someday, when future archeologists sort through the rubble of 2020 and try to make sense of what the heck happened, they will come upon the new album by the Drive-By Truckers.
“The New OK” may not be a musical Rosetta Stone that explains everything about this tumultuous year, but it certainly explains some things.
Many of you have probably not come here for a music review and, technically speaking, this isn’t a music review. We’re not here to comment on the guitar riffs, but the politics that the band sings about. Make no mistake, “The New OK” is very much a political manifesto, just one with a better beat.
The Drive-By Truckers are a fascinating case study. The band was founded in 1996, by two Alabama natives living in Georgia, as a modern-day Southern rock band. Their early songs were about all the things you might expect. Sometimes the song titles tell it all — “You and Your Crystal Meth,” “The Fourth Night of My Drinking” and “George Jones Talking Cellphone Blues.” Their songs were often told from a distinctly working-class point of view — “Daddy’s Cup” is about stock car racing, “Puttin’ People On the Moon” is about losing a factory job, “The Righteous Path” is about having “more bills than money.” On only a few rare occasions did the band hint at politics. “Three Great Alabama Icons” included George Wallace in that trinity, but the band them proceeded to sing a song about how Wallace is now burning in hell.
The song was very much the exception until four years ago. The band’s 2016 album “American Band” included some songs that were overtly political — about school shootings, about the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, about the National Rifle Association and not in a way that Wayne LaPierre would find a toe-tapper. The latter was something of a surprise because much the band’s early work — “When the Pin Hits the Shell,” “Nine Bullets,” “Loaded Gun in the Closet” — had shown the easy familiarity with firearms that you might expect from a Southern band.
Four years went by and earlier this year the band released “The Unraveling,” an album that was almost completely political. As with the band’s early songs, some of the titles are enough: “Babies in Cages,” “Grievance Merchants” and “Thoughts and Prayers.” Now the Drive-By Truckers have produced another surprise — their second studio album in less than a year, something only a few musicians have been able to do. In that respect alone, the Drive-By Truckers now get ranked alongside David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and Queen. For the social commentary they deliver on “The New OK,” they might rank as this generation’s Bob Dylan.
Something has clearly happened to this band — to evolve, and evolve so quickly, from a good-time rocking band to a musical version of a cable news talking head. You might say that the band has become radicalized. That this has happened to a band with white working-class sensibilities is particularly fascinating, because the stereotype for a band of white Southern boys who grew up on Lynyrd Skynyrd is not an album that praises Black Lives Matter. Yet that’s what the Drive-By Truckers do, even before the music starts. The cover art — by Richmond artist Wes Freed, a native of Crimora in Augusta County — shows an empty plinth that’s been spray-painted with “BLM” and rainbow graffiti. It’s clear in context that this is not a condemnation. The Drive-By Truckers are the answer to the hypothetical question “What would the South be like if it were liberal instead of conservative”?
Now, those politics may not be yours, and the band’s music may not be yours, either. But just because you dislike something doesn’t mean it’s insignificant. If you’re on the other side of our nation’s great political divide, it’s still worth pondering what the Drive-By Truckers are saying and why they’re the ones saying it. If some latte-sipping coffee shop folk singer from Berkeley were making this album, we probably wouldn’t be writing about it. But when a band steeped in white Southern working-class culture does it, that’s not just music, that’s news (much like Tyler Childers’ recent song “Long Violent History” which asked white Appalachians to imagine how they’d feel if they were the ones being shot by police). Of course, you might argue the band no longer really qualifies as Southern since lead singer Patterson Hood, who wrote or co-wrote seven of the nine songs, now lives in Portland, Oregon.
The title song “The New OK” is set against the backdrop of this summer’s protests in Portland: “It gets bloody and it gets messy / Goons with guns coming out to play / It’s a battle for the very soul of the USA / It’s the new OK.”
So is “Watching the Orange Clouds” — a reference to tear gas. President Trump couldn’t bring himself to condemn a certain white supremacist group in the first debate against Joe Biden, telling them to “stand back and stand by.” The Drive-By Truckers have no such reticence, singing about “boys too stupid to really be proud.”
“The Perilous Night” — released as a stand-alone single three years ago and included here — is about the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville: “Dumb, white and angry with their cup half filled / Running over people down in Charlottesville / White House fury, it’s the killing side, he defends.” For better or worse, the song sounds as fresh as it did when it first came out.
The other songwriter — Mike Cooley — provides the most direct political analysis. On “Sarah’s Flame” he draws a direct connection between the popularity of Sarah Palin and the rise of Donald Trump — “She made it look so easy all Fat Donnie had to do was wear the pants.” He then draws another line to the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville. “The tikis would’ve never hit the streets if it weren’t for Sarah’s flame,” he sings. That might be unfair, it might even be wrong. The rise of white supremacists — which both the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security now say represent our greatest domestic terrorism threat — is a little more complicated than a song 3 minutes and 31 seconds can explain. Songs, though, are not doctoral dissertations. They live in the land of metaphor. Still, the song prompts some historical thinking: What events in the past have led us to the present set of circumstances?
This surprise (and surprising) album prompts another question, too. How will we know when things are back to normal? Here’s one easy way: The Drive-By Truckers will go back to singing about stock car racing.
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