The Drive-By Truckers began as a souped-up Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band but have evolved into writing some of the most politically-charged songs in the land.
How did this happen?
Protest songs have always found a home in the rock catalog, but they’ve not typically come from good-time Southern rock bands. Indeed, the band that Drive-By Truckers started off emulating — Lynyrd Skynyrd — has gone the other way. The remnants of that band released an album called “God & Guns” that would provide perfect accompaniment at any Republican rally. The Drive-By Truckers, by contrast, opened their most recent album with a song about how a former National Rifle Association leader in his youth shot a 15-year-old boy to death. And then there was the single the band released after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville — “The Perilous Night” — that was even more political.
This isn’t just an ordinary band coming to the Harvester Performance Center in Rocky Mount tonight; this is, well, how should we describe the Drive-By Truckers now?
Most left-leaning protest songs come from what we might call the coffee shop world of liberalism. The Drive-By Truckers, though, come from someplace very different, both geographically and socially — the rural South. The band started off singing songs about drinking and dirt-track racing and, yes, their beloved Lynyrd Skynyrd. The only difference between their songs and hard-rocking country music was, well, nothing really — just how it was categorized. The band even sang about guns, somewhat adoringly, too. On “Nine Bullets” the band sang: “My roommate’s gun got nine bullets in it / Gonna find a use for every last one.” The singer then proceeds to go through a list of people he intends to kill — so maybe the song isn’t so adoring of guns, after all. Still, it’s not one that “Moms Demand Action” will be playing, either. Ditto for “When The Pin Hits The Shell.” These are clearly good ol’ boys who grew up with guns in the house and knew how to use them.
Everything makes sense in hindsight and, in hindsight, the band early on flirted with politics. The band listed George Wallace as one of “The Three Great Alabama Icons” — both criticizing him for his racism and praising him for his latter-day conversion. The spoken-word song says Wallace “opened up Alabama politics to minorities at a rate faster than most Northern states or the federal government. And Wallace spent the rest of his life trying to explain away his racist past, and in 1982 won his last term in office with over 90% of the black vote. Such is the duality of the Southern Thing.”
You won’t find a more nuanced understanding of the South in any political science journal.
The song’s conclusion about Wallace: “He’s in Hell now, not because he’s a racist, His track record as a judge and hi slate-life quest for redemption make a good argument for his being, at worst, no worse than most white men of his generation, North or South. But because of his blind ambition and his hunger for votes, he turned a blind eye to the suffering of Black America. And he became a pawn in the fight against the civil rights cause. Fortunately for him, the Devil is also a Southerner.”
Like we said, that’s PhD.-level political science there.
Still, it’s one thing for an Alabama-based band to sing critically of George Wallace and quite another to unleash the 2016 “American Band” album, which Rolling Stone calls “an aggressive, punk-fueled protest record that addresses topics ranging from the NRA and racially-motivated police shootings to immigration and the ugly legacy of the Civil War.” We ask again: How did that happen?
Well, like we said: Everything makes sense in hindsight. Over the years, politics seeped into the band’s music in small ways. “Puttin’ People On the Moon” in 2004 made the case that Republican economic policies didn’t help the working class: “Another joker in the White House, said a change was comin’ round / But I’m still workin’ at The Walmart and Mary Alice, in the ground.” The song “The Part of Him” in 2014 more explicitly takes on the Tea Party movement: “He was elected, wingnut-raised and corn-fed / teabags dragging on the chamber floor / He did what he had to do to get southern boys to vote for you.” Still, those felt like one-off songs. But then in 2016 everything all boiled up at once. You know what happened that year. That year, 62% of the voters in Alabama voted for Donald Trump. The Drive-By Truckers were clearly part of the 38% that didn’t.
“The things Donald Trump says are way worse than a lot of what George Wallace said,” the band’s Patterson Hood told Rolling Stone that year. “It’s like, ‘God, haven’t we learned anything? To have somebody want to take the whole country down the path Birmingham went down in the Sixties is pretty shameful. This fear of the other — fear of blacks or Mexicans or Muslims — it’s a dead end.”
Out of that came songs such as “Ramon Casiano,” as subtle a piece of trolling as you’ll ever find. It’s a true story, about a 15-year-old boy who was shot to death in 1931 in Laredo, Texas: “Down by the Sister Cities river / Two boys with way more pride than sense / One would fall and one would prosper / Never forced to make amends.” The song never mentions the killer’s name but history and court documents do. The killer was Harlon Carter, then 18. Carter was convicted of murder and served two years in prison before an appeals court overturned the verdict on grounds of faulty instructions to the jury. The case was never re-tried. Carter went on to become a federal border agent and, in 1977, led a takeover the National Rifle Association, turning it from an organization dedicated to sportsmen to one with a more political bent. Carter became executive vice president; the forerunner of today’s Wayne LaPierre. His past went unreported until The Laredo Times learned of it in 1981, at which point Carter first denied the killing, then later admitted that was him. The Drive-By Truckers sing of the unnamed Carter: “He had the makings of a leader / Of a certain kind of men / Who need to feel the world’s against him / Out to get ‘em if it can.”
The band tonight will surely put on a rocking show; that’s their reputation. This is what those fans will be rocking to, in a county that voted more strongly for Trump than did the band’s native Alabama.