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They know the territory

The Drive-By Truckers take listeners on a gritty tour of 'The Dirty South,' where prosperity is a stranger.

August 22, 2004|Richard Cromelin

You can see why the Drive-By Truckers would want to write a screenplay about these people.

There's a group of good-old-boy gangsters who make the Sopranos look like the Simpsons. Moonshiners who came out of the woods to take down "Walking Tall's" stick-wielding sheriff Buford Pusser. There are stock-car drivers and the first rock 'n' roll stars, and just plain folks, like the loser living in a cancer cluster, watching the cemetery fill up and dealing drugs to get by.

But instead of a script, the Drive-By Truckers made an album. And at a time when rock musicians are finally returning to social and political commentary, "The Dirty South," which comes out Tuesday, is one of the most topically urgent albums of the year -- a cinematic portrayal of a region whose population has been left off the merry-go-round of prosperity, to be marginalized and driven to desperation.

And the Truckers weren't even trying for a big statement. The album's theme emerged gradually and organically from long conversations among the members of the critically admired band, who spent a lot of road time talking about the Southern Crime Syndicate of the 1970s and the economic devastation they see in their hometown of Muscle Shoals, Ala.

They fit out their tales with an aggressive heartland rock that bristles with menace and pathos -- three-guitar depictions of characters who may not always be admirable but are compellingly human.

"We take the point of view of the so-called bad guys and get into kind of what their motivation was," says Patterson Hood, a cofounder of the band and one of its three key songwriters. "These might not be people who were necessarily born evil. They might have been people who kind of fell into this line of work or these things that they did in order to try to feed their family in a really poor and depressed area of the country."

He sees a lot of parallels between his hometown and the Flint, Mich., turf outlined in "Roger & Me," Michael Moore's 1989 documentary about corporate indifference to the working class.

"It was a Ford plant instead of GM, but when it shut down, that happened in '82 and our home region still hasn't really recovered," he continues. "We had double-digit unemployment all the way through the Clinton era."

Hood, 40, moved to Athens, Ga., a decade ago, but his heart remains close to Muscle Shoals, where his father, David Hood, played bass in the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

A long road

The younger Hood formed the Truckers with fellow Alabaman Mike Cooley in Georgia in the late '90s. Their fourth album, 2001's "Southern Rock Opera," an epic telling of the Lynyrd Skynyrd saga and a study of the Southern state of mind, vaulted the Truckers into the critical elite, cracking the top 25 of the Village Voice critics poll ahead of such press favorites as Steve Earle and Sigur Ros.

"The Dirty South," on the independent New West label, follows the more personal "Decoration Day," and it seems likely to cement their stature with critics and their primarily indie-rock following, creating music as evocative of its place as rapper Dizzee Rascal's "Boy in Da Corner" is of London's East End.

"We didn't necessarily tell any specific person's story, but we knew those people, or knew of 'em," says Hood. "There might have been the guy down the street that all of a sudden moved into a big nice house. 'Is he making that much money from that little used-car lot?' 'I don't know, where'd that come from?'

"Small-town gossip and talk and stuff -- when enough time passes that becomes folklore. All of us are fascinated by modern-day folklore and modern-day Southern mythology. So all that definitely informed some of the work."

Could a vivid album like this actually bring about changes that would help the region? Hood doesn't really think so, but he has a strong streak of political activism in him, and he won't rule anything out.

"Almost the best you can hope for is that people are more aware of something or they talk about it or even just think about it," he says. "These are some serious times. There's a lot of things to think about, and you kind of owe it to yourself to try to be a little more aware of things now.

"I love the whole romantic ideal of a piece of art or a song or something effecting some kind of change. At the same time I'm awful happy if it just has a good beat and you can dance to it. That in itself may be a victory if it takes someone's mind off of something lousy for five minutes."

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