The Dirty South is the sixth album by Muscle Shoals, Alabama-based Drive-By Truckers. While previous Southern rock bands have celebrated certain regional mythologies, this quintet revels in the towering glory of small, gritty realities. They can kick up a righteous storm, as on the country lick-filled opener "Where the Devil Don't Stay," or the swamp and fuzzy "Lookout Mountain." However, within the latter is a daunting verse: "If I throw myself off Lookout Mountain, No more for my soul to keep, I wonder who will drive my car, I wonder if my Mom will weep." It's clear these guys deliver emotional wallops at every turn. "Carl Perkins' Cadillac" honors the honesty of Sam Phillips, while writhing in the melancholy of changing times and circumstances. --David Greenberger
Review by Mark Deming
When you've named your band the Drive-By Truckers and your first three albums are called Pizza Deliverance, Gangstabilly, and Alabama Ass Whuppin', you might have a hard time at first convincing folks that you aren't joking. But the Drive-By Truckers proved that they were most definitely not kidding with 2001's brilliant double-disc Southern Rock Opera, and 2003's Decoration Day actually upped the ante on what might have been a fluke masterpiece with its dark and thoroughly absorbing chronicle of hard times in the American South. With The Dirty South, the DBTs have crafted an equally effective companion piece to Decoration Day that plays on the gangsta rap reference of its title with a set of vividly rendered portraits of life along the margins of respectability below the Mason-Dixon line, from laid-off factory rats dealing drugs to feed their kids to Alabama gangsters determined to shut down the cops who made their daughters cry. From the first low, metallic stomps from Brad Morgan's kick drum on "Where the Devil Don't Stay," it's clear that The Dirty South isn't going to be a good-time party most of the way, and while there are some brilliant anthemic rockers on this album (most notably "The Day John Henry Died," "Carl Perkins' Cadillac," and "Never Gonna Change"), and Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell have grown into a force to be reckoned with as both guitarists and songwriters, there's more than a little blood, fear, doubt, shame, and simple human tragedy at the heart of these stories. While much of America might be laughing at "You might be a redneck..." jokes, the Drive-By Truckers aren't about to let anyone forget the harsh truth behind growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in this country, and the tough, muscular force of their music only sharpens the bite of their stories. They can also turn down the amps and still hit you in the heart, especially on "Danko/Manuel" and "Daddy's Cup," and David Barbe's production gives this band the full-bodied clarity they've always deserved. Believe it -- the Drive-By Truckers are the best, smartest, and most soulful hard rock band to emerge in a very long time, and while The Dirty South isn't always good for laughs, it has too many great stories and too much fierce, passionate rock & roll for anyone who cares about such things to dare pass it up.
The Dirty South
[New West; 2004]
There's a stretch of Highway 64 in McNairy County, Tennessee that connects county seat Selmer and nearby Adamsville, called the Buford Pusser Highway. It's four-lane now, but years ago it was only two lanes of blacktop over steep hills and wide curves. Along this road were located both of the county's high schools, about 12 miles apart. Often, before or after school, students would race from one to the other, and several graduating classes were absent at least one student killed along this road. If you were fast enough, you could make it in eight minutes, but it depended on the absence of cops, and you had to have a good car-- like a Corvette, the kind Sheriff Buford Pusser crashed on the same stretch back in 1974, a little over a year after the first biopic of his life, Walking Tall, was released. Before he died, Pusser, a former wrestler, had earned his infamy ridding the county of the State Line Gang, which ran prostitution, drugs, and gambling rings as well as countless backwoods liquor stills. Legend has it that he accomplished this moral purging wielding only an axe handle. A historical placard now marks the spot where his car left the highway.
Pusser is part of what Patterson Hood calls "the Mythological South" in the liner notes to the Drive-By Truckers' sixth album, the inevitably titled The Dirty South. The band has explored this mythological South on previous albums, most notably their double-disc Southern Rock Opera, and like Buford with his stick, they've busted up the larger-than-life myths of figures like George Wallace and Ronnie Van Zant. Similarly, this album doesn't reify or even demonize the late McNairy County sheriff, but simply demythologizes him. As Hood announces at the beginning of a three-song suite about Pusser's legacy, "This is the other side of that story."
On "The Boys from Alabama" and "The Buford Stick", Hood relates the stories of the small-time shiners who lost their stills and their livelihoods to Pusser, who they claim was "just another crooked lawman." In between, Mike Cooley sings "Cottonseed" in the voice of one of the State Line Gang who feels the burden of having dispatched so many souls to their Maker. Neither Hood nor Cooley takes a side in this rural turf war, but they try to reveal another facet of the story and empathize with the people vilified by Pusser's legend. For the Drive-By Truckers, black-and-white aggrandizement is much less interesting than gray-area truths, and in a sense, The Dirty South rescues the flawed man from the ideal perpetrated by the movies.
All of this would be dryly academic if the band's music wasn't so sturdy and solid. As on previous albums, the Drive-By Truckers back their ambitious, word-dense songs with down-and-dirty Southern rock that's direct and bare-boned, yet often explosive. The three songwriters-- Hood, Cooley and Jason Isbell-- are also three rowdy guitar players, and their triple-prong attack instills songs like "Where the Devil Don't Stay" and the live staple "Lookout Mountain" with a raw intensity. Shonna Tucker, who replaced Earl Hicks on bass, and drummer Brad Morgan form a confident rhythm section, accommodating gritty guitar solos and letting the songs sprawl and stretch in unexpected directions. Though rooted in countless major influences-- from .38 Special to Skynyrd to The Band (as explained on Isbell's "Danko/Manuel")-- the Drive-By Truckers' Southern rock always sounds homemade, and like liquor from a still, it's extremely potent.
More crucially, they marshal this dynamic not only to tackle the South's icons, but more importantly to construct a sober, solemn view of everyday Southern life, whether through family histories like Hood's "The Sands of Iwo Jima" or story-songs like Cooley's racecar drama "Daddy's Cup". "Puttin' People on the Moon" is an Alabama version of Springsteen's "Atlantic City" with higher stakes: Instead of escaping on that cross-city bus, the narrator loses his wife and friends to cancer (presumably from NASA testing) and lives out his life in inescapable drudgery, dealing drugs out his front door. Isbell's starkly devastating closer "Goddamn Lonely Love" recounts the torture of a long-distance relationship; although this is only his second album as a Trucker, already he can hold his own with his seniors.
Granted, The Dirty South doesn't play on the band's brash humor like Alabama Ass Whuppin' or Pizza Deliverance, and it isn't nearly as personal an album as last year's Decoration Day: There are only one or two songs about the band members' own exploits and tragedies, so at times it lacks its predecessors' unshakable urgency and tough-mindedness. On the other hand, aside from the Pusser suite in the middle, The Dirty South is more consistent and cohesive song-for-song, its wide scope more public than personal. Rummaging through the iconography of the South, the Drive-By Truckers distill Southern Rock Opera's myth-breaking and combine it with Decoration Day's family photo album, and the result is a uniquely regional morality. All of these people-- from legends like Sam Phillips ("the only man Jerry Lee would still call sir") to family like Hood's grandfather ("He believed in God and country, things was just that way")-- are points on a compass of good and evil, strong and weak, outraged and complacent, through which the Drive-By Truckers are seeking a true north.
Despite the recent resurgence of Southern rock, this quest for a populist sense of Southern identity-- as it applies to a community and not just to a woman or the rest of the band-- seems rare these days. It's not just self-aware regionalism or Southern-by-the-grace-of-God cockiness, but something deeper: On these 14 songs, the Drive-By Truckers find the connections between these larger-than-life figures and the life-size experiences that shaped them. For them, the South is a stretch of highway where many have died, an ordinary place made extraordinary by human tragedies. The Dirty South is their homemade roadside memorial.
-Stephen M. Deusner, September 01, 2004