Drive-By Truckers – A Blessing and a Curse

Drive-By Truckers – A Blessing and a Curse
New West Records – 41⁄2 Steven Stars

In Kennesaw, Georgia, minutes north of Atlanta, there is a store owned by a 70 year old named Wild Man.  Among the many items which Wild Man proudly sells is a used KKK uniform, several authentic Nazi armbands and grave markers, and countless anti-black t-shirts.  Thirty minutes away, in urban Atlanta, is the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center, dedicated to the deceased civil rights activist.  Among the many items which the gift shop in the King Center sells is the book I Have a Dream, “non-violence OR non-existence” bracelets, and countless equal rights t-shirts.  Tourists can see both of these places on the same broiling Atlanta day if they are willing to make the drive.  Most Southerners don’t have to work that hard.  Such, as the Drive-By Truckers have been known to say, is the duality of the Southern thang.

For several years, the Truckers’ stock and trade has been this exact topic:  the relationship between dark and light in Southern culture.  The duality of the Southern thang.   Light and dark, beauty and dirt.  A Blessing and a Curse finds the Truckers no longer painting broad strokes of Southern culture but individual portraits of death, poverty, drugs, and depression that could be from anywhere in the US but still sound better when played with a Southern accent.  “Feb 14” brings to mind 80s punk along the lines of the Replacements moreso than anything by the Allman Brothers.  The twangy Southernisms of Decoration Day and the perfect Dirty South are still present, of course, but the focus is no longer on geography but sociology.  Each song is a vignette of some poor wretch from Dixie, whether it be the father in “Little Bonnie” who thinks that his daughter’s death is divine retribution or the widowed husband in “Space City” who’s too proud to cry in public.  A Blessing and a Curse falls into the fine tradition of Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night:  beautiful albums too dark to see through.  After all of this darkness, though, Patterson Hood closes the record by reminding us that “to love is to feel pain” before he moans half-convinced “it’s great to be alive.”  Grab what you can get, because happiness is not easy to come by.  This is an album to be listened to with significant volume in a poorly lit room when no one else is around.

The Truckers, it can now be said, are no longer “that good ole band from the South,” but simply “that great band.”  Yes, comparisons to Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner will always haunt them just as the ghost of Ronnie Van Zandt will always float just underneath their music, but the Truckers have become more than that, more important than most of their musical influences.  The South has risen again, and this time they’re fighting with soul.

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