The differences between Drive-By Truckers albums are incremental rather than seismic. You know you’ll get well-written narratives from singer/songwriter/guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley; you know you’ll see the world from a Southerner’s perspective; you know you’ll get some rousing, guitar-driven rock ’n’ roll. And while the dominant tone may vary slightly—more country on 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, more soul on 2011’s Go-Go Boots—what defines each DBT album are the songs’ themes and signature tracks. American Band, the 11th DBT studio record, is a pissed-off political album; it’s the most topical set of songs in the DBT catalog. Hood and Cooley—as on 2014’s English Oceans, the songwriting split is nearly equal—react explicitly to troubling issues of our day: gun violence, race, police shootings, drug addiction. And they do so, for the most part, directly rather than through personas and on songs that rock less than they roll.
The centerpiece is Hood’s “What It Means,” a gradually accruing country/soul shuffle about race relations. “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks/I guess that means that you ain’t black,” sings Hood. “You don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding in the streets.” It’s a white Southerner’s Black Lives Matter song, and although Hood (who now lives in Portland) claims, “Don’t look to me for answers ’cause I don’t know what it means,” he’s at least in part disingenuous. He may not have answers, but he and Cooley are raising important questions throughout this election-year album.
Cooley and Hood are aware that their views may challenge a conservative, white Southern dogma. But that makes American Band a brave, provocative and thoughtful addition to the Truckers’ canon.