Part Two: Leftist Populism
So we left off last time examining the ways regional signifiers get continually turned on their heads within any number of Drive-By Truckers songs. Same goes for progressive politics, which get deployed or at least dramatized by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley in equally subtle forms. “Leftist populism” is an unwieldy phrase, and given populism’s pejorative reputation in contemporary politics, perhaps a misleading one, too. But it’s difficult to frame the DBT moral compass outside of populist sympathies, so long as we isolate their leftward leanings. Think ground level New Deal, the Granger Movement and agrarian radicalism, the third party maneuverings of Robert La Follette or Ralph Nader, our ongoing Occupy non-campaign. Think antitrust sympathies rather than tax protests. Think rejection of corporate interests in favor of the needs of average voters. But don’t confuse their populist leanings with demagogy – in fact, few targets receive more withering criticism in the DBT corpus than unscrupulous and sleazy politicians appealing to the lowest common denominator. Joe McCarthy and Father Coughlin are such assumed villains they go unmentioned: as students of Southern history, Hood and Cooley know the unseemly influence of George Wallace and Lee Atwater are of more immediate and pressing concern.
Like most punk rock kids, Hood/Cooley had their own “get-me-out-of-this-shit-town” realizations; like thoughtful Georgia/Alabama boys, they also recognized it’s never as simple as trashing the parochialism of one’s hometown. As befits artists living in a generally progressive town (Athens) within a generally non-progressive region (Georgia) – dots of blue amid seas of red – they’ve learned how to cautiously explore those moments when the wider world beckoned from outside county lines, like when The Flying Wallendas and GG Allin swing through town. “The Flying Wallendas” is by far one of Hood’s more sentimental tunes, detailing the real-life exploits of the family daredevil troupe led by Magdeburg-born Karl Wallenda, who “lived like they died”: “they never would stop / and they never surrendered”. Yet as a snapshot of sideshow Americana, the song captures how small towns remained the last stand for pre-television forms of entertainment, even if spectators mostly gathered in hopes or fears of witnessing tragedy:
With a seven man pyramid folks lined up just to see ‘em
Till they fell from the sky at Detroit’s State Fair Coliseum
And they fell to the ground with the greatest of ease
And three didn’t get up from the blood in the breeze
But Karl wouldn’t be stopped from his home in the skies
Till he fell from the wire in San Juan and he died
GG Allin’s visit represents something else entirely: the first shock of bohemianism for a couple of country boys. If the Wallendas were vestiges of a pre-television era, Allin is/was pre-Internet, punk rock by coincidence rather than design, a mostly nonsensical outrage artiste who nursed along a cult of notoriety throughout the 1980s thanks more to his violent stage performances and indecent exposure arrests than artistry (although 1988 single “Suck My Ass It Smells” approached some kind of Jean Genet perfection). But for the purposes of “The Night GG Allin Came To Town,” Allin’s artistic limitations couldn’t matter less. The song’s narrator doesn’t even witness a performance by Allin and whatever rough assemblage was backing him that 1991 night at the Antenna Club (The Murder Junkies? The Scumfucs? The Jabbers? Does it matter?), only hearing rumors of an invasion the morning after. “We were bored /there was nothing going on,” Hood drawls, overhearing an elderly patron at Ferguson’s Cafe read aloud from the Memphis Star to his horrified wife. “It says he took a shit on the stage / and started throwing it into the crowd,” the old man reads. “It says he took the microphone / and shoved it up his ass!” Le Sacre du printemps or “Hard Candy Cock” – either way, wide-eyed kids witness the shock of the new, and a thousand poets bloom.
Just as Southern Gothic grotesqueries were teased into greater complexity, so, too, are broad regional stereotypes folded in on themselves. The protagonist of Hood’s 1998 track “The Living Bubba” (“still the best song I’ve ever written,” he noted years later), hardly typifies an Alabama good ol’ boy, instead dramatizing the no-frills life of a traveling musician brought to his knees by waves of nausea from azidothymidine (AZT), the antiretroviral/HIV drug he’s been prescribed. “I ain’t got no political agenda,” the Bubba wants you to know. “Ain’t got no message for the youth of America / ‘cept wear a rubber and be careful who you screw / and come see me next Friday cuz I got another show”. Ten years later, Mike Cooley would sketch a warm portrait of “Bob,” a local boy who “ain’t exactly scared of women / he’s just got his own way of living”. Bob’s queer identity isn’t held up to much scrutiny by the community, and there are hints Bob himself might prefer a more fluid definition of sexual orientation than gay/straight binaries: “Bob ain’t light in the loafers / he might kneel but he never bends over”. And in a Southland notorious for gun ownership and the proud brandishing of Second Amendment privileges, the willful surrender of arms by a haunted war veteran on “Ray’s Automatic Weapon” suggests gun control arising out of cold-sweat nightmares. “You got to take that gun back,” the vet begs Ray, “Cuz these things that I been shooting at are getting all too real”.
Some of these examples suggest an inherent trust in The People to do the right thing – to assume a common decency despite ingrained social attitudes which reward intolerance and suspicion. But just as often, DBT songs outline the ways in which societal pressures and outrages lead individuals down tragic paths, as on 2001’s “Sink Hole,” in which a fifth-generation landowner meets the dead-fish gaze of a banker refusing bankruptcy aid. Inspired partly by Ray McKinnon’s short film The Accountant, “Sink Hole” captures the blind fury of a man humiliated by economic circumstance: “I’d rather wrastle an alligator than to face the Banker’s scorn / Cause he won’t even look me in the eye / He just takes my land and apologizes”. The song ends on an unsettling note of ambiguity, in which the landowner cycles through possibilities (“Like to invite him for some pot roast beef”; “Show him the view from McGee Town Hill”) before finding resolution through violence – “Bury his body in the old sink hole under cold November sky / Then damned if I wouldn’t go to church on Sunday / and look the Preacher in the eye”.
Likewise, even a progressive government enterprise like the Tennessee Valley Authority (T.V.A.) receives scrutiny for the methods used to help modernize large swaths of the American South, particularly its impact on individuals unwilling or unable to adapt. “Uncle Frank” tells of the lone holdout of a hollow flooded by the T.V.A. for hydro-electric purposes (“Now we got more electricity than we can ever use”), clinging stubbornly to his “fifteen rocky acres” “’till all that backed up water had to have some place to go”. Although vague promises are made of employment opportunities assembling automobiles down in the valley, the factories never arrive, and the abandoned farmsteads become vacation homes for the wealthy – “The banks around the hollow sold for lake-front property / where Doctors, Lawyers, and Musicians teach their kids to waterski”. Uncle Frank’s personage seems a morbid update to the unnamed recluse in Tom T. Hall’s “Kentucky, February 27, 1971,” (from In Search Of A Song), who mused over the generational abandonment of his mountain hollow. In that instance, Hall’s character understood the world was changing: “You know, son, people used to tell their kids / ‘Now, I don’t want you to have to work the way I did.’ / They don’t and some will tell you that it’s a shame / But you have to think before you place the blame.” In Hood’s version, Uncle Frank can’t comprehend why his neighbors jumped eagerly for buy-outs, and the song ends with his suicide, no note left behind because he “couldn’t read or write”.
But these are extreme examples. DBT songs more typically outline Sherwood Anderson lives of quiet desperation, although not always all that quiet. At their most simplistic, these sketches highlight blue-collar unrest along the lines of David Allen Coe’s “Take This Job And Shove It” (1977), ie, Hood’s “This Fucking Job,” although even in this instance there’s pointed commentary being made on the devastation wrought by the service economy: “a family can’t live on these fast food wages”. More poignant is the litany of complaints outlined by the narrator of “The Righteous Path,” in which the conflicted unease of the powerless finds a empathetic voice. The details remain as relevant to Great Recession America 2014 as they did in Pre-Recession America 2008: “I got a brand new car that drinks a bunch of gas / I got a house in a neighborhood that’s fading fast”. Hood seems to be suggesting that plenty of working class Americans are vaguely aware of the forces aligned against them, the way oil companies stifle energy innovation and real estate barons control population flow, yet lack the resources to identify ways to effectively fight back. Carol Hanisch reminded us that the personal is political; Hood’s character is “just trying to hold steady on the righteous path”.
And if the wounds caused by gas guzzlers and exurban development are brewing in the subconscious, the ongoing fallout of the nation’s disastrous recent forays into global warfare are surface lesions. The Truckers don’t envision returning soldiers coming home to Flag Day parades or waste much time reciting patriotic pablum – the War On Terror has mostly yielded up shattered lives. Decoration Day offers two portraits of post traumatic stress, from the night terrors suffered by a post-deployment soldier on “That Man I Shot” to the emotional abandonment of a deployed soldier’s spouse on “The Home Front”. Neither suggest the ability of a military-industrial complex to look after its own: “there’s this big thing I can’t get rid of,” laments the soldier, replaying over and over an encounter which led to snuffing out the life of an Iraqi man. He attempts to rationalize: “That man I shot, He was trying to kill me / He was trying to kill me, he was trying to kill me”. Then sympathize: “Was walking down his street / maybe I was in his yard”. Then rationalize again: “I did not hate him, I still don’t hate him”. “The Home Front” is bleaker still, two short verses of despair. “She can’t even get to sleep since Tony went to war / She feels bitchslapped and abandoned / By a world she thought she knew”. There’s a political astuteness at play – “No 9/11 or Uranium to pin the bullshit on” – but ultimately, no matter whether it was global jihad or no-bid energy contracts that dragged U.S. forces onto Iraqi soil, the result for this individual remains the same: “She’s left standing on the home front / The two of them alone”.
But if the DBTs will not kiss your fucking flag, there’s a more sophisticated exploration of anti-authoritarianism at play in their songs. 2004’s The Dirty South unveiled a “Dixie Mafia” trilogy that managed to suggest a smidgen of admiration for the Biloxi-based criminal organization even while never once glossing over the collateral damage caused by a gang of roving criminals. “The Boys From Alabama” lays out the situation to a youth facing jail time with clarity: “We got friends in jail who will see you through / Boy, don’t forget, no matter what you do / Don’t piss off the Boys from Alabama”. Offers of protection and loyalty rest directly alongside murderous threats (“They might find your body in the Tennessee River / or they might not find you at all”). And small-time crooks aren’t the only individuals caught up in a sophisticated web of corruption. “Cottonseed” suggests how the Dixie Mafia helped rig Southern elections and gum up the wheels of justice. “I put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cottonseed,” boasts the Cadillac-driving narrator, preaching false piety to an audience all too eager to lap up his outlaw song-and-dance: “Somewhere, I ain’t saying, there’s a hole that holds a judge / The last one that I dug myself / Once his Honor grows a conscience, well folks, that there just ain’t no good”.
And yet the triptych’s final number considers the forces of law with ambivalence. “The Buford Stick” details the life and career of one of the Dixie Mafia’s most high-profile foes, Sheriff Buford Pusser of McNairy County, TN. Pusser’s lone-lawman stand against organized Southern crime in the mid-1960s led to a series of hagiographic movies (Joe Don Baker starred as Pusser in 1973’s Walking Tall, released one year before the sheriff’s death in a single-car accident; thirty years later, the story was remade with even greater Hollywood liberties, this time starring The Rock as Pusser). Hood understands why Pusser became a folk hero to a certain demographic in the early 1970s, but he also sympathizes with those who see within the lawman’s career outrageous abuses of power and the lurking cult of authoritarianism, leading “The Buford Stick” to be told from the viewpoint of a shady figure who takes secret pleasure in the sheriff’s death on the highway: “Hit an embankment doing 120 on a straight-away / The Lord works in mysterious ways / They’ll probably make another movie, glorifying what he done / But I’ll never have to hear them say / Watch out for Buford”. That final warning – “watch out for Buford” – brings to a close a short song cycle that opened with “I wouldn’t piss off the Boys from Alabama if I was you,” suggesting the complicated ways in which authority and its discontents sip from the same cup of corruption.
The DBT’s brand of populism also seems to owe something to Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Jacksonville, FL Southern Rock pioneers who gained fame in the 1970s thanks to beyond-regional anthem “Sweet Home Alabama” and a label-cultivated image of good-time shit-kickers. Skynyrd’s politics were always more nuanced than their rebel image suggested, and lead singer / lyricist Ronnie Van Zant was an at times astute delineator of Southern mores and progressive leanings. MCA Records had a hand in exploiting Confederate imagery during several mid-70s Skynyrd tours, but given a second glance, most of the band’s political material proves anything but reactionary. Several songs come out strongly in favor of gun control (“Saturday Night Special”: “Ain’t good for nothin’ / ‘Cept for puttin’ a man six feet in a hole”), while 1973’s “Things Goin’ On” explicitly rebukes government funding of NASA (“Too much money been spent upon the moon”) in the face of a failed war on poverty (“Have you ever lived down in the ghetto?”) and environmental degradation (“They’re goin’ ruin the air we breathe”). Even “Sweet Home Alabama” takes care to loudly boo Governor and segregationist George Wallace (“In Birmingham they love the Governor / boo boo boo!”).
Hood and Cooley clearly sympathize with a band capable of mastering such dualities – good old boys preaching tolerance – and so they assembled a two-disc “Southern Rock Opera” in 2001, a quasi-tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd (and what would prove their own artistic and critical breakthrough). Examples of Skynyrd’s influence on the Truckers pops up in other places – 2003’s “Puttin’ People On The Moon” seems directly in line with “Things Goin’ On,” in which a Wal-Mart employed and health-insurance denied man complains about “goddamned Reagan in the White House” and double-digit unemployment, “while over there in Huntsville / they puttin’ people on the moon”. But the most overt tribute to Skynyrd’s complex political balancing act comes via Hood’s long monologue over rumbling bass/drums/guitar on “The Three Great Alabama Icons”. Longtime UA football coach Bear Bryant and Lynyrd Skynyrd are respectfully given their place in Alabama’s cultural history, while George Wallace gets held under particularly withering scrutiny. Hood fills in the sordid details for those who need them – especially the way Governor Wallace blocked the doorway of UA’s Foster Auditorium on June 11, 1963 to keep African-American students Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood from registering for classes. But what most repulses Hood isn’t the public display of noxious hate. It’s Wallace’s opportunism and his exploitation of white racism as a wedge issue:
Wallace started out as a lawyer and a judge
with a very progressive and humanitarian track record for a man of his time,
but he lost his first bid for governor in 1958
by hedging on the race issue against a man who spoke out against integration.
Wallace ran again in ’62 as a staunch segregationist
and won big
and for the next decade he spoke out loudly.
For Hood, the fact that racism was one costume among many Wallace tried on for political benefit rather than a hatred rooted in ignorance makes any character rehabilitation impossible. “Wallace spent the rest of his life trying to explain away his racist past, and in 1982 he won his last term in office with over 90% of the black vote,” Hood notes, before adding, “Wallace died back in ’98 and he’s in hell now”. Even Bob Dylan managed to work up some sympathy for the killer of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in 1963, noting that whatever monster pulled the trigger was an equal victim of institutional racism – “the poor white man’s used in the hands of them all like a tool”. So, too, George Wallace, who “became a pawn in the fight”. But even if both Byron De La Beckwith and George Wallace were only pawns in the game, they still both roast in Hood’s conception of hell.
Yet even while the DBT’s celebrate the arrival of the former Governor into hell on “Wallace” – “Throw another log on the fire, boys / George Wallace is coming to stay” – Hood steps aside to add that “I have to admit, compared to Fob James / George Wallace don’t seem that bad”. It’s a startling suggestion. James was the 48th Governor of Alabama, one who flip-flopped from Democrat to Republican between terms and eventually pursued an aggressive states-rights agenda in the mid-1990s that found him leading a much-publicized battle to retain the wooden Ten Commandments plaque posted in Etowah County Judge Roy S. Moore’s courtroom, threatening to deploy the Alabama National Guard if necessary to fend off efforts by the ACLU to protest Moore’s First Amendment violations. And so the pandering James goes onto the list of villain politicians making up Hood and Cooley’s rich rogue’s gallery, a hall of shame they’ve been adding to since “Demonic Possession” appeared on their 1998 debut album.
“Demonic Possession” at first seems a jumbled grouping of rock and roll brag lines, somebody who “can kick ass and talk backward” while “hanging out with Sam Phillips”. But the song’s final line redirects the narrative: “The devil says the only thing that’s buggin him / is Hell’s filling up with Republicans”. Hood has noted he composed the tune while distractedly watching Patrick Buchanan’s televised speech at the 1996 Texas GOP Convention, in which the former Nixon speechwriter railed against the United Nations and tossed reactionary red meat to his faithful: “If you elect Clinton & Clinton, you’ll get women in combat, you’ll get gays in the military, you’ll get abortion on demand, you’ll get a government that listens to the militants, and the gay rights community, but turns a deaf ear to the silent screams of the innocent unborn in America”. The song’s narrator may be enjoying a casual relationship with Satan – “no one but the devil controlling me” – but in Hood’s view, it’s clear Buchanan is the one requiring violent exorcism.
Flash forward to 2014‘s English Oceans, and the pure products of America’s dark satanic grassroots are still threats to public discourse. “Made Up English Oceans” and “The Part Of Him” sit squarely in the album’s middle, both detailing the ways elite political operatives exploit silent majority prejudices. The title track obliquely explores the short career of Georgia-born Lee Atwater, former RNC Chairman, Reagan/Bush advisor, and direct inspiration for the take-no-prisoners/scorched-earth policy of Karl Rove. Atwater pioneered the use of dirty media tactics, most notoriously through the race-baiting Willie Horton TV ads used against Michael Dukakis (along with false rumors of the flag-burning proclivities of Dukakis’s wife and anti-gay smears against Congressman Barney Frank). Cooley doesn’t bother rehashing the ugly details of Atwater’s career. He’s more interested in considering how Atwater inherently understood his audience’s worst qualities, and how the political operative fine-tuned the race-pandering Southern Strategy for short term gains: “Once you grab them by the pride their hearts are bound to follow / their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural”. Atwater’s legacy of reducing political platforms to simplistic bromides continues, too: “Only simple men can see the logic in whatever / smarter men can whittle down till you can fit it on a sticker”. Repeat the lie often enough, and it becomes truth in the hearts of the willing; “They’ll live it like it’s gospel and they’ll quote it like it’s scripture”.
Likewise, “The Part Of Him” explores the downward trajectory of a contemporary George Wallace, some unnamed hollow man willing to mouth any nonsense spoon-fed him by Tea Party elites and Super PACs. Hood’s disdain is palpable:
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
To grease the wheels to get you in the door
The portrait worsens (“His positions were pre-ordained / to help conceal his vast disdain / for anything that lessened his appeal”), then coarsens (“He was an absolute piece of shit to tell the truth”). But retribution arrives swiftly, when some absurd scandal or other dooms the sap’s chances at charming the elites: “They had to call him in but he wouldn’t make amends / so they had to reel the poor boy in”. Rather then enact damage control, the Koch Brothers simply snuff the offender out (“When he got out of line / they snatched him up from behind”) and replace him with another cookie-cutter yes-man from central casting: “Now someone else will play the part of him”. Another pawn in their game.
These portraits of shameless politicians may be scathing, but what prevents Hood and Cooley from playing into the worst tendencies of populism is their dismay at the behavior of private citizens, who of course must shoulder much of the blame for consistently voting such figures into higher office. That’s a difficult balance to master – rejecting governmental overreach without giving up on the Great Society, castigating unscrupulous politicians while never settling for platitudes about the inherent good of The People. It’s a specifically conflicted kind of progressivism, and yet the DBT’s have made a career out of exploring “the duality of the Southern thing”.
One is reminded of Jean Renoir’s dictum from La Règle du jeu: “The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons”. Living Bubbas and Uncle Franks, Buford Pusser and George Wallace, war veterans and crystal meth addicts, Wal-Mart employees and pensioners: in their own unique, noble, and sometimes reprehensible ways, Hood and Cooley would like to suggest that they’re all just trying to hold steady on the righteous path.