Drive-By Truckers picked a nice time to come up with one of their sharpest assessments yet of what co-leader Patterson Hood once called “the Southern Thing.” American Band is a Southern liberal’s attempt to puzzle through the emulsified white working class alienation and resentment that’s been endlessly cited as a force driving the rise of Donald Trump. The Confederate flag, Iraq, the NRA, immigration hysteria and other hot buttons are pushed, but Hood and fellow songwriter Mike Cooley rarely go in for sloganeering. Instead, they use empathy, vivid storytelling and subtle imagery to unpack brutal complexities.
The album’s biggest rocker “Surrender Under Protest” evokes the Civil War’s “lost cause” tradition to lash out against Dixie-pride holdouts but still seems to leave room for dialogue; “Guns of Umpqua,” about an Oregon mass shooting, unfolds gently as a crisp morning, making for an almost impossibly poetic depiction of unfathomable loss and tragedy; “What It Means” reflects on systemic racism over swelling organ, a soft honky tonk two-step and hand claps. Hood recently relocated from Athens, Georgia to Portland, and in many ways the album has a feel of displaced reflection; you should listen to it while reading Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s excellent memoir about going from poor Appalachian upbringing to Yale law school but never really leaving his roots behind. Hood sums up a similar circular migration on “Ever South,” a stark, sinewy R&B boogie that traces his own roots back to a primordial American past, then fast forwards to assess the emotional byproducts of hundreds of years of hard history: “Ever Southern in my stance/In the Irish of my complexion, in the Scottish in my dance/In the way I bang my head against my daily circumstance.” The result is more than a Clinton ad with Skynyrd and Stones guitars (though it’d be enough if it was). It’s political rock that never confuses passionate commitment with smug certainty, asking more questions than it answers on a hero’s journey into our darkest national impulses, and maybe in some small way, beyond them.