The Enduring, Knotty Relevance of Randy Newman and Drive-By Truckers – Rolling Stone
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This Is Normal: The Enduring, Knotty Relevance of Randy Newman and Drive-By Truckers

45 and 15 years after their releases, Good Old Boys and The Dirty South still speak to the best and worse impulses in America

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Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images, Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns, Skip Bolen/WireImage

On August 26th, 2005, as Hurricane Katrina stewed above the Gulf of Mexico, the Drive-By Truckers played a show at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. It was a two-and-a-half hour set, 27 songs, most of them from the band’s previous three records, Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and, their most recent at the time, The Dirty South. Released a year prior, almost to the day, just a few months before George W. Bush won re-election, The Dirty South is an album about people pushed by outside and outsized forces that flattens the political and the personal while still leaving room for a bit of benign, indifferent providence and plenty of ripping guitars. On the album’s first song, “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” Mike Cooley tells the story of a bootlegger on his deathbed and his desperate son pleading for advice: “Tell me why the ones who have so much make the ones who don’t go mad/With the same skin stretched over their white bones and the same jug in their hand?”

Hurricane Katrina made landfall two nights later. The levees broke the day after that. Soon, nearly 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater. Thousands were trapped and stranded in their homes, the Superdome, the convention center or highway overpasses in extreme heat. Thousands more were dead.

By the time President George W. Bush finally arrived in New Orleans, the Drive-By Truckers were in Spain for a festival. The day the Superdome was evacuated, September 4th, the Alabama band was in England, playing Birmingham, and on stage, Patterson Hood was saying, “It took them fuckers in D.C. about five days to turn on the TV long enough to realize that there was a problem down there that needed to be addressed. It’s unfortunately gonna be too late for some people, but New Orleans will come back anyway, whether them fuckers like it or not.” When he finished, the Drive-By Truckers launched into a song that would be covered a lot in the coming weeks and years, an obvious choice, but an apt one: Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927.”

“Louisiana 1927,” off Newman’s 1974 album, Good Old Boys, is a song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. Record rainfall, bloated tributaries and busted levees led to destruction, displacement and death in seven states up and down the Mississippi River. And while nature can be cruel, it had nothing on the New Orleans bankers and lawyers who decided, without consulting local officials, to dynamite a levee outside the city, saving themselves by diverting floodwater to the rural parishes to the southeast. The bankers and lawyers promised to reimburse the people whose homes and lives they destroyed. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t.

According to the Smithsonian, the 1927 flood left approximately 637,000 people homeless, about 550,000 of whom were black or other minorities. President Calvin Coolidge took an extremely small government approach, foisting recovery efforts onto then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover and the Red Cross, which orchestrated a massive donation drive to fund food and shelter. Most of it went to white refugees while black refugees were effectively shut up in concentration camps and forced into slave labor as rebuilding efforts began.

In Newman’s song, the callous, conniving disinterest of those in power is most famously captured in the clear-eyed refrain, “They’re trying to wash us away, they’re trying to wash us away.” But a more pointed image comes when President Coolidge visits a disaster site and proclaims, “Isn’t it a shame, what the river has done to this poor cracker’s land?” The 1927 flood was devastating for poor and working class people across racial lines, but in this line, Newman captures the government’s insipid response and its blanket erasure of all people of color. The kicker: Coolidge never even went south to see the damage.

The 1927 Mississippi Flood had a distinct musical legacy long before Newman. In the two years after, Delta blues artists Bessie Smith, Charley Patton, Barbecue Bob and Kansas Joe McCoy and Mississippi Minnie all released songs about the deluge. Ninety years later, the anguish in those songs doesn’t sound so much like a distant memory, but a scream of ceaseless déjà vu. That echo of a people being betrayed, ignored, left behind and left to die is what Newman captured on “Louisiana 1927” and the rest of Good Old Boys. And 30 years later, the Drive-By Truckers would work within the same cultural, political and sonic reverberations on The Dirty South.

The Dirty South turned 15 on August 24th, and Good Old Boys celebrates its 45th anniversary on September 10th. Both are concept albums about the Deep South — reverential of its unique spirit and highly critical of its myriad flaws — but really they’re concept albums about America. They grapple with class, race, power, politics, disenfranchisement, violence, masculinity, madness, deceit and drinking — so much drinking. Both remain strikingly relevant in 2019, a testament to the songwriting and musicianship, but also to the continued failures of their shared core subject.

“Louisiana 1927” is one of the few Randy Newman songs not from a Pixar movie that’s been utilized correctly in the mainstream. Unlike his first and only Top 10 hit, 1977’s “Short People” — a song about prejudice misconstrued as prejudiced — or 1983’s “I Love L.A.,” which became a local anthem despite the blatant digs it took at the city’s inequality, “Louisiana 1927” wasn’t layered with so much irony. That, however, made it an outlier on Good Old Boys, an album flush with Newman’s trademark satire and sarcasm, best exemplified by its notorious opening track, “Rednecks.”

For those unfamiliar, “Rednecks” is a song in which Newman assumes the voice of an Alabama steel worker named Johnny Cutler who, after seeing Georgia’s segregationist governor Lester Maddox laughed off The Dick Cavett Show, extols his Southern pride and ignorance as he liberally sprays around the n-word: “We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks,” the chorus goes, “We’re keeping the n*ggers down.” For two brutal verses, Newman parades this boorish southern caricature in front of what would’ve been his well-educated, coastal, liberal audience, before the narrator finally quips, “Down here we’re too ignorant to realize/That the North has set the n*gger free/Yes, he’s free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City/He’s free to be put in a cage on the South Side of Chicago, and the West Side…” And it goes on like that, a tour of the segregated and ghettoized North, the music beneath Newman’s voice lurching back for one more stop each time you think he’s done.

“Rednecks” has simultaneously aged horribly and remained salient as ever. While the overall politics of the song are “good,” as Winston Cook-Wilson wrote for Pitchfork in 2016, “Rednecks” can now be seen as either edgelord bait or “self-satisfied armchair-liberal-ism at cross purposes with itself” — its point inherently nullified by its use of the language of white supremacy. To the extent that Newman does “pull it off” on “Rednecks” (or 1972’s “Sail Away,” or 2008’s “Korean Parents”), is that he doesn’t use this language as a cudgel: “His characters’ vocabulary pulls back the curtain on their self-hatred, so [Newman] doesn’t have to butt in and do it for them,” Cook-Wilson writes. “He illuminates their fear of becoming marginal, their search for fundamental truth in all the wrong places, and the dead-end rituals of behavior and thought that anchor their communities.”

Newman always knew how incendiary “Rednecks” was, so he wrote the next two songs on Good Old Boys, “Birmingham” and “Marie,” to flesh out the character of Johnny Cutler (Good Old Boys began as a concept album called Johnny Cutler’s Birthday, and the demos were released in 2002). In the former, Cutler presents a cheery overview of his life and his hometown, glossing over all that’s unseemly or barbaric in both (the last verse, about Cutler’s mean dog Dan, could be an allusion to the attack dogs Birmingham Sheriff Bull Connor released on Civil Rights activists). “Marie,” meanwhile, is the first of three piss-drunk piano ballads (along with “Guilty” and “Rollin'”) in which Cutler fawns over his wife while admitting, “And I’m weak and I’m lazy/And I’ve hurt you so/And I don’t listen to a word you say/When you’re in trouble I just turn away.”

In these songs, and throughout Good Old Boys, Newman doesn’t necessarily try to excuse Cutler, but parse the contradictions that define him, the South and the rest of the country. This impulse is rooted in Newman’s childhood, much of which was spent in New Orleans, where his mother was raised and his father attended medical school. After his father’s Army service ended, the family relocated to Los Angeles, but Newman retained a deep fascination with the South and he used music to maintain a connection to it — it wasn’t just his subject matter, it was in the humid roll of his piano and the silt stuck in his voice. “There’s this wanting to be part, wanting to be accepted in America,” Newman once said, per Kevin Courrier’s book Randy Newman’s American Dreams. “I think sometimes it’s why I glom onto whatever Southern background I have so hard.”

Courrier argues that Good Old Boys “is about the cost of gaining acceptance” and “the lengths people will go to achieve acceptance, and what we stand to lose in trying.” For Newman’s characters, this pursuit often involves a mask, that classic American defense mechanism. It reaches peak absurdity and cringe on “Back On My Feet Again,” in which a psychiatric patient tells a doctor about how his sister ran off with a millionaire wearing blackface because he was looking for a woman who didn’t just want him for his money. The mask Cutler wears is equally confounding, partly because it doesn’t seem like he’s wearing one, and partly because the purpose of “Rednecks,” as Courier suggests, is to reveal the North’s hypocrisy towards racism in the South. But as Cutler’s emptiness and self-loathing drunkenly stumble out on “Marie” and “Guilty,” equally revealing is “Mr. President (Have Pity On the Working Man),” which, according to Courrier, Newman recorded August 9th, 1974, the same day Richard Nixon resigned. “Mr. President,” seems like a sympathetic working-class appeal, the kind of folksy, labor-tinged tune Woody Guthrie might’ve sung: “We’ve taken all you’ve given/But it’s getting hard to make a living/Mr. President, have pity on the working man.” There are allusions to Watergate on the song, but the context is also the 1973 oil crisis and recession, as well as the “Southern strategy” and silent-majority dog whistling that got Nixon elected. On “Mr. President,” Cutler is angling for societal acceptance via financial security, an increasingly rarified space in America, but partnered with “Rednecks,” Newman captures the power of that special brand of white, conservative identity politics — the mask handed down to keep people from realizing they’re pleading with the same person who has a boot on their neck.

If Johnny Cutler was struggling to make ends meet with a decent job on Good Old Boys, the 19 percent decline in Alabama steel jobs between 1978 and 1988 would’ve likely left him in a similar position to the narrator of Drive-By Truckers’ “Puttin’ People on the Moon.” Patterson Hood’s North Alabama tragedy tells the story of an autoworker who’s laid off when the Ford plant closes and takes to low-level crime to support his family. He gets by well enough, but not well enough to pay for insurance or chemo when his wife gets cancer. At the start of the song he bristles at all the money pouring into NASA in Huntsville; by the end, he’s working at the Wal-Mart and NASA’s suffered the same fate as the Ford plant and the TVA.

Hood widely cited Good Old Boys when discussing Drive-By Truckers’ breakthrough third album, Southern Rock Opera, and in April 2005 he penned an appreciation for the New Orleans weekly Gambit, in which he described the LP as “12 perfect vignettes about all of us down here and how we think and view ourselves, as well as how we’re viewed by the rest of the world.” Hood and Mike Cooley, who both grew up in North Alabama, knew the culture and history of their home state well. They reviled the worst parts, adored the best, and having spent a decade touring the U.S. in pre-DBT bands, knew how people outside the region viewed two white dudes with thick drawls. They christened this tension “the duality of the Southern thing,” and their whole discography is an exploration of its dimensions and contradictions. On their first two albums, this search had a more flagrant satirical edge that was very Newman-esque (it’s not hard to imagine Newman singing “The President’s Penis is Missing”). On Southern Rock Opera, the search took on the heavier pall of dark comedy, which fit better with the increasingly earnest tenor of their world building and storytelling. What Cooley, Hood and later Jason Isbell — another North Alabama native, 15 years younger than his bandmates, who was in the band between 2001 and 2007 — ultimately inherited most from Newman was the desire to give as accurate and honest an accounting of the South as they could.

At 14 songs and 70 minutes, The Dirty South covers a lot of ground. It has its own natural disaster ballad (“Tornadoes”), a stock car racing saga (“Daddy’s Cup”), odes to a World War II vet (“Sands of Iwo Jima”), Sun Records (“Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”) and the thousands of musicians who never made it (“Danko/Manuel”) plus the most devastating depiction of a doomed long-distance romance you’ll ever hear (“Goddamn Lonely Love”). But the record’s greatest achievement is the way it traces the intersecting paths of class, poverty, labor and inequality. On “The Day John Henry Died,” Isbell reimagines the John Henry folk legend, casting the story of the steel driver who died beating a rock-drilling machine in a race through the kind of bloodless corporate speak (“Labor costs were high”) used to excise all things that might damper profits, like a worker’s humanity (“An engine never needs to write its name”).

Hood and Cooley, meanwhile, spend much of the album exploring the all-American way these themes mix with violence, crime and cruelty. There’s the autoworker thrust into number-running on “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” the bootlegger serving prohibitionists in “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” and the cast of crooks and criminals, who populate the triptych of songs about the notorious Tennessee lawman, Buford Pusser. Between 1964 and 1972, Pusser waged a holy war against organized crime on the Tennessee-Mississippi border; in return, his enemies killed his wife and blew up his house, but despite multiple attempts, couldn’t kill Pusser (he died in a car accident in 1974). Pusser’s exploits were turned into the 1973 movie, Walking Tall, which lionized the Sheriff and his Constitutionally dubious tactics. And when the film was remade in the exact same vein in 2004, DBT took it upon themselves to tell the other side of the story.

“Boys From Alabama,” “Cottonseed” and “The Buford Stick” don’t try to glorify the Dixie Mafia or the State Line Mob, but just like Newman tried to do with Johnny Cutler, they present their stories with an empathy missing from the Pusser myth. Of course, this is easier when the characters aren’t flagrant racists, but rather, for the most part, people with few opportunities just trying to survive in an unjust system the only way they can. On “The Buford Stick,” Hood gives voice to one of those men in Pusser’s sights, who gripes, “I’m just a hardworking man with a family to feed/And he made my daughter cry”; and on “Boys From Alabama,” he plays an imprisoned gangster intimidating/recruiting a young man who’s just been locked up for smoking weed. The narrator of Cooley’s mob boss monologue, “Cottonseed,” is less immediately sympathetic (he is an unapologetic murderer after all), but the song deftly speaks to the thin line between a criminal and a person with a badge.

As Hood would explain in interviews, much of The Dirty South was inspired by the hip-hop records DBT listened to while touring. “One of the only things we all agree on music wise to listen to in the van is hip-hop,” Hood told the now-dormant website Swampland.com. “So it was kinda a nod to Atlanta’s hip-hop scene and it fit. It was a nod, a tribute, a salute, but it was also tongue-in-cheek because what we do is the dirty south too — in a lot of ways our subject matter is not real different. Like on the new record, a lot of the songs are about people who, out of desperation, turn to a life of crime. They end up doing things they never thought they would do, but they were forced to, and all that somehow tied in.”

The album’s title is a nod to the Goodie Mob song of the same name, and if you listen to The Dirty South alongside the Atlanta outfit’s 1995 debut, Soul Food, you get a sprawling picture of oppression, the ways it’s maintained and the lengths to which people will go to attain the freedom and basic respect they’re so often denied. This is not meant to be a broad class-based argument that ignores the role of historic and systemic racism; the white characters on The Dirty South would never be subject to the myriad indignities black communities endure, as captured on Soul Food. But where these albums meet, where Newman’s Good Old Boys also resides, is an American folk tradition built on people striving to be seen and heard, as individuals and as a community.

In 1928, one year after the Mississippi Flood, a traveling salesman-turned-politician rode a wave of anti-elite, anti-establishment populism to the Louisiana State Governor’s mansion — which he promptly tore down and rebuilt to look exactly like the White House. Huey P. Long was a vintage American demagogue: Captivating, colorful, corrupt as hell and capable of selling you the shoes on your feet. He grew up in north-central Louisiana, Winn Parish, one of the poorest in the state, though his family was one of the wealthiest in it. Nonetheless, when he took to the campaign trail, Long sold himself as one of the common folk, and vowed to fight tooth-and-nail for them. After an unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 1924, Long knew winning the state meant winning New Orleans and its surrounding areas. Part of his strategy, Richard White writes in his biography Kingfish, was assailing the New Orleans political machine, which particularly endeared him to those parishes outside the city that were devastated when the levees were destroyed. He didn’t spare any other state politicians either. During one debate in the town of Crowley, outside Lafayette, Long suggested that his opponent, Congressman Riley J. Wilson, was partly responsible for the floods: “Wilson has been in Congress 14 years, and this year the water went 14 feet higher than ever before, giving him a record of one foot of high water a year.”

“Louisiana 1927” is the first in a Huey Long triptych on Good Old Boys, followed by “Every Man a King” — an actual campaign song Long co-wrote with Louisiana State University band director José Castro Carazo — and “Kingfish,” which imagines one of Long’s blustering stump speeches. In the latter, Newman captures the progressive bent of Long’s agenda (or at least the way he made overtures towards one) across rollicking verses that soon slow with a heavy pendulum swing of strings to indicate the tyranny lurking underneath. Long was the duality of the Southern thing incarnate, and surely that’s what drew Newman to him. In the middle of the Great Depression, he dragged Louisiana into the 20th century with projects that greatly improved infrastructure, health care and education across the state; he also purged the state government of his opponents and created his own secret police, the Louisiana Bureau of Criminal Identification, to deal with those who couldn’t simply be fired. He proposed capping fortunes and redistributing wealth while demanding kickbacks from businesses that won state contracts. He decried “the lyin newspapers” while running his own propaganda rag and using radio to spread his unfiltered message. He had a tenuous relationship with the truth and facts, but his constituents trusted him more than anyone else. Had he not been assassinated in 1935, there’s a very good chance he would’ve become president the following year — Franklin D. Roosevelt called Huey Long one of the “most dangerous men in the country.”

In a 1981 essay for The New York Times, Robert Penn Warren, who was hired as an English professor at Long’s beloved LSU in 1934 and later wrote the book on Long with his 1946 novel All the King’s Men, recalled life in Louisiana during the reign of the Kingfish: “If you were living in Louisiana, you knew you were living in history defining itself before your eyes. And you knew that you were not seeing a half-drunk hick buffoon performing an old routine, but were witnessing a drama which was a version of the world’s drama, and the drama of history, too, the old drama of power and ethics.” Courrier quotes this passage in Randy Newman’s American Dreams, suggesting the notion of “living in history defining itself” is what Newman captured on Good Old Boys; it’s also what Drive-By Truckers would capture on The Dirty South. This doesn’t mean their great achievement is the way they articulate and chronicle the moments in which they were made, though both do that exceptionally. Rather, history defines itself when the past so blatantly burns within the particulars of the present, and that’s what Good Old Boys and The Dirty South convey.

Since Donald Trump’s election, one of the preferred opposition refrains has been, “This is not normal.” Indeed, the brutality inflicted over the past few years has its own terrible tenor, but the deeper tragedy is that, in America, maybe all of this is normal. It’s normal for the rich to stay rich, for the poor to stay poor, it’s normal for people of color to be imprisoned, beaten and killed and for the state to sanction it or even carry it out, and it’s normal for corporations to exploit workers and for politicians to lie, cheat and enrich themselves, and it’s normal for fascists and demagogues to string people along with empty promises and feed their resentments and biases, and it’s normal for entire towns and cities to be destroyed in floods and fires and for the federal government to do nothing, and it’s normal for people with no options to do what they need to do to survive, and it’s normal for them to be punished for doing so. None of this should be normal. That’s obvious enough. But here we are anyway.

Listening to Good Old Boys and The Dirty South now can be satisfying and revelatory, but also complicated and frustrating. There’s an argument to be made that, at their core, these records are just white men trying to explain other white men, often indefensible white men, and in the year of our lord 2019, that can feel about as necessary as another New York Times report from a diner in Trump country. But the value of these records lies in the artists’ willingness to cover the totality — the comedy and the tragedy — of their subject, not from on high, but from inside the mess. And it’s not that this is brave or courageous or commendable in and of itself. But it’s honest. Honest in a way that all great art strives to be, and honest in a way that this country so often is not.

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