Sweet Home Buttholesville

We drove to Pittsburgh the weekend before Halloween, to watch the leaves change and attend a three-day fest called the Haunted Hillbilly Hoedown. "No pretensions, no nice nice mellow deeply self-reflective stuff," organizer Stephanie Vargo promised in an e-mail. She and her husband, Tom Moran, played Boston college-rock in the mid '80s; now they savor murder ballads and honky-tonk as the Deliberate Strangers. There'd be reputable headliners like Jon Langford and Trailer Bride, plus belly dancers and drag queens to ward off introspection. But we most liked the sound of the unknown acts: Naked Omaha, Drive-by Truckers, Polish Hillbillies, Dirtball.

At the 31st Street Pub, in the set-apart Strip district, shriveled skulls and other curiosities grinned from behind the bar. Good beers cost two bucks, and the square footage was several times what the same ambience gave you in Manhattan—enough room to be all over the place. We'd missed the waitress-mom who'd surprised Vargo with her borderline Marianne Faithfull intensity. But Naked Omaha, from Philadelphia, were what we'd hoped for: three-part yodels, extraneous power chords, a crew-cut guitarist who gibbered between songs and two studious bearded guys weeping "Man I feel like shit." But wait, everyone said, for the Drive-by Truckers, who'll really blow you away.

There wouldn't be a story if they hadn't, but that doesn't mean I'm lying. Borderline Springsteen intensity. They tore it up, with lyrics that converted on first listen and even better stories attached. Like after the singer's dad left, his mom lived off child support until the kids grew up. In debt, a '50s housewife in her own fifties, she took what Alabama offered—office work at a trucking company. But the scariest trucker, Chester, kept violating code; she'd have to screw up her courage and bust him. Finally, she exploded, and Chester confessed he was doing it to be near her—he'd fallen in love. They got married at Dollywood, and this was written for the wedding; it's called "18 Wheels of Love." Slobberingly catchy, too, launched with a buckshot bellow: "Mama ran off with a trucker, paid her bills . . . "

Singer Patterson Hood is the son of David Hood, bassist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section. (We'd listened to Bob Seger's Night Moves on the drive down, an album Pops appears on.) Patterson and Truckers guitarist Mike Cooley spent 1985-91 in Adam's House Cat, waiting for a record label that never delivered. Relocating from Memphis to Athens, they added twang and a new repertoire, deciding this time they'd go it alone. Last year, they self-released Gangstabilly; this year's CD is called Pizza Deliverance. The album covers are as gauche as the titles, shoving the band's redneck loyalties in your face. They talk of writing a concept album about the enduring appeal of Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Perhaps they're too punk for their own good. The debut single, redone for the newest album, was "Bulldozers and Dirt," about a 16-year-old who winds up with a single mom and her tot after trying to steal their TV, stays 11 blistering years, then finds himself hankering for the tot. Plus "Nine Bullets," a singalong: "My roommate's gun got nine bullets in it . . . Gonna find a use for every last one." Try getting airplay with that. But they're punks with a homey streak: "The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town" isn't a salute to the shit-rocker, but an account of watching "the old man at Ferguson's Cafe" read about him in the Memphis Star. "Margo and Harold" sketches out Hood and his wife's unnerving friendship with a couple of older sexual swingers.

The music is in the same spirit, lurching sloppy and quick into trouble but arranged with forethought, acoustic filaments enhancing the sense of detail. Hood has enough rasp to sway anyone who feels Steve Earle and Paul Westerberg—he's brusque, bruised and amused. Cooley's numbers are folksier in sound and topic: "Uncle Frank" invents an illiterate ruined when the TVA flooded the Muscle Shoals hollow, promising auto-plant jobs that stayed in Detroit. Money would have helped the production, but there's bonus pleasure in finding one's own way into these songs, guided a bit by Hood's liner notes, an echo of his stage patter.

It's another world here, not terribly far away maybe but a chance to breathe different air. Hood and Cooley found "Buttholesville" a jerkwater to grow up in, but as storytellers they've long since realized how lucky they were to live a mix of hobo and boho. Grandma telling you spiders will bite your dick in the outhouse; AM-radio Christians; the founder of Bubbapalooza fighting AIDS with attitude; Dad's friends swapping stories about Eddie Hinton. The roots stuff I hate strains to honor a codified genre. The Drive-by Truckers just look around and can't believe how much there is to sing about.


Contact Drive-by Truckers at www.drivebytruckers.com or Soul Dump: 706-549-5808.

 
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