Hell Hath No Grits

Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death

Come hear me real well, boogie chillun, for I'ze 'bout to spin this chronicle of a death foretold. The death of truth, justice, and the Redneck Way. And the death of this bag of weary blues bones given the bridge via America's cataclysmic ruin. Hell no, I ain't happy! This here's Hell, a Great White Inferno where last we left certain dramatis personaeof the Southern Rock Operalike Governor of Alabam George Wallace, some of dem rock 'n' roll dreamers awash in the angels and fuselage and the newly come narrator who capriciously left Sweet Annette standing at the altar. These are the last days of Black Hawk a/k/a the (voodoo) devil. And I'm bitter in the Devil's waiting room—without even Petey Wheatstraw or Bocephus for entertainment—which is not as you'd imagine much like Las Vegas' Circus Circus but more so a luxe salon at Versailles full of Louis XIV-style furnishings with a floor of thin Plexiglas covering red hot magma instead of shimmering marble or parquet and the sole type of Muzak piped in being Sigur Rós and Le Pelvis. I feel like bustin' loose. . . .

I'm in Hell for ain't that the place all wicked rockcrits go, banished to eternal damnation for committing the unpardonable sin of allowing one's purview to become narrow rather than maintaining ears as wide open as when one used to buy five 45s for $5 with titles such as "Hangin' On A String" by Loose Ends and "Mistake No. 3" by Culture Club. Rotting here next to the Guv'nor (Boo! Boo! Boo!) and the members of Limp Bizkit, there's neither salvation nor redemption save in the roots preservation verities underscored in "Outfit," by the Drive-By Truckers' dear third guitarist and songwriter, Jason Isbell, on their new Decoration Day: "Don't call what you're wearing an outfit/Don't ever say your car is broke/Don't worry 'bout losing your accent/A southern man tells better jokes/Have fun but stay clear of the needle/Call home on your sister's birthday/Don't tell 'em you're bigger than Jesus/Don't give it away." Ahhh, we can exhale—that merely one of 15 songs whose depth and range of emotional mapping is as flawless as the cranking of the triplet geetars.

No heroes now that Ronnie Van Zant, Donny Hathaway, Rosalind Cash, and Neil Young are long gone. Leaving only the valiant DBT boys, decorated by their own virtue. Like their forebear Van Zant sang of, Patterson "Buford" Hood is a Simple Man—as are his Trucker compadres "Nearly Famous" Isbell, Brad "Easy B" Morgan, Earl "Bird Dog" Hicks, and (Mike) "Stroker Ace" Cooley—with lifeforce-giving hands and a complex mind. Carrying the Southern Gothic burden with grace, the DBTs lament not only the miasma of their "Sink Hole" (inspired by Ray McKinnon's Academy Award-winning The Accountant), but sing songs for the flesh both tempted and made clean by connection.

Virtuosos of dixie-funk impossibility, and it ain't purty
photo: Traci Goudie
Virtuosos of dixie-funk impossibility, and it ain't purty

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Drive-By Truckers
Decoration Day
New West

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Life is both tough and beautiful in Truckonia, the pain index always high—haplessly willful wrongdoing, self-destruction and despair ever lurking 'neath the shimmer of the twang. Patterson and his fellow composers could as easily play the fool or the blue-collar hipster devil as victims of the road. Decoration Day has no less a concept than SRO. Flourishing under mountains of potentially damaging praise, staying afloat in the Redneck Underground, that volatile and vibrant shadow land America, the band brandishes not only its own Confederate battle and Jolly Roger flags but a slogan: "It's do-able . . . but it ain't gonna be purdy." Hence the desire to linger in a transient state 360 days of the year, as part of the DBTs' Greatest Rock Show On Earth. Got to get over before we go under.

These Janus-faced liberators and nemeses are virtuosos of impossibility, in the vein of hip white trash and enlightened rogues, singing of misguided lust on the front porch and gossamer rich women beyond their reach. Got my freak on to Decoration Day's "Do It Yourself." Although nobody matches Skynyrd's flights o' funk, ain't no stretch to see the rhythm section of the Bird Dawg and Easy B gone glory with their peers and idols in OutKast, those Kowboys of the Ki-Kongo—remixing "Bombs Over Baghdad," dropped even more psychedelicized. Kozmic city-country poetry, complete with triple-time two-stepping rag-toppers. Like the long-departed Rob Malone sang SRO-stylee, "that boy is a-funky!" As sure as mau-mauing Negro-'necks like Dre and 'nem are Afronauts with Deadhead stickers on their ass-drop Cadillacs, Truckers come correct with the heavy sonic and emotional artillery straight outta Bombingham—can't you just see a red, black, and green liberation-colored pick with a fist and a peace sign perched in the curls of Patterson's 'neck-'fro?

'Afore the hour of suicide pills sent us down here to the delta of the River Styx, in fact, we eagerly received the newly merged Dungeon Family Truckers' all-Georgia cover of "I Walk On Gilded Splinters." Sho'nuff Cooley's songs bring back an era at the beginning of the 21st century when we all kept a "Loaded Gun in the Closet," praying night and day (secular praise hymns count) that the Tonton Macoute voodoo-economics shock troops of Baby Doc Bush were never to come a-knockin' at one's door. Before the deco moderne ziggurats bordering Central Park on the Hilly Island that Peter Minuit ripped off for 60 guilders fell into ash, the only knocking we wanted to do within earshot of a Truckers' missive—like the plaintive Cooley of "Marry Me"—was knocking back Jack Daniels or sweet tea and (hopefully) soon after knocking boots (in weary hip-hop parlance) with some hot lanky brother sporting a John Deere mesh cap and lots of tattoos. Sir Bush D'Voidoffunk's internal weapons of mass destruction left us all standing alone at the altar of good times. So don't let 'em take who you are, boy, and don't try to be who you ain't. Nothing wrong with house painting—that's what Wes Freed, who does all those skeletons and possums and moonshine jugs in the Truckers' artwork, makes an honest living at. But trading your heart and soul for petroleum wages? Don't pass Stank-Truckonia for some damn fine barbecue and a toot of marching powder; take yo' dead ass straight to Hell.

Bury my body in the ole sinkhole: I'm damned, like all ugly Americans, not only for avoiding soul stirring on Sunday but for the hatred we spread around the world like a killer virus. Your daddy hates me, and we all loathe difference too. Yet once upon a time in the place once called America, these ears bridged the Great Divide between the comfortable African-centered space provided by the Godfather of Soul, Dr. Funkenstein, and Patti Patti to bravely embrace the alien turf of these Athens residents' Dixie funk. Marry me to twice-told truths about man's inhumanity to man and the incompatibility of man and woman. For a brief shining while, the Rock Show brought us not only awareness but deliverance as well. Thank you, Buford, for the last rays of rising sun (son).

Darker, more personal than political, Decoration Day rocks easier and rolls harder than Southern Rock Opera, but nevertheless proves beyond a doubt that the DBT engine's got enough horsepower to keep on. Well, notwithstanding the fervent prayers of Cooley, O singer of harrowing soliloquies about love and loss, when the pin hit the shell I found myself in Hell. But tricksters as brave as the Truckers earn their wings to the Other Place on high, along with Melvin Van Peebles: "This here's the home of the sheriff/Not the land of the free/In America, folks don't run in the street/Blood streaming from where they been beat." Back on Earth, as Cooley would say, that terrible implosion of Americana "sounds better in the song."

Oh will this damnable tedium of baptism by fire never end? Let this branded wrinkle in my forehead indicate there's a natch'l born Negress fit about to be thrown. Hell hath no grits, NASCAR, nor sound and fury. As World War III's ill wind now done gone with life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the joke is on me. But I've still got my accent, chillun.

Heaven, though, is said to be a hell of a place, with PBR and pickled eggs on a silver platter, and a never-ending Player's Ball in progress. If there was a jukebox, it'd loop Gangstabilly, Pizza Deliverance, Alabama Ass-Whuppin', Southern Rock Opera, and now Decoration Daytoo. And ahhh, "Careless" on the new one evokes a faint, half-remembered time like a fading daguerreotype of good clean fun—me running Patterson and Cooley's ass-whup gauntlet (bloodshed or chocolate 'tang, anyone?), a red tee shirt reading "Home Sweet Alabama," cranked amps and a bottle of Jack. We're ready for our close-up, Mr. McKinnon.


Drive-By Truckers play Maxwell's June 18 and the Bowery Ballroom June 19.

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