A year ago, when the Drive-By Truckers pulled into the Bowery Ballroom for their biggest New York show yet, they didn’t try and put on a tight professional show. Instead they joyfully extended their story-songs with well-soused three-guitar mayhem that won the full house over. At the same venue six months later, a cadre of enthusiastic twentysomethings shouted along with Old 97’s faves like it was a hometown reunion gig. The 97’s, to whom songful perfection came slowly, hadn’t made a new record in three years; the Truckers are road warriors living that modest dream of so many working-class Southerners: earning a living while drinking on the job.
Both bands have earned loyal followings by renovating country commonplaces. Though the Alabama-bred Truckers eventually ran out of things to say about and reasons to sound like Skynyrd, they turned the fuckup anthem into their own narrative genre; Dallas’s 97’s evolved from wimmin-poaching cowpunks into expert purveyors of vaguely countrified, romantically star-crossed pop-rock. Which is why it’s a minor bummer that the likable new albums from these potential lifers, now labelmates after their respective majors cut them loose, show off their maturity and aren’t any better for it.
The Dirty South is the superior record, in part because it continues the Truckers’ project of evoking the dark side of Southern life with tales explicit enough to breathe life into their modestly tuneful songs, which are a little homely because they turn them out so fast. The self-effacing humor and ’70s-rock obsession have given way to leaner social-realist numbers about Reagan-era poverty, moonshine-swilling daddies, Alabama hooligans terrorizing a Tennessee sheriff, and the fatherly World War II vet who never saw John Wayne at Iwo Jima. By all accounts, the Truckers are nice guys who are happy with their lot. Their portraits of guilty antiheroes are deeply felt, but nowadays their model is Neil Young & Crazy Horse, who also kept up their not-terribly-flexible stomp by turning to gravitas after the initial high of freewheeling rock and roll had faded.
Gruff-voiced main man Patterson Hood again makes room for Mike Cooley and young gun Jason Isbell, both of whom favor apocryphal tales of manly men who ain’t gonna change for nobody. Cooley’s best is “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” which ties a behind-the-music exposé to a light guitar jangle; Isbell’s “Danko/Manuel” and “The Day John Henry Died” sound like the work of a drawling Young protégé. Hood’s songs hit hardest because he balances the tragic stuff with aw-shucks sympathy for lowlifes. Although this could get tired eventually, the Truckers haven’t run out of stories yet, and their acute awareness of themselves and their forebears suggests they’ll know when to say when.
For the 97’s Rhett Miller, failed love has been both a bittersweet muse and a theme ripe for exploitation. Emo in a pre-punk sort of way, Miller has gotten more out of deceptively simple, perfectly wrought love songs than any book-smart guitar guy in forever. Like all prime Miller, the best songs on Drag It Up—including “The New Kid” and the cathartic, self-pitying breakup anthem “Won’t Be Home,” which would fit in on their early Bloodshot albums—strike heartstrings and pleasure centers. But his first-person seems less personal here. Maybe it’s because Miller’s happily married (with a kid), or because his very good solo album got called slick, or because he’s working on a novel. In any case, Drag it Up doesn’t have the gut-level impact of the older stuff—which is probably intentional. I donated my copy of 1999’s Fight Songs to the jukebox at Siberia just so I could drunkenly recite every damn word, and for a band whose last two albums contained nary a dud, the succession of slow, well-plotted tearjerkers on Drag It Up is an admirable concession to maturity as well as a bit of a retreat. A good album from a great band—how’s that for bittersweet?