For longer than most bands have been nursing calluses on their fingers, the Drive-By Truckers have spun strange yarns about the modern South, sharpening their detailed and empathetic storytelling to bring local depth, specificity, and complexity to figures you may only know from headlines and history books, including Ronnie Van Zant, Sam Phillips, Iraq vets, and even their own kin. The centerpiece of their latest album, The Big To-Do, is “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” a true-crime saga that might just be the quintessential Truckers song: straightforward on the surface, yet much like the region they evoke, squirrelly and smarter than you might expect underneath.
The song is set in the small town of Selmer, Tennessee, located about 90 miles east of Memphis and essentially no different from any other community in the region. But it’s got the neighbors beat on lurid legends: Selmer is the old stomping grounds of Sheriff Buford T. Pusser, subject of three Walking Tall movies in the ’70s (plus one ’04 remake set in Washington State) and a three-song suite by the Truckers on 2005’s The Dirty South. More recently, though, the town hosted one of the most confounding domestic crimes in recent memory. In March 2006, Matthew Winkler, the young pastor at the Fourth Street Church of Christ, was found dead on his bedroom floor, shot in the back at close range. His wife, Mary, and their three young daughters were missing. The crime startled the town and especially the congregation, who knew Matthew as an amiable family man; eventually, it came out that Mary had shot him during an argument over money (she had reportedly lost a chunk of savings to a Nigerian Internet scam) and fled with the kids to the Gulf Coast.
On “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” Truckers co-frontman Patterson Hood relates this grisly tale with a subdued melody that has no use for a chorus and lyrics that are surprisingly literal, as if he’s sharing lunchtime gossip over slugburgers at Pat’s Café. More than just a convincing summation of facts, the song offers a moment of true Southern storytelling: As it proceeds, it becomes wilder, darker, and more outrageous, just like the Winkler trial itself. While the band hammers out a tense kudzu-noir soundtrack—full of urgent snare clicks and bent, barely contained guitar licks—Hood explains that Matthew “made her dress real slutty before they had sex,” describing, in a careful deadpan, the moment when Mary’s defense attorney plunked the platinum-blonde wig and hooker heels on the witness box for the whole town to see. Mary gets a suspended sentence—time served and her kids back. Savoring your shock and stealing a fry off your plate, Hood asks, Can you believe it?
The point of all this is that he’s not making it up. As Southern-rock stalwarts too grittily anthropological for the success Kings of Leon currently enjoy, the Truckers have persistently pursued true stories on all their albums, stretching themselves to see the world through the eyes of people just trying to get by, whether it’s a friend who committed suicide, a family member who jilted his fiancée, or Redneck Underground musician Gregory Dean Smalley playing as many shows as he can before he dies of AIDS. Their songs are a form of creative nonfiction, a craft they most famously and elegantly displayed on their 2001 double album Southern Rock Opera, which starred Lynyrd Skynyrd and former Alabama governor George Wallace.
The true strength of the Truckers’ music lies in its empathy. On “The Wig”—perhaps the band’s most audaciously accurate nonfiction to date—Hood never takes a side. He’s less concerned with Matthew’s proclivities or Mary’s crimes than with the small town they hid their secrets from. He gets the specifics just right, just as he does throughout The Big To-Do, whether he’s binging through “The Fourth Night of My Drinking” or listing the cities and coliseums where “The Flying Wallendas” soared toward their deaths.
It’s significant that Hood is only one of three songwriters in the Truckers; Mike Cooley is more sparing with his details, but no less persuasive. His best songs here bristle with local particulars: “Birthday Boy” manages the feat of adopting a stripper’s point of view without sounding patronizing or salacious, while on “Get Downtown,” he play-acts the back-and-forth bickering between a woman and her shiftless, jobless husband. And though bassist Shonna Tucker may not share Hood or Cooley’s lyrical sensibilities, she proves a much more stylistically sophisticated composer, dotting her two songs with hints of Detroit girl-groups and placeless noise. The South as the Truckers document and reimagine it can’t be explained away with easy stereotypes, but rather emerges at the intersection of these multiple perspectives, local voices, and musical sensibilities. So order a couple more slugburgers and settle in. The Truckers have a lot more stories to tell.
The Drive-By Truckers play Webster Hall April 1