With their latest album, The New OK, these sons of the south probe the darker depths of a deep divide
It goes without saying — although it’s worth mentioning simply to add emphasis — Southern Rock has been a major component in the musical idiom ever since the early origins of rock and roll.
Elvis, Jerry Lee and Little Richard were the forebears who ingrained that southern sensibility into its earliest incarnations. Nevertheless, it took bands like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, the Outlaws, and Molly Hatchet to make it an actual style of its own. Although it’s been morphed and manipulated over the years, it still survives courtesy of any number of insurgent artists that remains true to that reckless rebellious sound through the music that’s made today.
The Drive-By Truckers are among the most prominent practitioners of that movement these days, as their earlier albums Southern Rock Opera, The Dirty South and American Band easily attest. Southern Rock Opera in particular was a definitive statement on a sound and sensibility birthed within their original environs, primarily their home state of Alabama.
Artist: Drive-By Truckers
Album: The New OK
Label: ATO Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
There’s an additional distinction they hold courtesy of the fact that the band birthed Jason Isbell, a remarkable force to be reckoned with in his own right since he broke away in 2007 and formed his own outfit, the 400 Unit. Happily though, his departure didn’t appear to seriously upset the Truckers’ trajectory. Co-founder and chief songwriter Patterson Hood has helped ensure that the band retains the high bar they set early on. Hood’s made three solo albums, but it was his contribution to a New York Times editorial titled “The South’s Heritage Is So Much More Than a Flag” that afforded him an opportunity to affirm his devotion to his southern heritage.
Not surprisingly then, The New OK, the group’s second release of 2020 following January’s The Unraveling, explores some of the issues and ideologies that were birthed south of the Mason-Dixon Line and continue to resonate through the division and divide that have marked America’s most tumultuous era since the Civil War. The title track shares a sound similar to that of Neil Young while caught up in the full frenzy of Crazy Horse, although ironically it was Neil’s musical diatribe “Alabama” that famously inspired a musical retort from Lynyrd Skynyrd. Yet it’s the drive and determination inherent in that one song in particular that sets the tone for the entire album.
VIDEO: Drive-By Truckers “The KKK Took My Baby Away”
Other tracks are equally as pointed. The on-the-nose Ramones cover “The KKK Took My Baby Away” might come across as satire, although a tune like “The Perilous Night” doesn’t hold back in its unabashed referencing of the bloody events in Charlottesville, VA. The ominous overtones of “Watching the Orange Sky,” the loping pace of “Tough To Let Go” and the references to a rebel flag in “Sarah’s Flame” serve to underscore the disparity between what some see as today’s new reality and others recognize as a farmer darker design. In each case, the rumblings of discontent couldn’t be clearer, or the warnings more profound.
It’s a credit to their prowess and purpose that the Drive-By Truckers are able to share a stance that that’s certainly unsettling, and choose to do so by opting for reflection rather than remorse. There’s no remedy that’s either offered or implied, but that’s okay.
Ultimately, The New OK provides its own stunning statement all the same.