From their breakthrough album (2001's Southern Rock Opera) onward, the Drive-By Truckers have never shied away from dealing with the political and philosophical divides that come with life in the American South. But as issues of race, violence, and the failings of the electoral process have come to dominate the national conversation in 2016, the Drive-By Truckers have responded with their most explicitly political album to date.
American Band contains a dozen songs that deal with familiar themes for this band in some respects, but instead of pondering "the Southern Thing," these are stories that confront all sides of a great but troubled nation, as racism means not just the mixed message of the rebel flag but the unjust death of Trayvon Martin, and one tries to come to terms with the many ways our culture is slowly changing in some ways and stubbornly refusing to evolve in others. This is music full of both fury and purpose, but with rare exceptions, American Band isn't an album of anger but of puzzlement and concern.
Patterson Hood's songs are thoughtful journal entries informed by his experiences as a Southern man who had left his home for the Pacific Northwest, especially "Ever South" and "What It Means." Mike Cooley, as always the Yang to Hood's Yin, writes and sings with greater grit and Southern swagger, but he delivers some of his smartest and most eloquent work to date with "Surrender Under Protest," "Ramon Casiano," and "Once They Banned Imagine," all superb studies of the flaws of human nature. And while American Band roars less than many of the band's previous works, it still sounds like the Drive-By Truckers, carried by the guitars of Hood and Cooley, Brad Morgan's superb drumming, and Jay Gonzalez's evocative keyboard work.
The Drive-By Truckers are too smart to believe they have the answers for America's problems, and American Band doesn't pretend to offer them. But they ask the right sort of questions, and these songs weren't written for the audience to cheer along, but to encourage a debate that the country seriously needs. American Band is an op-ed column with guitars, and it presents a message well worth hearing, both as politics and as music.