Drive-By Truckers: An American Band Making a Stand
The Politics of “American Band” and Fanbase Backlash
Say the words “Southern rock” and “politics” and you just might think of Ted Nugent’s Republican endorsements and controversial comments. The Southern rock genre seems to imply a politically conservative stance.
But when it comes to providing a perspective on the South from a political point-of-view, few bands have done more than Drive-By Truckers. Their latest record — American Band– just might be their most political to date.
Mixing music and politics is a tricky thing. You always run the risk of alienating a few fans. But when Drive-By Truckers has something to say, they’ll say it. They’ve always been an opinionated band.
American Band tries to grapple not only the America of today, but the America of yesterday, too. The album cover is a clear indication, showing an American flag at half mast. Song titles such as “Once They Banned Imagine” and “Surrender Under Protest” strengthen the record’s political intentions. Gun control, race related killings and problematic traditions are some of the themes touched upon in the album.
Album highlight “What It Means” feels as politically charged as the songs of that Nobel Prize in Literature-winner did in the mid 1960’s. Lines such as “You don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street,” is just one of the song’s many commentaries on today’s politically charged climate in America.
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But what I find even more interesting than the record’s politics is the reactions that it has garnered. The band’s political stance seems to have disgruntled quite a few fans. It’s a political motivated fanbase backlash that speaks volumes about people’s perception of the band.
On the lyrics page for “What It Means” on Genius, a few protestors have voiced their dislike for the song. One user writes: “Emotion over reason and fiction over facts. This is so far gone from the days of Decoration Day and before.”
Another user states that this is their worst song by far. “It just shows how misguided uneducated liberals can be and refuse to view all sides of issues,” he writes and calls it “one-sided political correctness.”
YouTube is also rife with comments. A user writes on the lyric video for “What It Means” that “In earlier albums, DBT stopped short of implying that modern, white racism is the cause of black America’s ills. Hell, this song even suggests that cops don’t shoot white men dead on a regular basis”.
This is a stance that has been regurgitated by other vocal detractors on the web and social media. They claim that the band has abandoned their old views in favor of more popular opinions, such as a liberal stance on gun control and embracing the Black Lives Matter movement (as seen in the music video for “Surrender Under Protest”).
What is so interesting about all this, is that Drive-By Truckers always has been a political band. They have never shied away from politics. They have been belting out social commentaries ever since they debuted in 1998.
So why, then, are a few protestors getting so fired up about the songs on American Band? Because of the political content, of course.
When the band writes about contemporary topics such as the Black Lives Matter movement, some see this as a populist move.
But Drive-By Truckers is far from a populist band. What they’re doing is highlighting some of the most pressing political matters in the U.S. today.
Drive-By Truckers have problematized and deconstructed Southern stereotypes and dealt with the region’s troubled past in many of their albums. The Dirty South is a prime example with songs like “Putting People on the Moon”. If some fans didn’t get the band’s message by then, they weren’t listening close enough.
Last year, Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers wrote in the New York Times about the Confederate flag and the South’s heritage.
When I was growing up, I never thought much about the flag. My father, David Hood, was and still is a session bass…nyti.ms
Patterson Hood, from Florence, Alabama, writes that he has “spent the better part of my career trying to capture both the Southern storytelling tradition and the details the tall tales left out”. A great example of this is how the band tried to turn the legend of Sheriff Buford Pusser, the man most famously depicted in Walking Tall, on its head. They did this by writing the songs “The Buford Stick” and “The Boys From Alabama” (on The Dirty South) from the perspective of criminals.
Patterson also writes of how their song The Southern Thing was “written to express the contradictions of Southern identity”. But instead of being viewed as a song problematizing the topic, “people were treating it as a rallying cry”. It reminds you of how “Born in the U.S.A.” is seen as an American anthem by some.
Many of DBT’s songs also deal with the idea of the American dream and its subsequent disillusion that has befallen many white working class citizens in America. Just listen to “Uncle Frank” from Pizza Delivery (1999), where an illiterate man gets unlucky because of the Tennessee Valley Authority — which electrified the region but broke people like Uncle Frank.
“Uncle Frank couldn’t read or write
Never held down a job, or needed one in his life
They assured him there’d be work for him in town
Building cars, It’s already going down”
It’s no wonder that people in a town like Grundy, Virginia, a previously thriving coal-mining city, are agitated when Hillary Clinton proclaims on TV that she aims to close down coal mines. On the opposite side on the spectrum is, of course, Donald Trump, a man who says that he’ll reopen the mines. Guess which candidate seems the most appealing for the people in Grundy?
In his editorial Patterson Hood, who hails from another Bible Belt community, asks some questions regarding the Confederate flag:
“Why would we want to fly a symbol that has been used by the K.K.K. and terrorists like Dylann Roof? Why would a people steeped in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the Bible want to rally around a flag that so many associate with hatred and violence? Why fly a flag that stands for the very things we as Southerners have worked so hard to move beyond?”
Even though some of the band’s fans feel alienated by the political messages on American Band, the record has also generated important discussions on social media and highlighted causes that some listeners might not otherwise care for.
Drive-By Truckers have once again proved that they are among the most nuanced songwriters of today.
It seems like this is the most politically divisive time in the U.S. since the late 1960’s. That’s why it’s so refreshing to see an American band make a stand for unity.