Drive-By Truckers – Gangstabilly

Gangstabilly (1998)


1. Wife Beater 2. Demonic Possession 3. The Tough Sell 4. The Living Bubba 5. Late For Church 6. Panties In Your Purse 7. Why Henry Drinks 8. 18 Wheels Of Love 9. Steve McQueen 10. Buttholeville 11. Sandwiches For The Road


Okay, so they say don’t judge a book (or album) by its cover or whatever, but I think anyone could be forgiven for ignoring that maxim when faced with the cover of the first DBT LP. I mean, Gangstabilly? Are you serious? “Drive-By Truckers”? And look at the goddamn cover art! And the song titles! “18 Wheels Of Love? “The Living Bubba”? “BUTTHOLEVILLE,” for chrissake? Are you fucking kidding me? It’s obvious that this thing is some sort of horrible rap/country Kid Rock side project abomination designed only to inflict pain and suffering upon all who may come into contact with it.

But then you drop the needle down (or start up your CD or mp3 and are treated to the simulated sound of a needle dropping on a vintage vinyl LP… children of the 70s, these boys are), and, well… I can’t say your worst suspicions will immediately dissipate. The first song is called “Wife Beater,” and not only does it feature a storyline straight out of an episode of Maury, but it also rhymes “beater” with “potato-eater” (sung in three-part hillbilly harmony, no less). Well, shit, if you had it out for country music to begin with, it’s hard to imagine this song doing anything than confirm your worst suspicions that it’s all geared specifically towards people named Billy Bob with no teeth who wear Bud Light trucker hats.

You’re a dumb shit if you think that, of course, but it might be understandable if it takes you until a few tracks into Gangstabilly to get an inkling that there’s some actually some depth to DBT. After all, the album remains by far their least heavy, most country-influenced, and jokeiest effort. There’s barely any indication that these guys were capable of playing in the muscular, arena rock-inspired style that became their stock-in-trade post-Southern Rock Opera, or even that they would ever want to play like that – there’s more pedal steel and banjo than distorted guitar here. Only the overdriven blues-rock boogie “Buttholeville,” a caustic excoriation of the depressing Podunkery of Patterson Hood’s hometown of Muscle Shoals, counts as any real kick in the ass (and Hood’s acid should give you a clue that he ain’t in the business of simplistic small town Americana idealizing, in case that or some similar misconception might have stuck with you until the end of the album…). “Why Henry Drinks” has a big electric riff too, but like virtually all of these songs, the song didn’t really grow teeth until a couple of years later, on stage, once the band had become more sure of themselves and what they wanted to do musically (namely, play fucking loud). “18 Wheels Of Love,” for instance, is a kinda dumb and cloying novelty song in its studio form, but on stage, prefaced by an extended intro featuring Hood recounting the touching yet hilarious story of how he wrote it as a wedding present for his mom upon the occasion of her second marriage, it makes about a hundred times more sense.

The thematic gravity of DBT’s later works is also harder to find (with one HUGE, GINOURMIC, MONUMENTAL exception, which I’ll get to). Among all the songs about mama running off with a trucker, murdering used car dealers, and selling one’s soul to the devil in return for the ability to “kick ass and talk backwards,” one of the relatively few emotional moments on the record is “Late For Church,” the only DBT song ever written and sung by the band’s original bassist, Adam Howell, who didn’t even stick around for the next album. The song’s chiming mandolin and plaintive-to-the-extreme average guy observations about the absurdity of the whole Sunday morning Southern Baptist experience (“The back is soft but the seat is hard/why can’t they get it right?”) make it one of the most disarmingly sweet entries into the Truckers’ catalog to this day. Mike Cooley’s only contribution to the album, on the other hand is not an anomaly, but rather Cooley’s first step from being just another sideman to becoming its MVP. Considering the fact that “Panties In Your Purse” was one of the first songs the man ever wrote (he was just the guitar player in Adam’s House Cat, he and Patterson’s old band), he already displays a keen talent for drawing up vivid, relatable characters and driving them home with a few one-liners that would be hard to imagine coming out of anyone else’s moth (“You asked me if I could play you some Dylan/I said ‘Dylan who?’ and you told me to kiss your ass”).

Otherwise, at this early stage, the band is clearly Hood’s. That’s never really changed, since he’s always been the band’s most prolific songwriter and its de facto frontman. But there would be much more input from other songwriters on all subsequent DBT records, and without that, Patterson spreads himself a little thinly, contributing a few of his less convincing tunes and vocals (the loud, grating 70s funk-infused experiment “The Tough Sell” certainly qualifies under both categories, though the story itself is weirdly amusing).

However, he does deliver in a big way with “The Living Bubba,” the world’s grittiest and most moving Rednecks Against AIDS anthem. It takes the point of view of an Atlanta musician named Gregory Dean Smalley, who Patterson met while he was running sound for local clubs right around the time the Truckers started. He died a couple of years before Gangstabilly came out, but instead of giving him an obvious and sentimental, Bono-like sendoff, Patterson humanizes the man in the best way possible – by tellin’ like it was. This was a guy who was “drunk and stubborn as they come” and who didn’t “got no message for the youth of America/Except wear a rubber and be careful who you screw.” But he did have the drive to play a full schedule of rock shows, quite literally almost right up until the moment he dropped dead: “I can’t die now/Cause I got another show to do.” So although I’m not entirely sure I’d play this song for a 6th grade Sex Ed class if I wanted to paint them the clearest possible picture of why safe sex is important (after all, abstinence is the answer, kids! Jesus is watching! Cause he’s into that sort of thing), but that’s hardly the intent. It’s really about human perseverance and defiance in the face of great tragedy and how ROCK AND FUCKING ROLL CAN SAVE YOUR LIFE… or at least keep you alive as long as your organs can stand. And from the way he shreds up his throat getting that point across, it’s obvious that there’s nobody on earth who believes that more than Patterson Hood. Compositionally, “Bubba” manages to be brilliant despite the fact that anyone could have written it in about the same amount of time it takes to play. Just a beginner strumming pattern and three chords, pretty much, but it’s that third chord that makes all the difference… sticking in that G major chord where it’s expected to be minor according to the Bb major scale (classic DBT semi-modal songwriting right there) was all the song needed to capture the sweet feeling of escape from the hell that was dying of AIDS that Smalley must’ve felt on stage. Patterson thinks “Bubba” is still the best song he’s ever written, and he may be onto something… basically, it’s the irreplaceable cornerstone of everything the Truckers have gone on to do since. The rest of the foundation that surrounds it on Gangstabilly is much less sturdy, but they’d figure it out soon enough.

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