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Sons of the South

The Drive-by Truckers keep on rollin'

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Ronnie Van Zant was a liberal. This has been forgotten over the years, what with all the jingoistic "tribute tours" his old band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, keeps trotting out every year (and maybe a little because of the confederate flags that would show up on the band's merchandise and amplifiers from time to time). His lyrics talked about things like pacifism ("Gimme Three Steps"), the need for gun control ("Saturday Night Special"), and the perils of drug abuse ("The Needle and The Spoon," "That Smell"). Yes, the late Van Zant was a man who wanted his songs to do his talking for him, and if that didn't work, well, then he would resort to his fists.

The Drive-by Truckers cover a bit of "Gimme Three Steps" at the end of their song "Steve McQueen," minus the Van Zant whistles and catcalls and all the other things lesser bands like to latch onto when covering Skynyrd. Instead of seeing the song as a joke -- the rough-and-tumble Van Zant getting his comeuppance -- the Truckers play the song straight, having no doubt escaped a few bar brawls by the skin of their collective teeth over the years. Yes, the Truckers understand the South, because they understand Lynyrd Skynyrd. Bear with me here.

What the hell is there to understand about Lynyrd Skynyrd, you ask? Rednecks in tight jeans and hand-me-down hippie duds, right? "Simple Man" used in a commercial for Busch beer. They loved Alabama, hated Neil Young.

Except that they didn't hate Neil Young, as the Truckers will tell you from the stage, before launching into a few numbers from their critically lauded album of a few years back, Southern Rock Opera. Stick around for the rest of the show, and you'll find that the band will tell you plenty of other things about living in what Van Zant termed the Southland, and some of them aren't what you'd expect.

The Drive-By Truckers get it, you see, and even though they drink cheap beer and like gals and ride around in vans playing Southern Rock, they are, therefore, not rednecks.

Their music contains danger, a thunderstorm looming in the distance as you're sitting on the porch knocking back a couple. It has the heat and Huck Finn and the kind of rich murk found in old blues musicians and the nearby swamps. It has long-silenced cannons sitting impotent in the local VFW park during the Fourth Of July, flimsy paper plates and Solo cups holding barbecued ribs and potato salad. It also has a political conscience and three guitar players.

"We certainly don't mind when people refer to us as Southern, or Southern Rock," says Jason Isbell, the 24-year-old wunderkind guitarist and songwriter for the group (Isbell shares songwriting duties with guitarists Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood). "We are all of those things, and then some. But it's just labels, so people can get a handle on you. It's just a rock show, really. There's just not that many people putting out rock records these days, and not a whole lot of what you could call rock bands, where most of it's not done somewhere else by some producer somewhere."

Even though the band's latest record, (The New West Records release Decoration Day, named after a standout song penned by Isbell) made the year-end lists of amazon.com, Blender, Details, Harp, Mojo, Paste, Rolling Stone and Spin, Isbell lets another cat out of the bag. He is pretty damn near broke, and just manages to get his bills paid. No, not artistically broke, even though the band is under enormous pressure to replicate the success of their last two albums with the one they're currently recording at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, tentatively titled The Dirty South. No, we're talking just plain broke, as in eating Stouffer's dinners and sleeping in the van when the situation calls for it.

"We played a show on New Year's, and I really wanted to tell these people how much money I had in my pocket, and that if they all gave me a dollar, then it'd really help me pay my bills this month," says Isbell with a laugh. "People see us in magazines and assume all sorts of things, but we're not riding around in some big tour bus or anything."

In fact, Isbell learned the guitar parts to Southern Rock Opera by listening to the record on headphones in the back of a van on the way to Norman, Oklahoma.

"I knew about them, certainly, and liked them," he says of the band he joined midway through the Opera tour. "I thought they sounded great, and I'd go see them when I could. Whenever they were nearby, at least (laughs). I didn't know Cooley's stuff as much, but I was a big fan of Patterson's songs. We got along well, so why not?"

In the studio this time around, Isbell says he's much more comfortable with the songs than he was with Decoration Day, thanks to the no-nonsense way the band approaches recording. It's about the only cliche you'll get from these guys, really: they're all Southern democrats.

"It really is pretty democratic," Isbell says. "That's part of why you join a band in the first place. Mike and I have four or five songs each, and Patterson has five or six too. It's trusting those around you. If one of us brings a song in and likes it, we give that a lot of consideration. We know what we're doing, so if a guy really likes a song he's done, that carries a lot of weight. We have a history as a band, and as a Southern band.

"What we do never stopped being done in the South. I think that the records spoke for themselves, and the time was just right for people here to acknowledge it again."

And people "over there," too. Europe has been very kind to the Truckers over the last year or so, as they are to most any Americana act that dares to offer authenticity over aesthetics.

"Oh, sure. People over there appreciate what a sacrifice an American band like ours makes," says Isbell, laughing. "Like going eight hours on an airplane without a cigarette just to show up and play. Now that's dedication!"

The Drive-By Truckers will appear at the Visulite Theatre on Saturday, January 17. Doors open at 9pm, showtime is 10pm. Tickets are $15.00. Call 704-358-9200 for more info.

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