As Drive-By Truckers‘ skimpy greatest hits album proves, trying to assemble a best-of collection for the band is a fool’s errand. They simply have too many good songs. Lucky for you, we’re pretty foolish over here at Consequence of Sound. So, just in time for the release of English Oceans (their tenth album), consider this your gateway drug to the rest of the Truckers’ catalog. It’s an easy and unique narcotic to get addicted to, a potent blend of southern rock tropes and nuanced, non-judgmental storytelling that’s unlike anything else on the streets. Of course, those of you who are already hooked will probably disagree with our list, so disagree away in the comments section.
10. “The Living Bubba”
Admittedly, “The Living Bubba” is a lot thinner than the Truckers’ later output. But what it lacks in musical muscle it makes up for in context, with Patterson Hood never martyrizing the song’s protagonist. That would be Gregory Dean Smalley, an Atlanta songwriter who died of AIDS in the late ’90s. Once diagnosed with his illness, Smalley played with as many bands as possible right up until his death, regardless of how small the crowd was. While Hood only knew Smalley casually (at the time, he was the sound guy for The High Hat Club in Athens), he memorialized his fellow musician’s drive and refusal to be pitied in one of the earliest Truckers songs. “I can’t die now/ ’cause I got another show to do”, he stubbornly sings from Smalley’s point of view, kicking off a career-long trend of treating his characters—both true and imagined—with unsentimental realism.
Best line: “Ain’t got no message for the youth of America/ ‘cept ‘Wear a rubber and be careful who you screw'”
9. “Shut Up and Get on the Plane/Greenville to Baton Rouge/Angels and Fuselage”
Album: Southern Rock Opera (Act II)
There was a period where it seemed like every Drive-By Truckers album had at least one great trilogy of thematically linked songs. The Dirty South views Sheriff Buford Pusser’s crusade through the eyes of the criminals he hunted, while Decoration Day features back-to-back triptychs about divorce and suicide. Still, their dramatic weight pales in comparison to Southern Rock Opera‘s final three tunes, which chronicle the death of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Mike Cooley’s raucous “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” finds the band ignoring deathly premonitions to board their aircraft before Hood comes in with the more cautious “Greenville to Baton Rouge”. The mechanical problems increase, the pace slows, and the Truckers replicate a plane crash with nothing more than bass, drums, and, of course, three—not two—guitars. Things come to an eerie conclusion with “Angels and Fuselage”, where Ronnie Van Zant shudders at the ghosts waiting for him in the trees of a Mississippi swamp that grows bigger and bigger in the cockpit window.
Best line: “Once we hit Louisiana, baby, I don’t care/ Got a brand-new airplane waiting for us there/ Give this piece of shit back to Aerosmith/ Wake me up when we get there”
8. “Used To Be a Cop”
Album: Go-Go Boots
Although the Truckers have written about everyone from Neil Young to circus act The Flying Wallendas, their character studies also follow the non-famous. Here, we meet a corrupt former police officer who spends his time being paranoid and stalking his ex-wife. It’s easy enough to hate the guy, but Patterson Hood’s greatest trick is making us feel just a little sorry for him through a musical shift. The defeated faux-disco beat propels into Jay Gonzalez’s triumphant piano as the cop remembers his glory days, when he played football in high school before passing the police entrance exam on his first try. Then the song’s back to normal, and we’re reminded of how dark and sad his life has become.
Best line: “Sometimes late at night, I hear the beat a-bumping/ I reach for my holster and I wake up all alone”