The Duality of the Southern Thing
August 20, 2013 8:11 AM   Subscribe

The New(er) South, a 2013 essay by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers reexamines the questions and contradictions of the American south originally explored in their 2001 album Southern Rock Opera.

If you aren't familiar with Southern Rock Opera and don't have time to listen to the whole thing right now, the centerpiece of the album is The Three Great Alabama Icons.
posted by marxchivist (28 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
God bless Patterson Hood. And Mike Cooley, for that matter.
posted by notsnot at 8:24 AM on August 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Wow I had no idea this guy was the son of a member of the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section. His dad played on Brown Sugar and When a Man Loves a Woman. The perspective that must give him on Southern Culture is amazing.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:29 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Trailer for the Muscle Shoals docu,
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:44 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Potomac Avenue: "Wow I had no idea this guy was the son of a member of the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section."

Patterson mentions this just often enough that he can't be accused of hiding it (lest someone say he's caught some breaks because of it), but just rarely enough that it doesn't feel like name-dropping. It just is.
posted by notsnot at 8:47 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

It has been way too long since I've seen this band live. I need a fix.
posted by zzazazz at 8:53 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

That was a good read. As a Southerner far far far from home, I miss where I'm from, but also don't dismiss the bad either.
posted by Kitteh at 9:09 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

The first time I experienced the duality of the southern thing was when I moved to Charlotte, NC in the summer of 1990. That was when Harvey Gantt was running against Jesse Helms for the Senate.

I was in a bar talking to this older Charlotte native, he probably in his 50s. He had that classic urban Charlotte version of the southern accent that you don't here that much anymore. He was super nice, witty and we were having a nice conversation. He was welcoming a newcomer to his city.

Eventually he asked me who I will vote for in the Senate race. I say, without a thought, that I will vote for Harvey Gantt. He face froze, all humor disappeared, and he hissed, "You really want to give all your money to the niggers?!"

Whoa! Where the fuck did that come from? Conversation ended awkwardly.
posted by zzazazz at 9:21 AM on August 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

Interesting read. I just spent a week in the south east and didn't make it down to Savannah but did manage to spend a few days in Charleston, SC and was really impressed. Being an ignorant northerner, I wasn't expecting such a modern vibrant city. I don't think that I actually heard much of a southern accent the whole time I was there, everyone seemed to have a basic California TV accent.
posted by octothorpe at 9:22 AM on August 20, 2013

It seems appropriate to drop in here the interesting essay I just read on the end, in some ways, of the old South 2011 Paris Review essay by John Jeremiah Sullivan on the last months of Andrew Lytle, the last of the "Twelve Southerners."
posted by Jahaza at 9:27 AM on August 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

Patterson Hood has always been the more outgoing part of a two-man team, and while I like his work (and this essay's pretty good), I've come to prefer the more sardonic stylings of Mike Cooley, who's the introverted yin to Hood's extroverted yang.
posted by dortmunder at 9:28 AM on August 20, 2013

Not bad. I absolve myself for living so far north that I do by declaring the Mason-Dixon Line ending before it reaches the state I now call home, but there is a distinct otherness that I either unknowingly cultivate or am assigned for being a proclaimed Southerner. It's either generated with compliments on my manners or subtle digs at jokes that tease fun at stereotypes so often assigned to a people believed to spend their time barefoot and in marital bliss with someone in close proximity to the family tree.

The host website, Bitter Southerner mentions how he thought nothing of the way he spoke until he moved to New York City. Incidentally, I never considered the way I or my family spoke until we took a family vacation to NYC when I was around seven or eight and I still remember a local's astonishment, part amusement and part disparaging, when my mom said something and they responded, "You're from the South?!"

I do agree that the South is changing, and in a good way, I think it is evolving in a way that preserves the better parts of our memories. There are romantic ideals that will suffer existence for as long as Scarlett declares anything or some Southerners cannot accept an identity that is not buried in gray in cold monuments. I think what helps make the South unique is that our duality is ever present, something just under the surface of a pond, visible but sometimes hidden by the reflections we choose to recognize at any one moment.
posted by Atreides at 9:49 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Is the South changing? Yes, but not as fast as some would like, and yet still faster than many in the old system would like. I love it, and yet I hate it, but if I leave it for more than two weeks I find myself sighing in the grocery store if there's only one kind of grits for sale (if that much).

I keep trying to write something in this little box that expresses my view of the duality of the place and the burden of being from it, but the links at the top are doing a much better job than I am. So I'll just nod, sip my beer and say, "Ah-yup. It's so. But what you gonna do?"

In my case I'm going to fastidiously edit what I just wrote, the same way I do every time I have to talk or write about my home, lest I make some slight mistake which then becomes "HAW-HAW! lookit the Southern boy try to write purtty!"
posted by 1f2frfbf at 10:23 AM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Man. So many feels. I was introduced to DBT about 10 years ago (by my Brooklyn-born, punk-music ex boyfriend, no less). At that point, I had been living in NYC for about 2 years. I was born in Memphis, grew-up in rural Appalachia, and became an adult in Nashville. I left not because I hated TN, but because I was looking for something else (love, job, liberalism in equal parts). So I ended up in NYC by way of Delaware, not because I had always dreamed of the City, but rather it seemed to offer a lot of opportunity to a hard left-leaning twentysomething with a Masters degree. And here I've found love, a career, and numerous occasions where I felt like the most conservative person in the room. In many ways, I consider New York my home.

But over that last few years, I've become homesick for the South. I'm close to my family who all still live in Tennessee, and miss them fiercely. I've live in NYC for 12 years now, and I've never dreamed of losing my accent. I'm never ashamed to talk about where I come from, and am occasionally met with surprise. I would move back to Nashville in a heartbeat, and am focused on getting my partner of nine years on board. He's nearly there, but it's a giant leap of faith for an Upper West Side non-religious jewish boy to leave his his city. So I'm biding my time.

I think part of my desire is the old adage "be the change you want to see in the world". I love the South, and after a decade of working for progressive causes, I'd love to shift my focus to the issues that so frustrated me when I lived in Tennessee. I want to be part of the solution. Seeing my momma more than three or four times a year is a huge incentive too. And lets not forget affordable housing.

Needless to say, Patterson's essay really hit me where I'm living proverbially (or not living, literally). I think there will always be a struggle between the old South and the new South. But I think it's up to my generation to grease the wheels.
posted by kimdog at 10:48 AM on August 20, 2013 [8 favorites]

1f2frfbf: "I keep trying to write something in this little box that expresses my view of the duality of the place and the burden of being from it, but the links at the top are doing a much better job than I am."

As a lifelong Missourian, I both do and do not get the "Southern Thing". I guess that's another layer of duality added to it.

This much I know: the words, the fragmentary phrasing, even the very *cadence* of the words--"Such is the duality of the Southern Thing"--carry more fraught meaning than first hearing realizes.
posted by notsnot at 10:50 AM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

English people seem more comfortable here than they do in other parts of the country. Perhaps the vivid hypocrisy of the well-off, nice people, and the rigid class lines appeal to them.
posted by thelonius at 11:35 AM on August 20, 2013

I've been a Hood/Cooley fan since a little band called Adam's House Cat self-released a record on cassette in 1989. Just about every song was about trains, for whatever reason. I've seen these guys perform in tiny little clubs for a handful of drunks, and I've seen them sell out five-thousand seat venues. They are one of the best live acts around. It's also worth mentioning that former Trucker Jason Isbell ("Outfit", "Decoration Day") has a new album out called Southeastern. He seems to have put his demons behind him and the record is fantastic, the best thing he's done in a decade.

When Isbell was with DBT it was almost unfair. No band deserves three songwriters of that caliber. Most are lucky to have one. Hood writes ruminative story-songs, almost little screenplays (he'll be a success as a screenwriter one day, I will bet money on this), Cooley writes sharply-observed songs rich with wordplay, and Isbell, well, just listen to "Outfit". He's probably the best of the three, right up there with Steve Earle and Guy Clarke.

But Cooley wins the prize for "verse I'd most like to have inscribed on my tombstone":

"I been fallin' so long it's like gravity's gone and I'm just floatin'"

posted by BitterOldPunk at 11:59 AM on August 20, 2013 [7 favorites]

Listening to Isbell's new album right now, heartwrenching stuff.
posted by octothorpe at 12:10 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Really enjoyed that. I was born in Virginia and my mom is from Tennessee, but I grew up in Connecticut. I've spent enough time in Tennessee that I know the south isn't what the stereotypes say, but also enough time to know that even some of my favorite relatives are exactly those stereotypes. Southern Rock Opera is an amazing album for many reasons, but its evenhanded, unflinching look at "The duality of the southern thing" is surely the thing that separates it from other amazing albums.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:28 PM on August 20, 2013

and Isbell, well, just listen to "Outfit"

That was my immediate thought when kimdog said, "I've never dreamed of losing my accent". Isbell just recorded an Austin City Limits show last night that was streamed on youtube. Not sure when it will air, but it was a good one.
posted by yerfatma at 1:46 PM on August 20, 2013

Just to say, as someone whose never been to the Southern USA, was born a thousand miles away, I utterly adore DBT's album Dirty South. Got into it after William Gibson no less posted a link to Puttin' people on the moon, which blew me away. I've tried some of their other albums, including Southern Rock Opera, and not got into them nearly as much - maybe its time for me to try poking around in their back catalogue a bit more.
posted by prentiz at 2:27 PM on August 20, 2013

Listening to Isbell's new album right now, heartwrenching stuff.

It certainly is. That verse in "Relatively Easy" about the friend who committed suicide gets me every time.
posted by HillbillyInBC at 5:50 PM on August 20, 2013

I had the impression, from an interview I read a year or two back, that they were really really burned out on touring and were going to end the band soon - does anyone know if that is the case? He mentions difficulty being away from his family in TFA, but sounds like he's not at his rope's end with it.
posted by thelonius at 7:58 PM on August 20, 2013

Jeez, not to derail- I mean no disrespect to Patterson Hood, and I did like the article quite a bit, but that Jason Isbell album is badass, the best I've heard from him. (Dress Blues does make me about cry every time I hear it, but his albums have never sucked me in that much.)

That Flying Over Water is really something, as are all the others people have mentioned here.
posted by hap_hazard at 9:11 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had the impression, from an interview I read a year or two back, that they were really really burned out on touring and were going to end the band soon - does anyone know if that is the case? He mentions difficulty being away from his family in TFA, but sounds like he's not at his rope's end with it.

I think he goes back and forth about it. The band's been through some tough times, no doubt. Hood and Cooley have been doing this for a long, long time, and prior to the breakout success of "Southern Rock Opera," they really toiled in obscurity, and it caused the end of both Hood and Cooley's first marriages. Nor did their sudden success really improve their personal lives: you can listen to "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" from "Decoration Day" to get Hood's perspective on that.

There's been a lot of tension with other members of the band, too. During the recording of "A Blessing and a Curse," Isbell's marriage to bassist Shonna Tucker fell apart. The (totally awesome, must-see) documentary "The Secret to a Happy Ending" covers this era in the band's history. There's an interview near the end with Hood and Cooley where they make clear that they want to settle down, stop touring so much, and spend more time with their family; there's an implication that the much younger Isbell, so much closer to the beginning of his career, doesn't share the same motivations.

Not long after that, Isbell and the band parted ways. It's never been clear what happened, but it seemed at the time more like Isbell was kicked out than that he wanted to leave. Fortunately, any lingering bad blood seems to have been cleared up; Isbell played a one-off show with the Truckers a few years back and it seemed to go really well. Ultimately, as rough as it was, I think it was for the best: as many in this thread have noticed, Isbell is a world-class songwriter, and being on his own has given him the freedom to evolve and make a name for himself that he might not have had if he'd stayed a member of DBT.

A few years after that, Tucker left the band in a much more acrimonious split. Word is she was wanting to take a more active role in the band and Hood wouldn't allow it. Tucker (who has a band called Eye Candy) plays a song in her live sets called "A Hat in the Studio" which is widely seen as ripping into Hood.

A year after that, pedal steel player Johnny Neff quit the band unexpectedly. Neff had been (and is) dating Tucker. There's a lot of speculation that Tucker forced Neff to quit (Neff is and was also a member of Eye Candy), but there's complicated history between Neff and Hood. Despite playing on the band's first two albums (the criminally underrated "Gangstabilly" and "Pizza Deliverance") as well as "Decoration Day" and "A Blessing and a Curse," Neff wasn't made an official member of the band until after Isbell's departure, even though in the early days, Neff was playing with Hood when nobody else would; not even Cooley, his long-time collaborator. (Hood conceived of DBT as a way of luring Cooley back.)

That's a (very) long way of saying that it feels like all this tension is finally behind them. Current bass played Matt Patton (of the Dexateens) seems to have the most awesome, upbeat personality; he's always grinning like a maniac when he's on stage, seemingly ecstatic to be there. Keyboardist Jay Gonzales is exceptionally talented and has picked up the third-guitar slack since Neff's departure. The band just finished recording their 12th album; Hood posted a series of pictures from the proceedings to his Instagram account. It seems like everyone was having fun, in high spirits, and the sessions went off without a hitch. (Hood even boasted about finishing three days early and having extra time to do stuff with his kids.)

It's extremely unlikely the band will ever return to the grueling, constant tour schedules they endured in years past. But I think they've got a lot of life left in them. And with all due respect to Isbell, Tucker, and Neff, as long as Hood and Cooley are there, doing their thing, I'll follow 'em to the ends of the earth. I think this is one of the most solid lineups they ever had, and I can't wait to hear the new record.

The keystone of "The Secret to a Happy Ending" is the song "A World of Hurt," the emotional final track of "A Blessing and a Curse." I can't listen to it too often cuz it tears me up a little bit; I've had some troubled times in my own marriage, and I credit the song with helping my wife and I pull through. Anyway, the key part goes like this here:
So if what you have is working for you,
Or if you think it stands a reasonable chance,
If whatever's broken seems fixable,
And nothing's beyond repair,
If you still think about each other and smile
Before you remember how screwed-up it's gotten,
Or maybe still dream of a time less rotten,
Remember, it ain't too late to take a deep breath
And throw yourself into it with everything you've got.
It's great to be alive.
It's fucking great to be alive.
posted by kjh at 7:49 AM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a Georgia boy from the Piedmont and only a few years younger than Hood, so my poet laureate is Kevn Kinney rather than him, but I totally feel where he is coming from. I've been up and down the road of the "New South" thing in threads here a couple of times over the last few months, so I'll leave it there.
posted by ob1quixote at 7:52 AM on August 21, 2013

Saw the DBTs two years ago right before Tucker left and she looked like she wanted to be anywhere else than playing on stage with the band. They asked her to sing a song and she looked really pissed about that and did a pretty half-hearted job of the song. Wasn't very surprised that she left about a month after that show.
posted by octothorpe at 8:27 AM on August 21, 2013

I'm hoping Matt Patton is the shot in the arm the band needs. I've met the guy a couple of times and he is exactly as nice and upbeat and goofy as he appears to be, but his aw-shucks demeanor masks a talented and hardworking musician. I was a huge Dexateens fan and a fan of Patton's earlier band, Model Citizen (all of that music is free for the taking, by the way. Start downloading.). There's rumors of a forthcoming Dexateens record, already recorded but looking for distribution, called "This Machine Kills Americana".

This feels weird to say but it's true: now is a really good time to live in Birmingham, Alabama. It's cheap, the bands don't suck, and the beer is good. Finally!

Now if i can just find someone to buy this house in the suburbs so I can move back downtown....
posted by BitterOldPunk at 5:02 PM on August 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

... And I look online and The Dexateens are playing tomorrow night at The Nick.

posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:39 PM on August 21, 2013

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