We took a bit of a break for the Holiday, but it’s time now to continue with the list of my favorite Americana albums of the past decade. The album here at number four stands as a stark contrast to the subdued beauty of Neko Case at number five, and is probably the loudest, most guitar driven album on the list.
Album #4 is The Drive-By Truckers’ 2003 release Decoration Day.
Others may place the band’s 2001 effort Southern Rock Opera in this spot… and that would certainly be hard to argue against (although I would rank SRO third behind even 2004’s The Dirty South). Southern Rock Opera was an ambitious, two-disc, concept album that used a backdrop of Southern landscapes and Southern issues to trace the career path of a Skynyrd-esque band of Rock & Roll misfits. The album tackles what front-man Patterson Hood refers to as the “Duality of the Southern Thing” all while presenting a dualistic quality in the music as well. Hood and guitarist Mike Cooley wrote an album full of loud, bombastic songs about heavy topics such as racism, Southern politics, death, drugs and alcohol, and the gaudy excesses of fame. They did so however with a careful and caring eye for detail that forced the listener to think while the electric guitars wailed.
Even with the bar that was set by Opera, I still can’t help but list Decoration Day as my favorite.
Some of the themes from the previous record are present here as well. Hood’s “Hell No I Ain’t Happy” is a classic “band on the road” song that both celebrates and curses the lifestyle they have chosen and could have easily blended in with the story arc of Southern Rock Opera. In fact, the formula here is basically the same. Start with powerful stories about flawed people in flawed situations, mix in some heavy guitar riffs, and play the whole thing as loud as possible.
The one thing that makes this album different from The Truckers’ previous work (and makes it my favorite) is the addition of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Jason Isbell to the group. This is Jason’s first (of three) albums with the group, and he wasted no time in making his presence felt. Jason only wrote two tracks on this disc, but they are undoubtedly two of the highlights.
One of those is the album’s title track “Decoration Day.” It tells the tale of a modern day Hatfield and McCoy type family war. The feud has lasted so long that no one can remember how it started, or how many in the warring families have died. As the narrator, Isbell wants it all to end, but his father forces him to continue the fight. By the end, he comes to hate his own Lawson family as much, if not more than, the Hill clan he is sworn to destroy.
Isbell’s other contribution is also possibly the band’s finest moment. “Outfit” is another tune that features a relationship between a father and a son as its narrative touchstone. In this song, however, the dad offers some fatherly advice from a man who wants better for his son than he had for himself.
Of course, I don’t want to gloss over the contributions of the band’s other two songwriters. Patterson Hood is the longtime leader of the band and the author of nine of the album’s 15 tracks. Hood’s highlights include the full-on guitar assault of “Sink Hole,” the aforementioned “Hell No I Ain’t Happy,” and the somewhat jangly “My Sweet Annette.”
Hood is a master at capturing the feelings of the flawed and confused. His characters often must face harsh realities or make hard decisions. In “Sink Hole” a desperate farmer fantasizes about killing the banker who has come to foreclose on his family’s land. His characters also leave their brides at the alter (“My Sweet Annette”), struggle through the trials of divorce ["(Something's Got to) Give Pretty Soon" & "Your Daddy Hates Me"], and take their own lives (“Do it Yourself”).
If you’re looking for sunshine on this album, Mike Cooley isn’t the one to turn to either… although he may come the closest with the musical proposal “Marry Me.” The protagonist here simply realizes that while he isn’t perfect (and neither is she), he gets by much better by his girl’s side than he does when he’s off chasing some other dream. As Cooley puts it, “I’d rather be your fool nowhere than go somewhere and be no one’s.”
Of course, Cooley lets his dark side out on this album as well. “When the Pin Hits the Shell” offers another point of view on suicide. “Loaded Gun in the Closet” offers another picture of wedded non-bliss and leaves us wondering who will use the weapon first… and who they will use it on.
It’s a dark album to be sure, but one that continues to draw me in. The Drive-By Truckers essentially crafted an album full of tragedies and train wrecks, but those stories are told in such a compelling fashion that it’s impossible to turn away. Here are three tracks from the album… one each from Hood, Cooley, and Isbell.