Archive for November, 2009

Song Reviews: “Play it All Night Long” and “TVA” from Drive-by Truckers album “The Fine Print.”

Posted in Album, Review with tags , , , , , , , , on November 12, 2009 by Becky

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On their recent album of cover songs, alternate takes and unreleased gems, rock and roll lifers Drive-by Truckers offer a glimpse into the vault of quality tracks that inevitably amass when your band boasts three top notch writers. Among the highlights are two songs which offer very different takes, both musically and thematically, on the art of incisive Southern song craft.
“Play it All Night Long,” the Truckers version of a Warren Zevon concert staple, can be seen as a near spoof of the genre, a systematic tour of the very worst Southern stereotypes – imbecility, incest, alcoholism — inflated to almost comic levels; a sort of musical counterpart to the carefully orchestrated, gothic portraits of Appalachian hill people by the much-reviled photographer Shelby Lee Adams.

Grandpa’ pissed his pants again
He don’t give a damn
Uncle John’s been acting strange
He ain’t been right since Vietnam.

A queasy mix of humor, homage and horror married to a churning, down-cast riff that can hold its own with the work of the godfathers of the very musical style Zevon was taking the piss out of, the Truckers version glefully magnifies these qualities, elevating it into a full-on hard rock stomp musically while lead singer Patterson Hood drags the lyrics through the slow creeping drawl of his unreconstructed vocals, replacing the morally-neutral spectator of the original with a red-eyed, gleeful participant. The way he slurs and drags out the last line of the chorus, “Play it alll nighhhhtt loooong” conveys more menace and half-crazed desperation than any lyrics could hope to. In concert, the Truckers join voices to shout out the songs summation of country life essentials – Sweat, Piss, Jizz, Blood. It’s a cry of defiance as much as anger, all the contradictions of rural southern culture boiling to the surface and carrying the song beyond any notion of parody or high brow condescension.

Sweet Home Alabama
Play that dead man’s song
Turn the speakers up full blast
Play it all night long

That dead man’s song. When it was first recorded in 1980, Ronnie Van Zandt had been in the grave 3 years. The band he fronted, Lynyrd Skynyrd, was in shambles, recovering from both the physical and mental wounds of the 1977 plane crash that also took the lives of guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, back-up singer Cassie Gaines, as well as their assistant road manager and the planes two pilots. The band would eventually reform in the mid-80’s, but during the dark years in between, the members plunged into a limbo of drug abuse, drinking and grief-fueled self destruction. The south had lost their finest band; the surviving members had lost years of hard work, their dearest friends and seemingly, their very sanity.
If Zevon considered any of this when he penned the song, it doesn’t show in the lyrics: They’re merciless, sardonic, as cold as winter rain on a grey tin roof.
In the Truckers hands, however, the song becomes something more, both a celebration of long lost heroes and embattled communities, and a condemnation of the willful stupidity and impoverishment that refuses to question the regions heroes, the old attitudes and avenues of existence. By confronting the very flesh and gristle of the boogeyman trapped in the South’s closet, the Truckers have aimed the rear view mirror of history and tradition not only at their fans, but at themselves as well. As tangled as Brer Rabbit’s briar patch, as dark and filled with creaking doors, distorted shadows and drunken laughter as a backwoods funhouse, in the end the song simply rocks too damn hard and weird to ignore.
Jason Isbell was the youngest member of the Truckers when he joined the group just prior to their “Southern Rock Opera” tour, but he quickly established himself as more than a match for Hood and fellow songwriter Mike Cooley, blossoming over three albums into an artist of often staggering emotional nuance, displaying the depth and rare soul of someone well beyond his early-20’s. All of these gifts are on display in “TVA,” Isbell’s tribute to the saving graces of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a Depresion-era, government-funded project that brought jobs and electricity to a large swath of the South through the building of dams along the Tennessee River.
Isbell turns what could easily have been a stale history lesson into a meditation on family and how they’re shaped by the history of the land they call home. The song opens with a son recounting a childhood spent fishing along Wilson Dam with his father, a man whose past is inextricably linked to the river and the Tennessee Valley. Isbell’s rough-hewn, loam-rich voice immediately erases any distance between artist and listener, storyteller and protagonist. The way he evokes the distance that grows between father and son as the one moves into adolescence and the other towards old age, as the fishing trips become fewer and farther between – “When I got a little older I wouldn’t and now daddy can’t.” – is as simply stated and moving as any musical moment could ever aspire to.
The song’s true nature becomes clear towards the end of the first chorus, with an image of near mythic power.

So I thank God for the TVA
Thank God for the TVA
Where me and my daddy would bow to the river and pray
Thank God for the TVA.

As the ancient Egyptians once worshipped and offered sacrifice to the Nile, father and son fall to their knees in the dam’s shadow, before the roiling embodiment of life and prosperity. It’s a scene as fraught with meaning as those found in any Sunday morning hymn; in fact I would argue this song represents that rarest of finds …the secular gospel.
The song moves from the narrator’s childhood to his teenage years, as the dam morphs from a place to fish with his old man to a conveniently secluded make out spot; the young man and his girlfriend drawn to the banks of the river to explore each others bodies and simply soak in the joys of a lazy summer afternoon. Seen through his eyes, even the wildlife seems possessed of some harmonious magic, as raccoons and terrapins dance on the rocks for him and his girl.
Following those nearly whimsical verses, Isbell leads us farther into the past, into the life of the boy’s grandfather and his father before him, a down on his luck sharecropper struggling against hope and nature to provide for his growing family. That opportunity is provided by the federal government, in the form of a job building the very dam beneath which, decades later, his grandson and great grandson would fish, pray and grow into men with families of their own.

Where Roosevelt let us all work for an honest days pay
Thank God…

It’s impossible to hear this song now, in this era of partisanship rife with charges of socialism and far worse, and not feel some measure of nostalgia for a time when the government was actually seen as a force for positive change. It’s a measure of how far we’ve come as a nation and a people, that it’s nearly impossible now to imagine federal initiatives being put into action to lift a region from the blight of near third world levels of poverty, as existed in the Tennessee Valley prior to the TVA act of 1933. There is, of course another side to the story – witness Cooley’s “Uncle Frank” or Elia Kazan’s classic movie “Wild River” – but for a brief time this countries noblest ideals seem to have gained life through bold, decisive action, the likes of which are now simply stories shrouded in the dust of memory.
The mythology of the South is large enough to encompass both Isbell’s and Zevon’s vision: The hardworking family man passing on the history of the land and its people, and the leering drunk cranking up the misunderstood anthem of his fallen hero. Turn them speakers up full blast, but don’t forget the blood and sacrifice that runs like a river behind you. And for God’s sake, don’t forget a prayer for the future.

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