Each week in God and Country Music, Nick Rynerson gives country music a chance and examines the world of Americana, folk, alt-country, and popular country music.
If you want a cup of coffee, you go to Starbucks. If you want to mail an envelope, you go to the post office. If you want to see a good movie, you watch something with Ryan Gosling in it. And if you want to hear a good story, you listen to the Drive-By Truckers; at least that is where my mind goes. The Drive-By Truckers are an alt-country outfit out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, that has been making music for the last two decades or so. Fronted by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley since 1996 and accompanied by songwriter Jason Isbell for a few glorious records from 2003–2007, the Truckers have become known as a loud, pissed off group of southerners with an unnatural talent for songwriting.
But before The Drive-By Truckers are musicians, they are storytellers. They literally have made a career out of telling stories. Sure all lyrics tell stories and Kenneth Burke would argue that all of communication is narrative. But there is something different in The Drive-By Truckers, something explicit and imaginative. The songs transport you to a different time and place, and like the great myths of cultures past, the Truckers tap into the truth of the human by simply telling fairy tales. Really gritty fairy tales.
It’s not like their songs are stories about themselves, like many (most) songs. For almost each and every song, the Truckers create a new world, a world with oddball characters, American legends and working class folk. Please stop reading this article now and listen to one (or all) of these songs below.
Listen to this closely, it’s about a Hatfield/McCoy-style family feud between the “Lawsons” and the “Hills.” But it isn’t just about the feud itself, but of the emotional ramifications of such hatred that leads a man to question his family and his purpose. This should be a movie.
Here’s one of my favorite tongue-in-cheek portraits of American Christianity at it’s saddest. This song is about an unknown middle-class guy who feels like his whole life is hanging on a string, and he makes himself feel better by comparing himself to his old failed friend and by reminding himself (and everyone else) just how hard he’s working. Pure Americana gold.
This was one of the first DBT songs that I heard. Its about the origins of Sun Records and really, Rock and Roll itself. The context of the story is that Sam Phillips (founder of Sun Records) made a wager with all of his artists signed to Sun that he would buy the first guy to hit #1 on the charts a Cadillac. But really, the song is about whatever you want it to be about. Like any good story, it’s all but inexhaustible.
Why is this important? Just look at the Drive-By Trucker’s fan base. It is made up of a diverse and growing body of people who not only like the sound but resonate with the stories. Stories kindle a fire within us that is already there; stories are the flame that combusts what is already there. Maybe Christians need to take a page from the Drive-By Truckers and stop giving advice and tell more (true) stories. Jesus taught much more narrative to the masses than we do. The Trucker’s aren’t just telling stories to tell stories, they are telling us something through the story.
The Bible says that understanding comes from God (Ps. 119:130, Isa. 11:2) so why do we dumb down the words of Scripture instead of basking in them? Why is Philippians 4:13 simply taught as, “If you trust in God, you can do anything,” when there is a rich story of suffering, perseverance, and grace on the front end? It is easy and popular to look at Bible like a preschool book: There is a tendency to over-simplify until the words of God are tame, simple, and docile. We don’t need to be accommodated, but challenged by the stories of Scripture. It’s that challenge of narrative that the Drive-By Truckers offer that makes the soul flex to lift the weight of it.