Five years after forming and 15 years after co-leaders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley first hooked up with the band Adam's House Cat, these Athens-by-way-of-Muscle-Shoals road-warriors may be on the verge of breaking out. Last year, The Village Voice dubbed the group the best unknown band in America, and the current issue of Spin lists them as "on the verge" for 2001. The band hits town this week with the thrilling, late-2000 live album Alabama Ass Whuppin' under their belts and a "rock opera" on the horizon about Southern culture in the Seventies. The forthcoming record is said to be called Betamax Guillotine, a reference to the rumor that one member of Lynyrd Skynyrd was decapitated by a VCR when the band's plane went down.
Hood and Cooley both lived in Memphis briefly during the early Nineties -- which spawned the song "The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town," about the late shock-rocker's infamous Antenna club performance -- and the band performs here regularly. I missed their last stop in town, last fall at the Hi-Tone, which was reportedly a perverse and poorly attended affair. But a gig the band played a year or so ago at Young Avenue Deli was a ragged-but-right revelation: loud and anthemic but suffused with conversational good humor, it was one of the best sets I've ever seen by a band I knew little about.
It may seem odd for an under-the-radar, regional rock band with only two studio albums to its name to release a live record, especially since the Drive-by Truckers are in no way a "jam" band. But the decision to do so -- along with being a possible stopgap while trying to complete the "rock opera" opus -- reflects the reality of a cult band that improves on the stage. And while the 70-minute Alabama Ass Whuppin' may be no substitute for the real thing, it's still a perfectly paced, kick-ass document that captures the raucous, roadhouse feel of the band's stage show.
The album kicks off with the slow, grueling grind of Hood's "Why Henry Drinks," a song inspired by Hank Williams Jr.'s "Family Tradition." Neil Young guitars lurch out of the gate and into Hood's mean, meaty twang, spitting venom with lines like, "Those obnoxious drunks downstairs are fighting and cussing/12 years of me and you don't add up to a goddamn nothing." The record then segues into the equally down-tempo suicidal tendencies of the Adam's House Cat dirge "Lookout Mountain."
The pace picks up with "The Living Bubba," a moving, mid-tempo tribute to an Atlanta musician and friend who died of AIDS, and then moves swiftly into the sardonic, up-tempo ode to radio preachers "Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)." The record then hits overdrive with the breakneck break-up song "Don't Be in Love Around Me," with Hood delivering a matter-of-fact message to an ex-lover: "I'm not in the mood to see you looking at each other like you're looking at each other right now."
Alabama Ass Whuppin' peaks with the unforgettable centerpiece "18 Wheels of Love." Hood is a good singer, but he's a great talker, and the jaw-dropping monologue that opens this song is an unintentional testament to the enduring character of Southern speech -- the accent, the content, and the delivery all inspire regional ardor. Breathtakingly walking the line between life-affirming laughs and easy yuks, Hood begins his story by announcing, "When my mom and dad got divorced my momma locked herself in her room and didn't come out for six years." Hood goes on to paint a picture of his exiled mother, with three TV sets ("just like Elvis, the King, used to have") and two VCRs on top of each "so she could watch all the shows later that she wasn't watching when she was watching the other shows."
But the child support runs out and Hood's momma has to get a job. "Let me tell you folks," Hood says in a tough but touching moment. "It's a mean, mean, cruel world out there for a 55-year-old woman that's never worked a day in her life." Hood's mother finds the kind of job that small-town Alabama affords middle-aged, underedu-cated women -- log monitor at a trucking company. There she falls for Chester, "the biggest, meanest motherfucker" at the company, and gets married at Dollywood. Hood explains that his momma's remarriage happened at a time when he was unemployed and broke so "I wrote my momma this song as a wedding present; it's called '18 Wheels of Love' and every goddamn word is true." Guitars rise from the din as Hood speaks the last, triumphant line and the song ignites. Other than Clarence Carter's treatise on the birds and the bees in his version of "The Dark End of the Street," this might be the grandest extended, spoken-word intro in rock-and-roll history.
After that glorious high note, the album downshifts with a hilarious, impromptu childhood remembrance called "The Avon Lady" and Hood's "Margo and Harold," a Randy Newman-worthy tale of being hounded by a pair of middle-aged swingers.
The record then climaxes with a medley of sorts. The band breaks into a noisy, guitar-drenched tribute to a Seventies icon on "Steve McQueen" ("Bullitt was the best movie I'd ever seen/Tore up my go-kart tryin' to imitate that chase scene," Hood drawls), before unexpectedly morphing into a vicious, perfect cover of Skynyrd's "Gimme Three Steps." And just when you think things can't get any crazier or more inspired, the band has the guts and heart to segue breathlessly from this McQueen/Skynyrd tribute into a ferocious recitation of the Jim Carroll Band's classic "People Who Died."
Somewhere out there Ronnie Van Zandt, not to mention the lost friend saluted on "The Living Bubba," is flashing a big shit-eating grin.
With Old No. 8 and Truckadelic, The Hi-Tone Café, Thursday, March 8th