Drive-By Truckers launching national tour at Belly Up Aspen
If You Go …
What: An Evening with Drive-By Truckers
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Friday, Aug. 19, 10 p.m.
How much: $48/GA; $75/reserved
Tickets: Belly Up box office; www.bellyupaspen.com
In their 20 years as a band, the Drive-By Truckers have been no strangers political music. This is the Alabama-bred, Georgia-based rock outfit that once wrote a song about segregationist George Wallace burning in hell and another about the dirty tricks of Republican strategist Lee Atwater.
But their new songs from the forthcoming album “American Band” are more overtly political than anything they’ve played before. This is protest music responding directly to the spate of police killings of African-Americans and the rise of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy.
“Almost every song in some way or another is about what’s been happening for the last several years and everything leading up to this election,” said singer, songwriter and guitarist Mike Cooley, who co-founded the Truckers with Patterson Hood in 1996.
The band will launch a 35-stop fall tour at Belly Up Aspen tonight. “American Band” is due out Sept. 30.
The first single, “Surrender Under Protest,” responds to the 2015 massacre of African-American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, and the successful fight to bring down the Confederate flag from the South Carolina State House after the shooting. Written by Cooley, it’s clear-eyed political punk rock, powerfully filtered through the Truckers’ twang and tinged with Southern rock tradition.
“What It Means,” the second track released from “American Band,” is about the death of Trayvon Martin and other young black men killed by police — an anthem of support for the Black Lives Matter movement: “If you say it wasn’t racist when they shot him in his tracks / Well I guess it means that you ain’t black,” Hood sings.
Cooley and Hood couldn’t help but write about this fraught moment in America. Particularly, Cooley said, they’ve been shocked by the backlash against President Barack Obama and attempts by rival politicians to de-legitimize the first black president. He said the band has been driven to artistic action by the sentiment of white victimization and fear that gave rise to Trump’s candidacy.
“It’s not about jumping on the bandwagon; it’s about the inability to think about anything else,” he said. “We felt strongly about a lot of this stuff and disgusted.”
The Truckers have been encouraged by the traction of the Black Lives Matter movement. Most Americans today, Cooley said, probably believe they would have stood with Martin Luther King in the 1950s and 1960s. But, he noted, most white people did not do so during King’s lifetime. “American Band” is the Truckers’ call for all Americans to be on the right side of history this time.
“You’re being given another opportunity right now,” he said. “You can be on the right side of this one, if you’ll quit feeling the need to respond with ‘All Lives Matter’ and ‘Blue Lives Matter’ and looking for someone to blame.”
Last month, the Truckers visited the Democratic National Convention in Cleveland, where they played an event for former Congresswoman Gabby Gifford’s gun-control action group Americans for Responsible Solutions. They also did a spot on MSNBC inside the convention hall, which Cooley described a surreal experience.
“We were glad to get out of there when we were done,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve never seen so many cops in my life.”
Their political stands have driven some fans away and inspired some social media vitriol, but Cooley doesn’t see much of Facebook and Twitter anyway (“I don’t participate in that world at all, mostly because I’ve been to middle school and I didn’t like it all that much”).
While churning out great rock songs over 11 albums and 20 years and staging notoriously loud, rollicking shows, the Truckers have played with their identity as a southern rock band — nodding to the sonic legacy of Muscle Shoals and Lynyrd Skynyrd along while not shying away from the region’s troubled history in race relations.
Being a band of white guys that speaks for the South, Cooley said, compelled the Truckers to speak up at this moment.
“It did occur to me that maybe we are in a unique position to speak to this with our accents,” he said. “Every time I turn around I’m hearing the anatomy of a Trump voter. And they always describe middle-aged white guys, working class, non-college educated — and I’m like, ‘Whoa, f— you, that’s us!’ So maybe it’s important for guys who fit that description to make ourselves heard.”
The band wanted to get some protest songs out during the 2016 election season. When they finished up a tour in Nashville last fall and went into a local studio to record some new material, they surprised themselves to find they had a whole album’s worth of songs. They recorded what would become “American Band” in just a few days at Sound Emporium in Tennessee, then put final touches on it in Athens, Georgia where they’ve made all of their previous albums.
The current Truckers lineup — featuring Matt Patton on bass, Jay Gonzalez playing keys and Brad Morgan manning the drums — has been together since before the 2014 album “English Oceans.” The membership around Cooley and Hood has shuffled frequently over the decades. Until now, they’ve never had the same lineup together for more than two albums. That newfound stability, Cooley said, has helped the band hone its craft both in concert and in the studio.
“With what we’re trying to do now, this is a tight, lean outfit and we’re more consistent live than we’ve ever been,” Cooley said. “And we’re having more fun than we ever have. Making this album — as serious and angry and dark as it gets — we were smiling and laughing and having a blast while we were recording it.”
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