An American Band with Baggage: Drive-By Truckers and the Weight of History

Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente reviews the historical content and engagement of Drive-By Truckers’ well-regarded eleventh album, released in 2016.

DBT_AmericanBand_Cover

The American Band album cover.

“Even in times of vast upheaval, things just don’t change enough.” — Patterson Hood, American Band liner notes

The Drive-By Truckers’ eleventh studio album American Band (2016) topped numerous best-of lists last year for its fine compositions and unabashedly political tone. The alt-country/rock group from Athens, Georgia, has seldom shied away from political statements; after all, they once wrote a song that placed Alabama’s segregationist governor George Wallace in Hell. But the consistency with which American Band confronts social and political issues head-on is notable. On the album, main songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley—both originally of Alabama—deal with school shootings, the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.), abusive border guards, the country’s destructive gun culture, racism, opioid addiction, and the poisonous heritage of the Confederacy and its symbols. All of these songs remain timely, and perhaps even more salient, a year after their release. But more than any topical resonance, what makes this album enduring is its deep engagement with history.

From the opening notes, Hood and Cooley anchor their present concerns in the long history of each issue. On “Ramon Casiano,” Cooley explores the persistence of border violence through an account of Harlon Carter’s murder of a 15-year-old Hispanic boy, the eponymous Casiano, in 1931. Carter’s murder sentence was overturned on grounds of self-defense, though he had been first to approach Casiano while brandishing a weapon. Carter went on to preside over the politicization of the N.R.A. during his tenure as its president (1977-1985). The Drive-By Truckers draw the connections between this 85-year-old case and twenty-first-century injustices: “It all started at the border / And that’s still where it is today / Someone killed Ramon Casiano / And the killer got away.” Cooley also identifies the border as a place where Americans project their fears (“There’s hardly been a menace since / That ain’t amassing at the border / From Chinese troops to terrorists”) and as a space of abuses of authority (“[He] supplemented what he made / In creative deportation / And missing ammo by the case”).[1]

For nearly six minutes on “Ever South,” Hood narrates his family history, which doubles as an immigrant tale, his “distant Irish kin” leaving Ellis Island to “spread through Appalachia, ever south” and later “aim[ing] our sights westward like so many did before / Expanding our horizons to some distant shore.” Oral history plays a part within this story, as well. Hood explains that he “hear[s] we weren’t welcomed here, at least not in those days / No one needs our drunken, fighting, thieving kind.” Yet, they persisted: “And we fought our losing battles and we held onto our ways / and we talk of how we left behind our better days.” And despite the ambivalence he sometimes feels about his home region or the people who inhabit it, Hood can’t help but join the oral tradition and “tell you stories of our fathers and the glories of our house.” It is this sense of history and the act of passing it down that ties him both to family and to place.[2]

While Southern oral tradition plays a positive role in “Ever South,” it is clearly a double-edged sword when considered together with the lead single “Surrender Under Protest.” Here, Cooley emphasizes the power of oral history to obfuscate, as it has for white Southerners’ memories of the Confederacy. He sings of the immediate rise of the myth of the Lost Cause (“No sooner was it [the Civil War] over than the memory made it nobler”) and its endurance (“for six long generations it’s been told / that among the fallen was tradition / that tradition was the mission / that the wrongness of the sin [slavery] was not the goal”). The oral traditions of white Southerners have passed a perverted understanding of history down through the generations. These oral traditions draw their strength from their source (“on the lips of trusted loved ones”), preventing history’s challenges to those understandings from getting through. Nonetheless, historians have an obligation to puncture those false conceptions because “If it’s all you can remember then it’s been that way forever.”[3]

On “Once They Banned Imagine,” Cooley suggests the ways in which social conditions endure and history repeats itself despite the work historians may do. He laments the death of a political imaginary that values peace and harmony, singing in the chorus that “once they banned Imagine it became the same old war it’s always been / once they banned Imagine it became the war it was when we were kids.” “Imagine” is clearly the famous John Lennon song from 1971 that asked its listeners to be bold in envisioning a world without greed, war, or suffering—a world in which each was her sister’s keeper. Cooley is unclear about who “they” are and what power they have to ban the ideas within Lennon’s song. But without the vision of peaceably sharing the world, Cooley is returned to a society “complete with record burning and threatening and spurning / the crime of getting blood on the page.” Both he and Patterson are children of the mid-1960s, so the war it was when they were kids included the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, and the image of record burning invokes the period. Indeed, “the same old war it’s always been” seems to be the struggles of Black Americans and their allies against white supremacy in the United States through history. Here, too, Cooley refers to the Lost Cause ideology of the South: “all the way back to where ghosts from the past were still / fighting their wars from the grave.” For Cooley, American ideals, encapsulated in songs like “Imagine” and the political and economic vision of the Civil Rights Movement, run up against the dark parts of the American past, embodied in the Lost Cause and the same old war it’s always been. And the image we have of ourselves doesn’t always reflect the reality of our actions, as when Cooley invokes the WWII veterans who fought fascism: “Since the big one ended we’d been mostly pretending / we’d have had the same gumption and grit / as the greatest among us when harm came upon us / we wouldn’t hesitate to defend.” These lines take on renewed meaning in the wake of the white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, given that many of those marching shouted slogans of the regime their grandfathers may have crossed the Atlantic to destroy (“mostly pretending” to have the same courage, indeed). Aptly, Cooley sees the past repeating itself, and he warns his listeners to find themselves on the right side of history: “When history happens again if you do or you did you’ll be blamed.”[4]

There is an implicit recognition in this work that understanding in the present requires knowledge of the past, that the way forward requires us to look backward. American Band is an album that sees the fraying social fabric of the United States and tries to find means to mend it by looking to the historical roots of present issues. Trying to find ways to bridge the cultural divides in this country, Hood noted his struggle with the album’s material: “I’m a white guy from the South, do I have a right to be singing about this stuff? What can I do? The only conclusion I could come up with was maybe white guys, with Southern accents, who look like rednecks, need to say Black Lives Matter too.” This empathy and sensitivity to history might just point the way toward democratic renewal. As political scientist Wendy Brown argues, one of the essential conditions of democracy is a citizenry “modestly discerning about the ways of power, history, representation, and justice.”[5] With their sense of the role of race and power in history, the Drive-By Truckers have made a valuable contribution toward bridging the cultural and political divides that seem daily to threaten social stability in the United States.


[1] Historians of the Mexico-U.S. border have generated a vast literature on the nativist economic policies and racist attitudes that controlled life and labor across the border over the course of the twentieth century. Influential works include: George J. Sánchez, Becoming Mexican America: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993); Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999); Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004); and, Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).

[2] Myth comes up against history in Hood’s own retelling here. He refers to “his distant Irish kin” dispersing from Ellis Island and being unwelcome in the United States. The hostility to his Irish ancestors suggests the mid-nineteenth-century period of Irish immigration spurred by the famine in Ireland, but Ellis Island did not become the central point of east coast entry until 1892. The changing fortunes of the Irish are covered in David R. Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991) and Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White (New York: Routledge, 1995).

[3] The preeminent work on the historical influences of distorted memories of the Civil War is David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[4] Key works on the Black freedom struggle and the Civil Rights Movement include William P. Jones, The March on Washington: Jobs, Freedom, and the Forgotten History of Civil Rights (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013) and Danielle L. McGuire, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). On the Black freedom struggle in a more global context, see Mary L. Dudziak, Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) and Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013). Finally, Van Gosse’s Rethinking the New Left: An Interpretative History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) treats the interconnections of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements.

[5] Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (New York: Zone Books, 2015), 179.

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