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RockNotes: Southern Crock & Top of the Pops

Originally published on January 4; now updated with comments from Patterson Hood.

*

"I have never quite loved the Drive-By Truckers," Jesse Fox Mayshark writes in the latest No Depression. "For one thing, I have always been a little put off by the awkward self-awareness of Patterson Hood's ambitions. God knows the moral and cultural geography of the modern South cries out for cartographers, but it's one thing to talk about a map - he talks about it a lot - and another to draw it.

"Hood is a messy draftsman, sometimes relying on broad lines when he needs shading, sometimes counting on vague gestures to carry meaning that he himself hasn't really thought through. ('The duality of the Southern thing') sounds smart enough when you hear him say it, but it doesn't actually communicate much.)

"And like Paul Westerberg, one of his obvious influences, he's gotten less funny as he's gone along, maybe mistaking a straight face for seriousness.'

Here, here, Jesse Fox Mayshark! Finally a critical word for the critics' darlings.

I have never understood the appeal of the Drive-By Truckers; I watched in horror and depressing amazement as they rose in popularity and stature within the alt-country community. I mean, these guys?

I saw the Truckers once several years ago with Beachwood music guru Don Jacobson at the Abbey Pub, when the band was just starting their ascent. We were both horrified.

First, the music was pretty pedestrian - though it looked like then-new and now-former guitarist Jason Isbell had a bit of potential.

Second, there is no duality to that Southern thing. It's like whenever I heard "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down;" shouldn't we be glad they drove old Dixie down?

It's just all so Lynyrd Skynyrd Dissing Neil Young And A Southern Man Don't Need Him Around Anyhow And Watergate Does Not Bother Me. Christ!

At the show me and Don saw, singer and bandleader Patterson Hood explained to the crowd that his gran' pappy's pappy was too poor to own slaves. I guess that's the duality: Not everyone in the South could afford to keep other humans in bondage! It's about class, not race! His folk couldn't afford slaves!

I later exchanged e-mails about the Truckers with a Reader critic who raved about them and she confessed that she didn't pay attention to lyrics. Well, when a band bases its entire identity on a conceit, it's kind of important!

"Hood is kind of a journeyman when it comes to melodies and hooks," Mayshark writes, in a piece that is actually more kind to the Truckers than it sounds.

Let's face it, the Truckers are glorified Southern bar band who somehow managed to get their noses under the alt-country tent, which for some reason needed Southern rock representation. Fine. Go away now, please.

*

See comments below.

*

Top of the Pops
The top 10 albums of 2007 according to No Depression's critics:

1. Bettye Lavette: The Scene Of The Crime
2. Robert Plant & Alison Kraus: Raising Sand
3. Wilco: Sky Blue Sky
4. Mavis Staples: We'll Never Turn Back
5. Patty Griffin: Children Running Through
6. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: Magic
7. Nick Lowe: At My Age
8. Porter Wagoner: The Wagonmaster
9. Lucinda Williams: West
10. Mary Gauthier: Between Daylight And Dark

For the rest of the top 50, buy the mag!

*

The top 10 albums of 2007 according to No Depression's readers:

1. Wilco: Sky Blue Sky
2. Patty Griffin: Children Running Through
3. Ryan Adams: Easy Tiger
4. Lucinda Williams: West
5. Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: West
6. Jason Isbell: Sirens Of The Ditch
7. Steve Earle: Washington Square Serenade
8. Sam Baker: Pretty World
9. Avett Brothers: Emotionalism
10. Josh Ritter: The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter

Note: Radiohead's In Rainbows placed 31st on the critics' list and 48th on the readers' list.

Season Greetings
It's that time of year, so may as well . . .

* Greg Kot's Top 10 Local Indie Releases of 2007

* Jim DeRogatis's Top 10 Albums of 2007

* Favorite Releases of 2007 by Reader critics Miles Raymer, Monica Kendrick and Peter Margasak

* The Onion AV Club's Least Essential Albums of 2007

* Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums of 2007

Loving Led
"'Kashmir' is as good an example as any of Zeppelin's weird genius," Sasha Frere-Jones wrote in the holiday issue of The New Yorker.

"The lumbering riff pits three guitar beats against two drumbeats, executing a Sisyphean march that cycles over and over without becoming tiresome; on the record, it is the shortest eight-and-a-half-minute song I know. Its minute-long breakdown is like one long drum sample, held together by the motion of John Bonham's dancing right foot. (P. Diddy and Schooly D have rapped over 'Kashmir.')

"The lyrics are allegedly inspired by the Sahara Desert - 'the storm that leaves no trace' - and the combination of strings, guitar, and Mellotron keyboard has often been described as Middle Eastern. In concert, though, it became clear that 'Middle Eastern' is just one way of capturing an implausibly big and eerie song that wanders through a spooky fog in enormous boots and could just as easily be about settling on the moon or diving to the bottom of the ocean."

*

XM LED: The Led Zeppelin Channel

Loving Lavigne
New Year's Eve at the Beachwood, one of the newish bartenders yelled a derisive apology to the 14-year-old girls in the bar and cut "Complicated" off with the magic reject button behind the bar.

Hey, I'm not a 14-year-old-girl!

Avril Lavigne is as much a victim of people who can't think for themselves as the Drive-By Truckers are beneficiaries of the same phenomenon.

*

In response to my argument about how Lavigne has something in common with the Replacements, loyal Beachwood reader Jeff Ruby wrote in part: "No one in a position of power knew what the hell to do with the Replacements, because they didn't know what to do with themselves."

Amen. Unfortunately, Lavigne is eminently marketable.

*

Part of my response to Jeff about my Lavigne argument, which I felt wasn't well articulated: "The Replacements were able to access a vocabulary and self-knowingness beyond their years while still describing their years: what it was like to go to the dentist, hate your school, call out pretentious party people, get a boner, hang out downtown, etc., in a poetic and punk way.

"When I see Avril Lavigne, I see someone who is the embodiment of a certain kind of girl, even the way she turns her feet when she sings or moves her hands in a certain kind of way, like the epitome of the kind of girl she is. She wouldn't have listened to or understood the Replacements, at least the early version, though the Westerberg solo stuff certainly, but in songs like 'Girlfriend' and 'Complicated' etc. she absolutely captures and nails the (relatively shallow but still) emotional life of girls like her who love music and clothes and boys but have a little more going on than girly cheerleader types . . . she's the cool girl they all want to be without trying to be popular.

"Or something."

*

Bob Dylan, for example, may have been the voice of a generation, but the voice he used was hardly vernacular - he was hardly one of us. He was the brainy English lit kid. Westerberg was one of us, and Lavigne at least goes to our school too.

*

But then, folks have been surprised lately to find I like Judge Judy and Dr. Phil, too.

*

I know I'm still not doing a good job of explaining myself. So be it.

-

Comments? Send them along. And then check out the RockNotes collection. Like great rock 'n' roll, It never gets old.

*

COMMENTS -

1. From Whet Moser:
I have to respectfully and mostly disagree. While I'll grant that they're very uneven, particularly Patterson Hood (the third best songwriter in the band - now the second after Isbell ditched - not really what you want in your primary songwriter), they have some straight-up classics. As much as I hate describing a band as the kind that has one or two great songs on every album and lots of mediocre ones, that's them. Then again, I feel that way about most bands I like. I recommend the following, in chronological order:

- "Panties in Your Purse" (off Gangstabilly): Starts funny, makes a virtuosic shift to sad.

- "Bulldozers and Dirt" (off Pizza Deliverance): Patterson Hood's best song. A weirdly moving high-lonesome number about a pedophile with a crush on his stepdaughter.

- "Women Without Whiskey" (off SRO): "Whiskey is harder to keep than a woman and it's half as sweet."

- "The Day John Henry Died" (off Dirty South): Probably biased because I was immersed in the Southern storytelling culture from a very early age, but, holy shit, this is how you rewrite a myth. John Edwards needs to make this his campaign song.

- "Carl Perkins' Cadillac" (ditto): "Making money you can't spend ain't what being dead's about."

- "Never Gonna Change" (it's the best album): A moving song about the burden of Southern violence.

- "Outfit" (off Decoration Day): "Don't sing with a fake British accent. Don't act like your family's a joke."

- "Decoration Day" (ditto): Another Isbell song about Southern violence.

Ultimately, they're kind of like gangster rap for white rural southerners, critically but sometimes too romantically working their way through the myths of a violent and over-romanticized American subculture - which is why the bar band Skynyrdisms are important, since it's part and parcel with the culture they grew up in. They're hella inconsistent but I'll swear by their best-of when it comes out.

2. From Frank Ruse: I'm 48 yoa, from the North East, and been rockin to the likes of Zep since I was 10. D-BT made me believe in R&R again. I love their southern-garage rock sound. How can you not love their lyrics? You probably despise James McMurtry too.You gotta be out of your tree, dude. Did you know Neil Young was an honorary pall bearer for Ronnie VZ, he liked Lynryd Skynyrd.

I've seen DBT 4X's this year. I kinda describe them as an X-Country-rock band, with a Saturday Night Live twist when it comes their lyrics. Listen to Zoloft, Company I Keep, 18-Wheels of Love, Outfit, Puttin People On The Moon, Lookout Mountain, Let There Be Rock, A World of Hurt, The Living Bubba. Isn't rock and roll about love, love lost, putting it to the man, and the little man getting screwed, be it by the man, addiction, or life in general, be it a southern man or a northern man. He's singing about injustice and poverty and life in general. Poverty and the little man getting screwed, its a common theme both North and South.

Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth dude. Even if you don't like the lyrics, these guys f'n rock and roll with three guitars and do it for 2.5 to 3 hrs a night about 300, nights a year. I close with the below lyrics. You just don't write lyrics like this everyday.

"Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus, don't give it away."

3. From Brian Howard: You, sir, know dick about music, and if I had your ears I would cut them off.

4. From Tim Oliver: I'm a huge Drive-By Truckers fan, but not so huge that I can't read a review in which they're bashed without an open mind. Yeah, they stumble, they screw-up, they can be pretty mean sometimes, but can't we all ? But, even mentioning DBT, alt-country/Americana (whatever kind of box you want to try to put them in ) and Ms. Lavigne in the same paragraph is like chasing single barrel Jack Daniels with orange Fanta; the comparisons are just plain wrong-headed. To not understand the "duality of the southern thing" is to have not listened to the songs "The Southern Thing" followed by "The Three Alabama Icons," the latter a song in which Mr. Hood patiently articulates, in spoken-word fashion, exactly what he's talking about.

It would, also, benefit the reviewer to know that only Mr. Hood was the big Replacements fan in the band. I think he understands their sonic roar, both melodic and distorted, as well as quiet acoustic moments, which belie a wasted platitude, better than any other songwriter today. He GETS it, and he employs it, at times. For what it's worth, he was also a huge Todd Rundgren fan. Hmmmm, the Mats, and Todd Rundgren? Aren't they Yankee bands? Which brings us back to the whole Southern rock categorization: I think with 2006's A Blessing and a Curse and the upcoming Bright as Creation's Dark, they will prove themselves to be an American band. I just hope they're coming to a radio soon near you!

5. From Patterson Hood: I have never nor will ever be in the habit of answering "critics" as it seems to be about the most foolish thing anyone could ever do. Lord knows anyone has the rights to like and dislike as they please and my records often get more slack cut to them then some of them have probably deserved. There was, however a bit of a personal thing going on in your letter, that I (who as far as I know has never met you) would like to address.

You quote Jesse Fox Mayshark from the new issue of No Depression referring to me as a messy draftsman and I'm afraid I have to plead guilty. Working on improving that, but when I listen back to Southern Rock Opera nearly a decade later (much of it was written in the late 90's) I come to many of the same conclusions as he. All that stuff about grand lines when a little more shading would do seems pretty dead-on all these years later. I'm glad he seems to like our new one better. I do too.

Sorry we horrified you and your friend at The Abbey. That shit happens sometimes. I do have to take issue on a couple of points below:

* You say there is no duality of the South then right below it you list two top ten lists from No Depression magazine, which is over 50% filled with music from the South. The exact - and I want to reiterate (since you often miss the subtleties of my messy draftsmanship) - the EXACT duality I am talking about on that album. My Pappy (as you incorrectly asserted me saying, I've never used that word in my life until now, I assure you) made his living in the turbulent 60's and 70's playing with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack, Percy Sledge, The Staple Singers, Millie Jackson, Etta James and a ton of other African American artists, an integrated harmonious and joyful celebration of life and unity in the heart of the deep segregated south. THAT is the duality I speak of and to be categorically implied a racist because of the town I grew up in is another theme that record dealt with to anyone who actually listened to the lyrics. Your interpretation of the class not race thing is insulting to me and my family and flat out dead wrong.

* There is never a point on that entire record where we in any way ever defend the horrible actions of the Jim Crow era South. My "Wallace" song is set in hell for good reason. Watergate did and still does bother me, so fact-check your assumptions before you lay them at my feet. The song "The Southern Thing" is often misunderstood and is probably the song most guilty of the messy draftsman charge. In it I attempted to illustrate the futility of the very thing the title addresses, as there is no exact "Southern thing." Every line in the song is contradicted (intentionally, I'm afraid) by another line in the song. The character singing it is often full of boastful pride (as many rednecks tend to be) but his facts are all screwed up. I knew I was flirting with being misunderstood when I wrote it and put it on the album, but I also felt that it was an important part of people's perception about Southerners and needed to be represented. I guess I was naive enough to assume that the "Wallace" song (set in hell) right after it would succeed in getting my point across and for the most part I got really lucky, as most folks actually did get it, or perhaps I was just given the benefit of the doubt. Ironically, the handful of negative reviews the album received were almost all from Southern writers and in Southern papers.

One more slightly ironic note, right below your rant about me where you imply some sort of racism on my part, you list the top ten critics list from No Depression and guess what was number one? An album by an empowered black woman that I co-produced and my band (and father) played on.

6. Steve Rhodes replies: I actually really appreciate your note and don't see it so much as answering a critic as having the kind of discussion I wish would take place more in music, because it means so much to all of us. I'd be happy to publish this as a comment if you wish. And I'm certainly willing to re-assess my views and accept that I might be missing something. At the same time, I'd like to reply to some of what you've said and will do so below, and would do so in my own comment following yours, if that's acceptable to you. Thanks.

Just to be clear, I know what you mean but I don't quote you as using the word pappy, I wasn't taking notes at the time. But that was the tone we heard, and our reference wasn't to your father but your 'gran' pappy's pappy.' It wouldn't make sense to refer to your father as having been alive during the days of slavery. But it's really the larger issue that's important. That was the way we heard it, and I remember that we discussed it later as thinking the duality thing had to do with the notion that not everyone in the South was pro-Confederate, pro-slavery, but that poor white folk were victims too. But ultimately, extending that line of thinking led us to the angry white men Republicans have built their electoral victories on with their Southern strategies . . . it just left a bad taste in our mouths. But we (me and Don) are from Minnesota, so we come from a different vantage point.

I must admit I don't understand how your father's work with African-American talent constitutes any sort of duality. African-Americans, even in the days of slavery, were always perceived and even accepted as entertainers. And there have always been white folks who have embraced African-Americans. That isn't a complicated formulation to me. And I certainly would never assume someone to be racist because of where they were born.

I never portrayed you as defending the Jim Crow South, nor referred to the songs in particular you mention. But I still can't get over the lyrics of "Sweet Home Alabama," even if Neil Young was a pallbearer at Ronnie Van Zandt's funeral, as one of our commenters says. Hell, Neil Young was an enthusiastic supporter of Ronald Reagan, for God's sake! My reference to this followed a reference to "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," not one of your songs. But, on the other hand, yes, I'm lumping it all together. It was a short and admittedly flip post.

I didn't write, nor did I intend, to imply that you don't like black people. And I don't get how 50% of the music on the No Depression list constitutes a duality of the South. So?

But because so many people whose tastes I respect think so highly of your band, and because I appreciate you sending me this note, I pledge to go back and listen with fresh ears. Maybe something just didn't connect the first time around. Or maybe it's just one of those things. I can't stand the Who and my friends are incredulous. But I do love rock 'n' roll. To the core. So thanks again.

7. Patterson Hood responds: I have often wondered what I would think or feel if I stumbled into a bar and saw DBT playing, especially in that era of our band. Part of the point was to write about all these weird dualities and then play it like a 70's arena rock show.

That was the point and the challenge in that project. We made the record in a warehouse for about $6,000 (as we were way too broke for studio time). At that time we were playing for 50 - 100 folks a night.

We spent 6 years writing, learning and recording that album (95-01) during which time we also wrote and recorded 2 other "studio" albums (although one of those was made in a living room) and a live album.

When the album came out, we played about 200 shows then the album was picked up by Lost Hwy and we toured for another year solid for a total of 8 years.

To say we moved on after that is an understatement.

It was and remains something we're very proud of having done, but it has very little to do with our lives today (artistically).

it was a major learning experience and it obviously changed our lives dramatically on a personal and business level.

We've made 4 albums since as well as two solo albums for me and the Bettye LaVette album.

Believe me, I'm all too aware of the Republicans' Southern strategy. It eventually led me to move to my little liberal oasis in Athens.

I'm not defending those fuckers ever and although I'm sure some of them think otherwise, I wasn't writing about them.

I was only writing about me and my beliefs in the hope that maybe I wasn't alone down here.

Keep in mind my father and his peers in his generation, who were part of the Muscle Shoals music movement, were well aware of the ignorance around them, but were idealistic (and young) enough to believe with all their hearts and soul that they were somehow making a difference, and in some small way they did.

It was as much a statement to them as any of the punk rock ideals I grew up worshipping a decade later in bands like The Clash.

My point in the last letter was that there are many Southerners like myself who are fiercely aware of our home region's horrible history, especially in regards to issues of race (and current politics).

Some of the world's best music has come from this troubled region and that is not a coincidence.

Remember, to many folks overseas, we're all Americans and are ALL liable for the horrible actions of our current administration.

I've had folks in Holland and Norway beret me over "how we let this happen" as if I had voted for Bush myself.

As an Alabamian who grew up during the Wallace years (I'm 43 and he was the Govna' for most of my first two decades of life) I get tired of that really quick, but certainly understand it.

I'm not a Who fan either, but David Barbe, who produces our albums and who I respect about more than anyone on Earth loves them more than my Aunt Blanche loves Jesus (and my Aunt Blanche LOVES Jesus).

I'd be far more interested in your opinions about our new album, as I think it's quite a bit better anyway.
Let me know if you want one and I'll gladly send you one.

Then if you hate it, at least your hating what we do now instead of nearly a decade ago.

Hopefully we'll see you around sometime.

8. Steve Rhodes comments: Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis introduces his columns with comments from readers with the statement, "Rock criticism is at its best when it is a passionate dialogue between people who care deeply about the music." I don't pretend for a second that my blurb about Drive-By Truckers was a serious piece of rock criticism, but I have great respect for Patterson Hood for engaging in a passionate dialogue about his art. It's the kind of exchange that should happen more often.

DeRogatis also once said: "I see rock criticism as an ongoing dialogue with people. And that's really healthy and it's really fun . . . If we don't care about this stuff enough to fight about it, why the hell have we devoted our lives to it?"

Hood hasn't changed my mind about Southern Rock Opera. (Read the lyrics and decide for yourself.) To me, it just doesn't accomplish what he apparently set out to do. But I think I'll take up Hood's offer and give the new record a listen. If nothing else, his willingness to engage - really engage, not just snipe at a critic - speaks volumes, and for that I have tremendous respect.



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Posted on January 14, 2008


MUSIC - The Weekend In Chicago Rock.
TV - Cricket vs. Brexit.
POLITICS - Charter Schools Complicit With Segregation.
SPORTS - USA Gymnastics Bans Illinois Coach.

BOOKS - The Randomness Of Harvard Admissions.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Public Lands Matter.


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