I saw former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell last night here in town for the third time this year. It was a piteous crowd, but whatcha expect in a college town at the holiday break. Anyway, it was still a great performance, even though they should drop "Psycho Killer" from the bill and find another song for the guitar player to sing. They do a good version of it, but cmon...."Psycho Killer" is corny and obvious. I say trade it out for "Gimme Three Steps" or something. The real reason for this, though, is that no less that three people made a point of mentioning to me that he was their favorite Trucker.
To me, saying this is missing the greater point of the Drive-By Truckers.* Jason Isbell writes magnificent power ballads. He might be the current finest practitioner of the form, and his introduction into the Drive By Truckers made them a more well-rounded band. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley were freed to explore their own peculiar narrative avenues because Jason had the lighter-in-the-air moments sewn up. The thing is - while Jason is great at what he does - the point of Drive-By Truckers is the directness of their narrative.
Jason depicts wide vistas of the working class in immaculate tones and perfectly crafted lines. Patterson Hood, however, is more about working at Wal-Mart and being a drunken teenager careening a Cadillac into a narrow parking space without a scratch and killing yourself. Mike Cooley's songs are about driving 100 miles to hopefully get a piece off that girl and sleeping on the cold floor and guns in the closet. Jason elevates his stories to cosmic proportions, whereas Hood and Cooley let them burn like embers where they lay. Don't get me wrong, nobody writes ballads as good as "Never Gonna Change" and "Outfit" and "Goddamned Lonely Love" but it is a different kind of songwriting than that of his former bandmates. And in that difference, in that peculiarity, lies the real reasons Drive By Truckers is the greatest living rock band on the planet and why Jason Isbell is a brilliant singer-songwriter in and unto himself.
*By stating this, I am not implying that they or any other group has a singular point to their band-ness. I try to treat bands as organic entities rather than life-poetry service providers, and as a listener, I also like to think that I meet them somewhere in between, finding some truth built from what they are saying and what I'm hearing, and truth like that is always messy, like truth always is.
That said, every great artist/band/filmmaker/whathaveyou has a greater point that hits home, that is central to what you experience on the other end. What that point is differs to some degree with each listener, but when I love something, I border it with lines in the sand.