The Drive-By Truckers have always mined legend and lore for their storytelling punch. From Ronnie and Neil to Buford Pusser to John Henry, the band’s three to four core songwriters have made a career out of exploring Southern mythology by examining its larger-than-life characters; when a real legend won’t do, they make one up.
So it came as a surprise when, with 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the Truckers shifted gears. For the most part, its 18 songs were pretty ordinary–a character sketch of a good-old boy named Bob, some self-deprecating tunes about aging, an extended baseball metaphor. It was a mostly successful turn, but what made Brighter a great album were a handful of songs about people the Truckers had met on the road: a returning Iraq war soldier, the family of another soldier still abroad, and a fellow musician and friend of the band who had been murdered, along with his family, the year before. Those songs–all by chief songwriter Patterson Hood–rank among the band’s best and most powerful, precisely because there’s nothing legendary about them. These characters experience the usual Truckers mythos–violence, family, death and duty–but they aren’t myths; damn, they’re just regular people.
The band’s latest, The Big To-Do, continues in this direction, but with a decidedly lighter approach; lead-off single “This Fucking Job” is a bone-toss to the tired everyman, a pounding, four-chord invitation to fist-pump and sing along with lines about “workin’ this job” and “the piece of shit I’m driving”. Making a living is a major theme here, as is maintaining a family, and for the most part, the normal people in The Big To-Do fail miserably at both.
Hood is the chief storyteller again here, both in bulk (8 of the 13 songs are his) and in tone. His songs are tighter, catchier, and more darkly humorous than ever. In addition to the aforementioned “Job”, there’s “Drag the Lake Charlie” which plays out like a Coen Brothers movie, and the self-explanatory cautionary tale “The Fourth Night of My Drinking”. The brightest light, though, is “The Wig He Made Her Wear”, a ripped-from-the-headlines tale of kinky domestic ruin whose almost pornographic groove undercuts the narrative marvelously–it’s hard to tell if the through-the-grapevine narrator is horrified or amused when he sighs, “they seemed like the perfect family.”
Conversation between songwriters has always been a strength of the Truckers, though, and co-writers Mike Cooley and Shonna Tucker supplement Hood pretty expertly here. Each of Cooley’s songs has a Hood counterpart–check out the juxtaposition between the prostitute in “Birthday Boy” and the preacher’s wife in “Wig.” And not only is the nagging wife in Cooley’s “Get Downtown” one of the best characters on the album, her fast-talking rebuffs to her unemployed husband also serve as a wry uppercut to “This Fucking Job”. Then Tucker one-ups them both with her simple, soaring ballad “You Got Another”, the emotional foil to the boys’ toungue-in-cheek bravado.
In the second half of the album, things get more personal with songs about life on the road, the decay of the scene, and parenthood. Once again, the Truckers are singing about regular people, but here the normal people are the Truckers themselves. Album climax “The Flying Wallendas” brings it all together. Hood’s retelling of the story of the famous family of high-wire artists reads like an encyclopedia entry, but he doesn’t end the story with the family’s famed (and fatal) 1962 fall in Detroit. He follows it through to the late 70s when Karl Wallenda, by then a grandfather, fell from the wire and died in San Juan. Then Hood goes one step further, to a retirement village in Sarasota, where the narrator’s grandparents live next door to one of Karl’s descendants, likely Angel Wallenda, who walked the wire despite cancer and a prosthetic limb. The closing line of the song: “What stunned and astounded: the old lady who was out pruning her orange trees had flown to the heavens and back.”
It’s an apt metaphor for the Truckers’ career at this point, both in their status as aging rock stars and in the way they’re dismantling the very mythos they spent ten years constructing. That’s an important step for rockers making the shift to parenthood; it’s also a timely statement by a band with an increasingly un- and underemployed audience. The title serves a double meaning here: “the big to-do” is a euphemism for the myth and awe of the circus, but it’s also a list of responsibilities. For the Truckers, like the Wallendas, juggling performance and family, it’s unclear which is which. One could argue (and has argued) that every Drive-By Truckers album is really about rock ‘n’ roll. If that’s the case, this one’s about the myth of performance: to the audience it looks like flying, but for the performers it’s just another fucking job.