The Corvette that killed Buford Pusser nearly 50 years ago remains on public display, its mauled frame and twisted wheels perched atop a little platform in a small-town Tennessee museum. In the early ’60s, Pusser—a one-time Chicago wrestler with a head like that of a pitbull—returned to southern Tennessee to wage legal war on rebellious confederations of bootleggers, gamblers, and thieves along his home state’s chaotic border with Mississippi and Alabama. His efforts and resulting assassination attempts made him a movie star in the loose biopic Walking Tall, at least until he fatally crashed his Corvette at top speeds in 1974. But his all-too-convenient death has remained the stuff of local legend in subsequent decades, with persistent rumors that his specialized car had been sabotaged for murder. Perhaps the steering rod had been sawed, to ensure that the locals trying to make an illicit fortune would never again have to “watch out for Buford.” Though Pusser is long dead, his Corvette endures, both a reminder and portent of regional chaos.
This conspiracy and that warning are the premise of Drive-By Truckers’ “The Buford Stick,” the centerpiece of a four-song suite about the warfare for homeland sovereignty, as riveting as any movie about Pusser. It arrives late in The Complete Dirty South, an expanded version of the Truckers’ The Dirty South that finally reveals the true breadth of their 2004 masterpiece. A complicated survey of power dynamics and strife in a benighted region rich in half-true folklore, hydroelectric power, and heroes who stunt-double as villains, The Dirty South has been this century’s most compelling document of Southern rock since its release 19 years ago. With the addition of three scrapped songs that eventually appeared on later records (and a multitude of archival illustrations by the band’s visual world-builder, the late Wes Freed), The Complete Dirty South adds even more nuance and intrigue through tales of family-man suicide, small-town crooks, and simple country pleasure.
Two decades ago, the Truckers were so prolific that it actually pissed off their then-new label, New West. When the band revealed in early 2004 that it had nearly finished its second double-disc opus in four years, or just six months after New West heavily invested in the already-sprawling Decoration Day, the label balked. Sure, the Truckers were unsteadily climbing a ladder of Southern rock stardom after 2001’s ballyhooed Southern Rock Opera, but how high could that actually go in the 21st century, anyway? If the label was going to release The Dirty South, the band would need to trim it to a single disc, meaning the Truckers excised three of its 17 songs.
Late in 2001, less than three years before releasing The Dirty South, the hard-touring, hard-partying band had locked into one of the most potent lineups in modern rock history. Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood had played together for a quarter-century by that point, excavating hardscrabble Southern stories in rock every bit as rough as the subjects. And then Jason Isbell—a sensitive marching band geek from Muscle Shoals who, at 22, had seemingly slogged through a lifetime of woe already—enlisted, creating a three-singer, three-songwriter, three-guitarist chimera whose font of stories suddenly seemed inexhaustible.
As a young writer, Isbell could look at any fucked-up scene (including his own) and extract grace and empathy, adding a welcome softness to the Truckers’ worn steel chassis. And as a burgeoning multi-instrumentalist who knew his way around a Wurlitzer or 12-string and whose horn parts sometimes came to him in dreams, he also imparted a textural depth that left the Truckers a better band even after he left a drunken mess. At the start of 2004, with steadfast drummer Brad Morgan and new bassist Shonna Tucker, the Truckers were at the very peak of their form, the most poignant and powerful they’d ever be at once.
For the Truckers, The Dirty South is the social geographic region of places, people, and attitudes that have shaped so much of their work. Though the band was inspired by the storytelling acumen of Southern hip-hop and sounds that rose from historically Black blues, their constellation of characters is largely white.“They understand that they lack the expertise to inhabit the voice of Black characters,” Stephen Deusner writes in his history of the band, Where The Devil Don’t Stay, “or speak to that experience because they have not lived close enough to it.”
They have lived close enough to poor white grievance, however, to nail its substance, spirit, and sound, even when they don’t agree with its finer points. In The Dirty South, wonder and ambition get you sucked out of a small-town auditorium by a twister, as on Hood’s “Tornadoes,” or warp you into a sad sack set on self-destruction, as on Isbell’s “Danko / Manuel.” If the martyrdom of “The Day John Henry Died” represented a victory of human willpower, it also signaled the eventual dehumanization and disappearance of blue-collar jobs. On Hood’s “Goode’s Field Road,” a narrator decides to get himself killed just to feed his family with insurance money; Hood even considers throwing himself off “Lookout Mountain” to escape creditors and tax collectors. The heart-rending closer “Goddamn Lonely Love” is the farewell transmission, one last sigh when there’s nothing left to do or say. If life is only about working hard enough to survive, the Truckers collectively reason, why bother with either?
But they sing for the survivalists, too, the hustlers who sell whatever part of their soul is required to keep up the fight. That is the essence, after all, of the songs about Buford Pusser and all the Southern outlaws that defied him. The Truckers have long and lovingly called such folks “Heathens,” even giving them a theme song by that name on Decoration Day. They are simply trying to exist, even when that means killing someone to do so. It’s the firefighter who gets paid to set car dealerships aflame or the deep-woods scion begging “the ATF and the ABI” to fuck around and find out. And it’s the Walmart employee of the masterful “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” looking back at his life as an outlaw and tripping over an existential crisis therein. Those old days offered the kind of living that might have killed him fast, but this new existence just means slowly dying without too much living at all. “I could clothe and feed my family,” Hood sings of those dangerous days, his voice cracking like a desiccated patch of red clay. “Still have time to love my pretty wife.”
For all the pains and struggles that radiate through The Dirty South, there is joy here, too, a feeling that this updated set bolsters. It was always there, of course, especially in Cooley’s songs. Yes, “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” is a Southern noir scene of class conflict and hypocrisy, but the narrator’s dad plays stump-top poker as he mans his backwoods moonshine still. There are worse ways to live, let alone die.
Previously relegated to a B-sides compendium, the linchpin here is Isbell’s “TVA,” an ode to the simple pleasures of the very complicated Tennessee Valley Authority and the 49 dams it uses to power the South and manage its waterways. The massive federal project destroyed ecosystems and small settlements, a Truckers subject long before Isbell even joined. Isbell nods to these problems, but he focuses on the little personal wonders he found atop Wilson Dam, the massive neoclassical beauty near the Truckers’ Muscle Shoals homeland. He fishes as a kid from the top with his raconteur father, gets to second base at 15 atop its locks, and then realizes as an adult his ancestors may never have endured the Great Depression without its existence.
From Pusser’s assassination to the insurance men investigating the clandestine suicide of “Goode’s Field Road,” The Dirty South ripples with anti-authority rhetoric. “TVA,” however, refuses to look FDR’s gift horse in the mouth by finding at least some happiness in what you’ve got. As his acoustic shuffles and the pedal steel sighs, Isbell’s hangdog tone is less about glory than whatever contentment he can muster. The Truckers have made a career articulating the assorted “dualities of the Southern thing.” A government gift that also ruined lives, Wilson Dam is both gift and curse, the duality encapsulated by 1.3 million cubic yards of concrete.
Back in 2004, the domain of The Dirty South might have felt mythical and far-off, its cast of outlaws, pariahs, and survivalists all part of some distant land that surely didn’t exist amid the digital promise of the glittering 21st century. The Drive-By Truckers sang of a fractious but quaint past, fading into the rearview of the future. American anxiety during those Bush-Cheney years hinged on outside peril, not the scorn festering in our national backyard. We know better now: The pernicious resentment and fear of poor if privileged whites have become dominant political themes of the last decade, an essential raw ingredient for the rise of Donald Trump and associates. In their way, the Truckers—some old enough to remember when Pusser died, others old enough only to have seen his scorched Corvette in a museum—called it.
“Motherfucker in the White House said a change was comin’ round,” Hood sings late into “Puttin’ People on the Moon.” “But I’m workin’ at the Walmart, Mary Alice in the ground.” It’s a perfect post-industrial American jeremiad, reducing the wages of Reaganomics, government bloat, and private healthcare cruelty into five irascible minutes. Like The Dirty South as a whole, it has aged tragically well, as the vein of rage it exposed with such clarity has come into full public view. The Drive-By Truckers didn’t invent these woes, of course, and their progressive politics have long since suggested they don’t believe in many of them. But few other American rock bands, Southern or otherwise, have better sounded the alarm bells of its own region than the Truckers did on these 17 songs.
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