The New OK
One of America’s most important rock bands, Drive-by Truckers (DBTs), delivered an inspired, ferocious, and angry at times performance in Philadelphia the day after the 2016 Election. Their performance was as one would have expected. Yet, the collective vibe both onstage in the audience was collective release from the shocking numbness still felt by the election result. As such, the anger rarely reached a boiling pitch. Among the memorable moments was near the concert’s end when the band inevitably broke out the tequila bottle to share on stage. As the bottle found its way to the audience, Patterson Hood exclaimed derogatorily, “What are we drinking to, white supremacy?” So, on the heels of Trump’s “Stand back, Stand By” we have the sequel to the scathing The Unraveling released this past January with the most timely The New OK. The well-worn phrase of “new normal” now has a terminology companion.
Keep in mind that The Unraveling was supposed to be the foundation for an extensive Spring/Summer…maybe even Fall tour leading up to this next election, now only a month away. COVID-10 changed everything. The band, now with its longest-running continuing lineup in its tenure, is a fine-tuned but still primal roaring machine that backs the literate writing of co-leaders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, mostly Hood again as it was with the January release. While The Unraveling marked their longest gap between albums, The New OK surely marks the shortest.
Here’s Hood, “To call these past few months trying would be a dramatic understatement. Our lives are intertwined with our work in ways that give us our best songs and performances. It is a life that has often rewarded us beyond our wildest dreams. Speaking for myself, I don’t have hobbies, I have this thing I do. To be sidelined with a brand new album and have to sit idly while so much that I love and hold dear falls apart before my very eyes has been intense, heartbreaking, anger provoking and very depressing. It has gone to the very heart of our livelihoods and threatened near everything that we have spent our lives trying to build… I know I’m lucky and should be counting my blessings for so many have it far worse than me. For that I feel some degree of shame and guilt, which makes me angrier and more depressed…
Concerned people that I love frequently ask me how I’m doing. I would respond that “I’m OK…The New OK”.
One byproduct of the pandemic for musicians is something they are not used to – free time. That affords them opportunities to review past work to keep generating product. In studio recording for most has become challenging so individual remote recordings need to be assembled and properly mixed. Some of the older material likely needs touch-up and new mixes as well. The DBTs are fortunate to have their two-decades-running producer David Barbe, who is more than capable of tackling these challenges. The original idea was to issue an EP of tracks left over from the Memphis sessions that produced The Unraveling but the summer of protests, pandemic conditions, and general unrest proved to be fodder for new songs and some older ones that fit. The overriding idea was to balance the dark of our current situation, chronicled both here and in searing detail on the previous effort, with an overring hope that a better future lies ahead.
The opening title track, released as a single was written the during the heat of federal occupation in Patterson Hood’s adopted hometown on Portland, OR. Here’s the last verse – It’s 11:29 and the shit comes down/Shooting volleys from behind the fence/Smashing medics and the once free press/It gets bloody and it gets messy/Goons with guns coming out to play/It’s a battle for the very soul of the USA/It’s the new OK”. The keyboard-driven “Tough to Let Go” is an interesting one that Hood says came to him in a dream and he had to check himself because Jason Isbell was singing it in the dream. Jason confirmed that it was indeed Hood’s song and that he felt it was the best song of the Memphis sessions, including those that spawned this album’s predecessors. In true Memphis fashion, horns imbue the track.
Hood took a page out of Led Zeppelin’s book (“Houses of the Holy”) by not including the title track, written a few years ago, on the previous album but instead placing it on this one. Hood co-wrote the song with bassist Matt Patton who sings it. Here is the middle verse – “The gears you grind are mired and stiff /You drive that car right off that cliff/Shift your hip as the music plods/ Burned your bridges, throw your rods/No matter how you break it down/ Your friends all scatter when the shit comes down/The unraveling is happening Whole world coming apart at the seams.”
“The Perilous Night’ is a remix of a single released in 2017 and was begun the day Trump was elected and was completed the week after the Charlottesville murder of Heather Heyer. We all know what Trump said that day. The backup singers here are referred to as “The Staples Singers of the North Mississippi Hill Country” and are the three daughters of the Rev. John Wilkins, son the famous Rev. Robert Wilkins, who released his new album last month. They are Tangela Longstreet, Joyce Jones and Tawana Cunningham.
“Sarah’s Flame” seems to be the only Cooley solo write, which he did in early 2019. You may be wondering about the reference to Sarah. Here’s some help. “Sea Island Lonely” is another from the Memphis sessions where horns were added. “The Distance” dates to 2011 and the English Oceans sessions that was culled out as not fitting with the theme of that album. Hood describes it as a sequel to “Let There Be Rock.” Another new song is “Watching the Orange Clouds,” written the weekend after George Floyd’s murder. Here’s the last full verse, attempting to point forward – “Sure wish I could get some sleep/ Just didn’t realize this bottom is so damned deep/Hoping one day we’ll rise and move onto some better place We can look back on nightmares of this endless spring Watching the orange clouds.” Finally, at producer Barbe’s suggestion, they included the one cover, a version of the Ramones’ classic “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” as, of course, it fits with the politically fueled themes.
The Drive-by Truckers are and continue to be Mike Cooley (guitar/vocals), Patterson Hood (guitar/vocals), Brad Morgan (drums), Jay Gonzalez (‘Secret Weapon”) (guitars, keyboards, vocals) and Matt Patton (bass, vocals). Additional horns on select tracks include some of the best Memphis session players – Marc Franklin (trumpet), Kirk Smothers (baritone sax) Victor Sawyer (trombone), and Lannie McMillan (tenor sax). Parts of the album were recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis with longtime producer David Barbe and in-demand producer Matt Ross-Spang. Additional mixing took place in Portland, Athens, GA, and Water Valley, MS.
Play this loud, back to back with its predecessor just as they are likely to do whenever live touring resumes. Hopefully, those shows will be more celebratory in nature. For now, this will have to suffice as Hood would say, “The Next Rock Show.” The album is available now digitally and will be available physically on Friday, December 18.
- Jim Hynes