An official “Essentials” album from bare-knuckled Athens rockers The Drive-By Truckers is probably still several years away. After releasing seven long players, though — the latest being A Blessing And A Curse (New West) — vocalist/guitarists Patterson Hood, guitarists Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell, drummer Brad Morgan, bassist Shonna Tucker, and pedal steel man John Neff have accumulated enough fan favorites, anthems, and deep cuts to comprise an anthology. Here’s a couple of must-includes if such a collection ever does come about:
“Bulldozers and Dirt” (Pizza Deliverance, 1999) — One of the first and most enduring live DBT singalongs about some of life’s finer, louder and, dirtier pleasures.
“Birmingham” (Southern Rock Opera, 2001) — A darker view of the big ‘Bama city than painted in the Randy Newman Good Ol’ Boys cut of the same name set to a much darker tone of dropped tunings and an especially eerie refrain.
“Zip City” (Southern Rock Opera, 2001) — A warts ‘n’ all tale of underage lust and small-town politics. From the deacon father whose dirty secrets are wrapped tightly in Reynolds Wrap to the sharp description of the sticky situation itself, it’s one of the most vivid songwriting contributions to flow yet from Mike Cooley’s pen.
“Outfit” (from Decoration Day, 2003) — A real weeper written by Jason Isbell and inspired by words from his own father. Few songs that attempt to paint a picture of blue-collar family ties in the American South are as spot-on as this one.
“Tornadoes” (The Dirty South, 2004) — Hood’s eerie description of approaching Alabama-bound twisters. “It sounded like a train,” say both the narrator and victims of the storms, but the song sounds an awful lot like a full-steam-ahead locomotive itself.
“Heathens” (Decoration Day, 2003) –This would-be title track from 2003’s Decoration Day centers on Hood’s always gnarly description of wild youth and includes some great triple axe interplay among Hood, Cooley and Neff.
“Love Like This” (Pizza Deliverance, 1999) — A wobbly, red-eyed country tune that falls waste to crushing guitars and Cooley’s up-all-night croak.
“Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” (The Dirty South, 2004) — The story of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips’ most unaccommodating repayment plan that included awarding gold record earner Carl Perkins a brand new Caddy in exchange, of course, for a plentiful piece of royalty pie.
“Gravity’s Gone,” “Aftermath USA” (A Blessing and A Curse, 2006) — Two recent unflinching documents of lingering memories and how hard it is to leave them be.
“People Who Died” (Alabama Ass Whuppin’, 1999) — Cooley and Hood have played this Jim Carroll Band post-punk adrenaline rush since high school.
“Buttholeville/Steve McQueen” (Alabama Ass Whuppin’, 1999) — This often guest vocalist-inclusive medley from Hell has been a staple of Truckers set lists long before the Southern Rock Opera hype. The Ass Whuppin’ version also contains a brief homage to that album’s partial inspiration with a slice of Skynyrd’s “Gimme Three Steps” thrown in for shits ‘n’ giggles.
“Sandwiches For the Road” (Gangstabilly, 1998) — A simple ode to broke-down vans, spoiled sandwiches, and the late Alabama guitar-pummeling soul man Eddie Hinton. Though they make the rounds via tour bus these days, it’s still an undoubtedly quintessential and piece of DBT history.