For a greater part of this decade, these guys have been one of the few American bands that can truly be called great. On their latest effort — a sprawling 19-song disc, nostalgically divided into four sides (and their first without key member Jason Isbell) — the Truckers retrieve the muse that was sadly missing from 2006's A Blessing and a Curse. Part of this renewal is due to Isbell's ex, bassist Shonna Tucker taking her first forays into songwriting on a DBT album. Tucker's sweet voice adds a very country aspect to a band whose music has always been comfortable veering all over the rock 'n' roll map. Her shining moment is "The Purgatory Line," featuring vocals not that far removed from a young Dolly Parton.
As usual, however, founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley split the bulk of the songs as they nicely complement each other. Hood's contributions are especially good on such tracks as "That Man I Shot," "The Home Front," (a haunting song told from the perspective of the wife of an Iraq War soldier), "The Righteous Path" and the truly bizarre "You and Your Crystal Meth." Cooley's "Bob," "Lisa's Birthday," and "Self Destructive Zones" are also exceptional compositions.
Isbell is, of course, greatly missed. Compensation comes, though, in the return of John Neff, one of the founding members of DBT Mach I, who contributes a wonderful pedal steel sound throughout the record, as well as special guest, legendary Muscle Shoals organist Spooner Oldham. Both help to nicely fill out the band's sound.
Overall, this is a welcome return to form for the Truckers. But as good as their records are, this is one of a very small handful of modern groups that needs to be seen live to get the full aural experience. Three-hour sets are not at all uncommon for them, and you can hear literally hundreds of them online by searching "Drive-By Truckers" at the band-approved archive.org site. And if that doesn't make you a true believer, then nothing will.
Mike Villano writes about music for Metro Times. Send commentst to firstname.lastname@example.org.