Duality of the Southern Thing: The Left-Wing Populism of the Drive-By Truckers

Taking on religion and gun culture wouldn’t be an option for most southern rock bands. But with their new single “Thoughts and Prayers,” Drive-By Truckers once again show that they’re not the average southern rock band.

Drive-By is one of the best bands in America. They’re also one of the most political. For a while, the group—currently numbering five players, with Alabama-born Patterson Hood and Mike Colley being the founding members—was content to make compelling alt-country music. A famously hard-living, hard-touring band, they write songs that comment on the struggles of 21st century Americans. The Unraveling, slated for release January 31, promises to be a political assault on the Trump era. In making their music and formulating their politics, the Truckers have drawn on a long tradition of southern populism.
On their last album, American Band, the Truckers tackled political issues ranging from gun control to xenophobia, Confederate flag culture and police shootings. Recording The Unraveling, frontman and chief songwriter Hood said the band wanted to step away from politics, but it didn’t really work out.

Back in the late-1990s, the Truckers, who got their start in north Alabama, were something like a Deep South version of the Beastie Boys, with early songs about Steve McQueen and Bill Clinton’s penis. That changed with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, released the day after the 9-11 attacks. The album was a howl from the early Bush era that examined the legacy of slavery, Skynyrd and George Wallace. Easy targets for ridicule, right? Despite that fact, the band approached men such as Wallace from two sides, what the band calls “the duality of the southern thing.” The Truckers concluded that Wallace was a hell-bound racist, but he started out a fairly progressive judge who ended his career by winning a majority of the black vote in Alabama.

Southern Rock Opera sold well and turned a good band into a great one. It branded them as postmodern southern rockers with an intellectual bent and a sharp social conscience. After Southern Rock Opera came two more classics: Decoration Day (a southern term for Memorial Day) and The Dirty South. Along with the murder ballads and twisted love stories, the Truckers kept issues of class firmly in their gaze. Even on their less political albums, they have lauded the working man.

The Truckers made their strongest political statement to date on their 2016 LP, American Band. The album was a departure in many ways, down to its black and white image of the U.S. flag on the cover (their first album cover to not feature original artwork). To further punctuate their message, while touring for American Band, the Truckers hung a “Black Lives Matter” banner from keyboardist Jay Gonzalez’s organ cabinet.

The daily absurdities of the Trump presidency fueled the band’s songwriting engine. The Truckers have always been populists in the best sense of the word—that is, a band that decries how politicians use race to divide the lower classes, who continue to suffer economic hardship at the hands of a disingenuous ruling class. The Truckers have never had a hit record, but have thrived by writing songs that progressives can relate to, especially those who are aware of leftwing southern protests that go beyond the historic civil rights movement.

Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh have been described as a populists. But in America, populism was not always the domain of right wing cranks. The term comes from a late 19th century movement among southern and mid-western farmers who were feeling squeezed in the uber-capitalist Gilded Age.

The original People’s Party, more commonly known as the Populists, was an amalgamation of early farmers’ group likes the Grangers, Farmers Alliance and the Knights of Labor. In a time of horrible racial violence in America, the Populists were a biracial coalition—though not always a harmonious one. The Populists advocated for things like the free coinage of silver (to create an inflationary economy to help debtors), government control of the railroads, a graduated income tax, direct election of U.S. Senators and something called the subtreasury, in essence, a storage system for grain so that farmers could set aside a crop until prices rose. Ultimately, the Populist platform was co-opted by the Democratic establishment. By the 20th century, the Populists were no more. “Populist” went from being a noun to an adjective—and often a sinister one.

Even so, populism survived. Huey Long, the governor and senator from Louisiana in the 1920s and ‘30s, was a populist who knew how to connect with voters. With his calls for “Every Man a King” and “Share the Wealth,” he was the first great southern socialist, He was also a corrupt autocrat who had no respect for the Louisiana constitution. Long was assassinated in 1935, but his brand of populism outlasted the Great Depression.

As the 20th century progressed, populism became more the dark dwelling place of right wing fanaticism. For all his faults, Huey Long never played the race card. Amid the civil rights movement, Alabama’s George Wallace and Arkansas’ Orval Faubus used race to divide white and black people. By the Reagan era, populism had found a home on AM talk radio.

Country music isn’t known for lefty politics. Sure, Johnny Cash advocated for Native Americans and prisoners, and Loretta Lynne sang about the pill (she’s now a Trump supporter). More often, though, country stars are less than progressive. Thankfully for the Truckers, they came of age in a period when country morphed into alt-country, a less commercial, more progressive brand of country music born of the post-grunge, neo-roots rock era. In the post-internet, post-Dixie Chicks landscape, alt-country artists have the freedom to say whatever they want politically, because they don’t have to worry about their opinions negatively affecting their record sales.

The Truckers have shown that in the 21st century, even in the reddest of red such as Georgia or Alabama, there are deep pockets of blue, usually in cities. The Truckers have a fanatically loyal following—a love that was returned in the pages of their recent (and hefty) book The Company We Keep. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are originally from north Alabama, but they first made a name for themselves in Athens, Georgia. Their fans there—dubbed “HeAthens”—supported the band as the Truckers became a nationally known act. The Truckers don’t play stadiums. You won’t see big name celebrities at shows. Tickets are usually $30 or less. Fans wear mesh baseball caps and flannel shirts. They have a tendency to be arty, drinky, thinky, white and progressive. They are probably more comfortable at a Patti Smith show than a NASCAR rally, more likely to drive a Corolla than a Tundra.

The Truckers’ politics are certainly left of center, and at times quite specific. The band’s 2017 song “The Perilous Night” referenced Charlottesville and Trump. But their political songs are more about protest than platforms, not so much about creating a plan of action as they are diagnosing the political cancer that is burning through America right now.

Like Johnny Cash before them, the Truckers have written many songs about the desperate and downtrodden, whether fast food workers, trailer trash, veterans, or violent criminals. Also like Cash, they are musicians obsessed with history, family and a sense of place. By focusing on the South, the Truckers have managed to tell a larger story about race and class in America.

While making music that continues to excite and provoke, the Truckers have kept alive left-wing populism. One can find the spirit they embody in politicians such as Bernie Sanders and AOC. Thankfully for the Truckers, their survival doesn’t depend on fickle voters. Whether or not their next album is one of their best, they have made their mark on the history of southern rock music. And protest, not pandering, is at the heart of their populism.