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Making A 'Big To-Do' About Life's Important Things

If you broke down the techniques employed by the Drive-By Truckers — formed in the late '90s in Athens, Ga., by guitarists and singer-songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley — the band's music shouldn't really work well at all. Their signature sound consists of massed guitars, drums and keyboards that owe a lot to '70s hard-rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band and Black Oak Arkansas. The vocals wouldn't sound the way they do had Bob Dylan or The Band not existed. The lyrics tend toward fiction, stories, the kind of stuff that usually works better on the printed page. But put them together with the kind of pitiless precision and gleeful tendency to turn every downer into a musical rave-up, and you've got their new album The Big To-Do, yet another entry in what has become a really impressive body of work.

Patterson Hood's latest addition to the murder-ballad tradition is "The Wig He Made Her Wear." It's the story of a small-town preacher shot dead by his wife because of the humiliating sexual peccadilloes he foisted upon her over many years. The rumbling music behind Hood's folksy recitation of degradation carries all the foreboding and menace. The tension between Hood's calm detailing and the craggy guitar lines transform the song into a crime novel. At other times on this album, guitarist Cooley relieves Hood with a slightly lighter bit of boogie-inflected country rock that is really only chipper until you listen closely to the words.

The Drive-By Truckers are chroniclers of smallness: small-town life, lives crushed by small tragedies or rewarded by small kindnesses, kindness closed off by failures that go unnoticed by anyone except the people involved. On one song called "It's Gonna Be I Told You So," the band sets a small argument — the way one person in a squabble needs to have the other person acknowledge that he or she is right — against a soaring rush of melody.

Ultimately, the Drive-By Truckers are doing something that's common on certain TV shows and in many independent films but increasingly rare in pop music: celebrating losers, people in trouble, people who feel trapped. That such subjects used to be more prevalent in music is one reason why the Truckers can sound like throwbacks. It's also what makes them sound so head-clearingly refreshing. They do it by making a big to-do about small but important things in life.

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Transcript

DAVID DAVIES, host:

Drive-By Truckers is a band formed in the late '90s in Athens, Georgia by guitarists and singer-songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. They had a critical success with the band's 2001 release, "Southern Rock Opera," which suggested their ambition and a penchant for narrative detail.

Rock critic Ken Tucker says the band's new album, called "The Big To-Do," is well-named.

(Soundbite of song "This [Expletive Deleted] Job")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) Working this job is a kick in the pants, working this job is like a knife in the back. It ain't getting me further from the dump I live in; it ain't getting me further than the next paycheck. Working this job...

Mr. KEN TUCKER (Entertainment Weekly): If you broke down the techniques employed by Drive-By Truckers, the band's music really shouldn't work well at all. Their signature sound consists of mass guitars, drums and keyboards that owe a lot to '70s hard rock bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band, and Black Oak Arkansas.

The vocals wouldn't sound the way they do had Bob Dylan or The Band not existed. The lyrics tend toward fiction, stories, the kind of stuff that usually works better on the printed page. Yet put them together with a kind of pitiless precision and gleeful tendency to turn every downer into a music rave-up, and you've got yet another entry in what has become a really impressive body of work.

(Soundbite of song "The Wig He Made Her Wear")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) It was as open and shut as anything I have seen He was a pillar of town; his reputation was clean. It was right before Easter in the first week of spring. He didnt show up for service that Wednesday night The congregation knew something werent right Blood on the bed when they opened the door The preacher was dead on the bedroom floor And everyone knew there had to be some outside thing that made this happen. Because they seemed like the perfect family...

TUCKER: That's from "The Wig He Made Her Wear," Patterson Hood's latest addition to the murder ballad tradition, updated to include Amber alerts. It's the story of a small-town preacher shot dead by his wife because of the humiliating sexual peccadilloes he foisted upon her over a long period of time. The rumbling music behind the folksy recitation of degradation carries all of the foreboding and menace.

The tension between Hood's calm detailing and the craggy guitar lines transform the song into a crime novel. At other times on this album, guitarist Mike Cooley relieves Hood with a slightly lighter bit of boogie-inflected country rock that's really only chipper until you listen closely to the words.

(Soundbite of song "Get Downtown")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) Kim said, Jimmy, you better get yourself up off of that raggedy couch. I'm too pretty to work and I'm tired of you uglying up my house. Jimmy said baby, the guys at the top are doing bad as the guys on the street. Kim said the guys at the top ain't about to be paying alimony to me. Said go downtown, see what you can find, put your face in someones that aint mine. Looks like them unemployment blues are wearing out your house shoes. Baby left when your boots came untied.

TUCKER: Drive-By Truckers are chroniclers of smallness: small-town life, lives crushed by small tragedies or rewarded by small kindnesses, kindness closed off by failures that go unnoticed by anyone except the people involved. On this song, called "It's Gonna Be I Told You So," the band sets a small argument - the way one person in a squabble needs to have the other person acknowledge that he or she is right - against a soaring rush of melody.

(Soundbite of song "(It's Gonna Be) I Told You So")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) I don't even like the way it sounds but one day it's gonna be I told you so. I'm expecting that you're gonna be down. One day it's gonna be I told you so. One day it's gonna be I told you so. One day it's gonna be I told. You never listen to a word I say. One day it's gonna be I told you so. I told you something then you kicked me in the head. One day it's gonna be I told you so. One day it's gonna be I told you so. One day it's gonna be I told...

TUCKER: Ultimately, Drive-By Truckers are doing something common on certain TV shows and many independent films but is increasingly rare in pop music: celebrating losers, people in trouble, people who feel trapped. That such subjects used to be more prevalent in music is one reason why the Truckers can sound like throwbacks. It's also what makes them sound so head-clearingly refreshing. They do it by making a big to-do about small but crucial things in life.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed "The Big To-Do" by Drive-By Truckers.

(Soundbite of song "Daddy Learned To Fly") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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