Drive-By Truckers American Band

[ATO; 2016]

Styles: national/self-orientation, border deconstruction, means
Others: Bruce Springsteen, Mark Twain, Hillbilly Elegy

It all started with the border:

In 1931, in Laredo, in Texas: Harlon Carter, 17, American, shot and killed Ramón Casiano, 15, Mexican. A murder conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Appeals and Harlon Carter lived another 60 years, set 44 US sharp-shooting records, served on Truman’s Migratory Labor Commission, sat on a US Olympic Committee, became a border agent, a Federal law-enforcement official, Executive V.P. of the National Rifle Association. His words: “several million illegal aliens and hundreds of thousands of criminals have been arrested by officers under my supervision, among them murderers, narcotics, smugglers, etcetera.” Ramón Casiano 15, Mexican, is dead, et cetera.

America’s et cetera starts with borders and frontiers, the departing disembarking of becoming American in America (Patterson Hood: “Eyes cut to the future, hearts tied to the past.”) We othered ourselves out of England, squirmed between bows and sterns on Mayflowers and Susan Constants on the unmapped, un-edged Atlantic. We smashed out head on Plymouth, our buckled blood cousins the first aliens to cross state lines. We montaged lumber and stone into a Jamestown Settlement, an Alamo; the new earth was there to be countried (Hood: “Outside my mind I wander freely past the rocky shore/ Waves crash against the banks where Lewis and Clark explored”), and the country was there to be divided. Without a history and barely American, our borders gave us a body, helped us define our selves in a wilderness that kept trying to flush us out. America wasn’t self-evident (Mike Cooley: “If it’s all that you remember/ Then it’s been that way forever”) so we could self-define as a united states, separate but unified. But self-definition gets exclusive and separateness gets exclusionary (Robert Frost: “Before I built a wall/ I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out”); borders are definers, but borders are designators. With borders, America means what’s inside it. America means what’s outside it can’t be what’s inside it.

American Band (Grand Funk Railroad: “We’re an American Band/ Woo-hoo”) means the 11th album by American band Drive-By Truckers, means an 11-song atomization and anatomization of what it is and what it means. And like a good Capote couplet, it’s swamped below the border and starts with a gun shot: “It all started with the border and that’s still where it is today/ Someone killed Ramón Casiano and the killer got away.” Mike Cooley, one half of the Truckers’ V2 self-investigation, bends barbed border-fence into America until it punctures on “Ramón Casiano,” the southern rock hurled as national indictment. “He had the makings of a leader of a certain kind of men/ Who need to feel the world’s against him, out to get him if it can” Cooley drawls about Harlon Carter, the man from our history who hid behind borders and country and the N.R.A., “United in a revolution/ Like in mind and like in skin.” Like Capote, Cooley lets the facts and the pop hooks do the moralizing. All he has to do is lay it out there: “someone killed Ramón Casiano/ And Ramón still ain’t dead enough.”

There is a narrative to American Band, a mapping of the matter of means: what is the American artifact and how did we get here? After blood on the border, it’s the colors we raise up and why: “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn,” downward-titled guitars, desire to move beyond old American flags (“We should light out for the trees or the great beyond/ Light out for the love of thee we build our lives upon”) and “Surrender Under Protest,” the re-invocation of the Appomattox contradiction: the war ended and nobody stopped fighting (“If the victims and aggressors/ Just remain each others others/ And the instigators never fight their own/ Compelled, but not defeated”). It’s with a rethreading of two old flags that American Band clarions the separate-united art of Drive-By Truckers. Dual-voices, a head and a heart for an ailing body in two parts: Cooley’s songs are dispassionately attached removes, Hood’s an art of passion unattached but hot. Taken together, it’s American Band’s fractured thesis: America holds endless promise; America exists in crisis. Flags are just the beginning. Flags have to be the end.

Things fall apart. Guns go off below borders, in churches and in schools; bullets rip kids and army vets scraping out livings teaching college courses. “Guns of Umpqua” is short fiction horror from that veteran’s point of view, a memory of “the coffee surge through morning veins from half an hour ago” colliding with “shots and screams from the hallway.” It’s the American lockdown, the problem of self-definition: can we be better than how we’re being even when “We’re all standing in the shadows of our noblest intentions of something more/ Than being shot in a classroom in Oregon”? We bar our classrooms doors, seek safety behind borders, but depression is heavy: “I’ll be better when the sun don’t shine/ I like it better when the sun don’t shine.

American Band almost lands in oblivion. It starts with American injustice and ends with “Baggage,” a sprawling of history of depressions , both Patterson Hood’s (“I’ve had my own depression since I was just a kid”) and Robin Williams’s (“I was listening to the radio when they said that you were gone”). America’s depression, that “Sun Don’t Shine” thing, unfurls in the wormy centerpiece, “What It Means,” which is at its most incisive when it sits the least still. The grammar of American Band is frantic, barely fit for sentences: “What it Means” is grounded in Ferguson (“In some town in Missouri, but it could be anywhere/ It could be right here on Ruth St., in fact it’s happened here”), but achieves horror in endlessness: “And it happened where you’re sitting, wherever that might be/ And it happened last weekend, and it will happen again next week.” It keeps happening, the retching it of “Ramón Casiano” and “Guns of Umpqua.” It keeps the lines on “Surrender Under Protest” from ever resolving into full sentences, (“No sooner was it over/ Than the memory made it nobler”), and it keeps a chorus from being a question: there’s a sharp line between “what’s it mean?” and “what it means.” The former imagines a solution. The latter resigns a reality.

American Band is a state of dis-union, country music consigned to a country bordering on bleeding out. It’s not definitive: no trauma is resolved by being resolutely depressive or hopeful (“The outer edges move and dazzle us/ But the core is something rotten.”). Drive-By Truckers are prepared to dip into the rivers of the country (“Tossing off the baggage that is pulling down on me/ Toss it in the river and be free”), fishing for folk songs, hoisting up the rotten bodies that we all left floating. You don’t get baptized without the silt of the river; America is self-defined, but there’s no partial identity. The faith of Drive-By Truckers is in good folk, the songs and the people: “Filthy and Fried” is fathers and daughters, the matter of a family’s means, “It’s what alive feels like.” The dual soul of American Band is too southern voices ingrained in the South as mythology and reality, a committed attachment to, a reviled recoiling from. It’s restless and relentless self-orientation on “Ever-South,” a flipping of otherness, where ever something means never not: “Expanding our horizons to some distant shore/ Where everyone takes notice of the drawl that leaves our mouth/ So that no matter where we are we’re ever south.” Southern soul means everything, separate but united: you don’t get Wise Blood without the 16th St. Baptist Church Bombing, no Muscle Shoals without a KKK. Every easy consonant of every chorus on American Band recognizes the potential for ridicule and posturing: this is the white Southern instrument sounding stories of racial violence: where is there room for Southern rock’s Trayvon Martin verse? The head of Drive-By Truckers is submerged in good songwriting, the heart in the stories of people. The American crisis needs accomplices and action, not allies and postures.

American Band won’t transform our American landscape; good country music can’t heal a national soul. But an art of humanity and a faith in being better to each other can help redefine America. We self-define (Huckleberry Finn: “It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’”). American Band sends Southern soul to hell and back; Drive-By Truckers urge and sweat a better American et cetera. We are bigger than our borders.

In 2010, Jesus Mesa, American and a Border Patrol Agent, shot and killed Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, 15 and Mexican. The bullet left a gun barrel from El Paso, split a skull in Juarez. Between the barrel and the skull was the Rio Grande, the unfenced rock bed and wade of the US-Mexico border. Mexican authorities convicted Jesus Mesa of murder and US authorities refused to extradite him, even after Sergio’s parents brought the case to the Supreme Court in September of 2016. Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca is dead. Et cetera.

And that’s still where it is today.

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