At last year’s Country Music Awards — an event long famous for gaudy outfits, oversized cowboy hats, and ever-escalating displays of mindless patriotism — Sturgill Simpson made news for busking outside the Nashville gathering and telling anyone who would listen that “Donald Trump is a fascist fucking pig.”
That Simpson was able to perform that act without being physically accosted — a low bar, undeniably — is a testament to how outsider voices are increasingly more tolerated in the insular and conservative world of country music. Acts such as Simpson, Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, and Miranda Lambert have been loath to regurgitate the company line preached by the genre’s standard-bearers.
While country music has always had its brand of anti-establishment figures (a legacy that includes Townes Van Zandt, Merle Haggard, and the genre’s pioneer, Hank Williams) this latest cadre of interlopers seem to trace their lineage to one group in particular — Drive-By Truckers.
To be clear: Drive-By Truckers are definitely not a country band. They are much closer to Americana, roots-rock, or even post-punk groups than they are to Toby Keith. But they are a band with proud Southern roots — and strong Southern drawls — and for more than 20 years, they have been uprooting tradition with their penchant for championing progressive, left-leaning messages.
“I think we deservedly have a place in that story arc,” says Patterson Hood, a co-founder of Drive-By Truckers, who play two shows at the Great American Music Hall on Feb. 7-8, “But we’ve always kinda been outsiders, maybe a little more outside than the others.”
Hood and Mike Cooley started the band in 1996 in Athens, Ga., although both are originally from Alabama. (Hood’s father, David, was an engineer at the famed Muscle Shoals recording studio.) The Truckers’ first two albums were uproarious Southern Rock affairs that gained notice mostly for their irreverent approaches to countrified-sounds. The band hit its stride with the 2001 release of Southern Rock Opera, an ambitious double album that examined the experience of growing up in the South (with many of the tracks containing references to Lynyrd Skynyrd).
The album’s mocking of sacred cows like college football and its frank assessment of racism, segregation, poverty, and the ills of capitalism came as a shock to many listeners. It also posed the essential question that has come to define the group: How do you pay homage to a home that you love while also acknowledging its many woes? In the years since, Hood and company have fearlessly tackled the “duality of the Southern Thing” — to quote one of Hood’s songs — while trying to convey the complex machinations of their homeland to outsiders.
“We write what we feel and do what we want to do,” Hood says. “If it pleases a bunch of people, all the better, but we’ve never pandered to anyone. If we worried about what other people would think, we would never have done Southern Rock Opera. Everyone told us we were gonna destroy our fanbase with that one, and it ended up being the record that put us on the map nationally and internationally.”
In recent times, Hood and company have become even more strident politically, and their latest album, American Band, is perhaps their most bold statement to date. The 2016 release is a raging indictment of modern-day conservatism, offering scathing criticism of reckless gun laws and sympathy toward the Black Lives Matter movement — positions that are verboten among many white Southern voters.
The group followed with the single, “The Perilous Night,” an angry screed that did not try to hide its intention behind creative license or opaque imagery. (Sample lyric: “Fascism’s knocking and Trump says, ‘Let them in.’ ”)
Hood says the group is working on new material, likely to be released in 2019, that focuses less on the dreary state of politics — “mortality and family” seem to be where his head is at, he says — as the trail blazed by the Truckers has allowed others to fill that void.
Isbell, who played in the Truckers from 2001-07, has been one of the most outspoken critics of the constraints Southern musicians face. His 2017 release, The Nashville Sound, recorded with the backing group The 400 Unit, was nominated for Album of the Year at the Country Music Awards. (Stapleton ended up taking home the top honor.)
Hood, who has a distinct, gravelly voice that makes him sound wise beyond his years, views the legacy of the Truckers with mixed feelings. Their influences go well beyond Lynyrd Skynyrd and .38 Special, and the band never intended to be a standard-bearer for anyone.
“Southern Rock Opera pigeonholed us as this ‘Southern rock’ band,” Hood says, “which we always have hated, and I still feel like has been a double-edged sword a lot of the time.”
Hood and the Truckers may be reluctant voices for Dixie, but they’re the ones we need right now. Donald Trump’s ascendancy has given renewed credence to the misbegotten nostalgia related to the South — inducing false arguments such as the “heritage, not hate” explanation for the Confederate flag. The Drive-By Truckers don’t peddle that mythology. They deal solely in the truth.
Drive-By Truckers, Wednesday and Thursday, Feb. 7-8, 8 p.m., at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O’Farrell St. $31-$51; slimpresents.com.