For longer than most bands have been nursing calluses on their fingers, the Drive-By Truckers have spun strange yarns about the modern South. The centerpiece of their latest album, The Big To-Do, is "The Wig He Made Her Wear," a true-crime saga that might just be the quintessential Truckers song. It's straightforward on the surface, yet, much like the region the band evokes, squirrelly and smarter than you might expect underneath.
The song is set in Selmer, Tenn., a small town about 90 miles east of Memphis. Selmer is the old stamping grounds of Buford T. Pusser, a legendary sheriff and subject of three Walking Tall movies in the '70s (plus one '04 remake set in Washington state) and a three-song suite by the Truckers on 2005's The Dirty South. More recently, the town hosted one of the most confounding domestic crimes in recent memory. In March 2006, a young pastor named Matthew Winkler was found dead on his bedroom floor, shot in the back at close range. His wife, Mary, and their three young daughters were missing. The crime startled the town, which knew him as an amiable family man; eventually, it came out that Mary had shot him during an argument over money and fled with the kids to the Gulf Coast.
On "The Wig He Made Her Wear," Truckers co-frontman Patterson Hood relates this grisly tale with a subdued melody that has no use for a chorus and lyrics that are surprisingly literal, as if he's sharing lunchtime gossip over slugburgers at Pat's Cafe. More than just a convincing summation of facts, the song offers a moment of true Southern storytelling. As it proceeds, it becomes wilder, darker, and more outrageous, just like the Winkler trial. While the band hammers out a tense kudzu-noir soundtrack, Hood explains that Matthew "made her dress real slutty before they had sex," describing, in a careful deadpan, the moment when Mary's defense attorney plunked the platinum-blond wig and hooker heels on the witness box. She gets a suspended sentence — time served and her kids back. Savoring your shock and stealing a fry off your plate, Hood asks, Can you believe it?
The point of all this is that he's not making it up. The Truckers have persistently pursued true stories on all their albums, seeing the world through the eyes of people just trying to get by, whether it's a friend who committed suicide, a family member who jilted his fiancée, or Redneck Underground musician Gregory Dean Smalley playing as many shows as he could before he died of AIDS. Their songs are a form of creative nonfiction, a craft they most famously and elegantly displayed on their 2001 double album, Southern Rock Opera, which starred Lynyrd Skynyrd and former Alabama Governor George Wallace.
The true strength of the Truckers' music lies in its empathy. On "The Wig," Hood never takes a side. He's less concerned with Matthew's proclivities or Mary's crimes than with the small town they hid their secrets from. He gets the specifics right, just as he does throughout The Big To-Do, whether he's bingeing through "The Fourth Night of My Drinking" or listing the cities and coliseums where "The Flying Wallendas" soared toward their deaths.
It's significant that Hood is only one of three songwriters in the Truckers. Mike Cooley is more sparing with his details, but no less persuasive. His best songs here bristle with local particulars. "Birthday Boy" adopts a stripper's point of view without sounding patronizing or salacious, while on "Get Downtown," he playacts the bickering between a woman and her shiftless, jobless husband. And though bassist Shonna Tucker may not share Hood or Cooley's lyrical vision, she proves a much more stylistically sophisticated composer, dotting her two songs with hints of Detroit girl groups and placeless noise.
The South as the Truckers document and reimagine it can't be explained away with easy stereotypes, but rather emerges at the intersection of these multiple perspectives and musical sensibilities. So order a couple more slugburgers and settle in. The Truckers have a lot more stories to tell.