Drive-By Truckers – American Group | music review

It all started with the border:

In 1931, in Laredo, Texas: Harlon Carter, 17, American, shot dead Ramón Casiano, 15, Mexican. A murder conviction was overturned by the Texas Court of Appeals and Harlon Carter lived another 60 years, set 44 U.S. shooting records, served on Truman’s Migration Labor Commission, served on a committee Olympic Games, became a border agent, a federal law- enforcement official, executive vice president 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, including murderers, narcotics, smugglers, etc.”. Ramón Casiano 15 years old, Mexican, died, et cetera.

Et cetera of America begins with borders and frontiers, the departing landing of becoming American in America (Patterson Hood: “Eyes turned to the future, hearts tied to the past.“… May flowers and Susan’s constants over the uncharted and unbounded Atlantic. We crash landed on Plymouth, our curly blood cousins, the first aliens to cross state lines. We climbed wood and stone in a Jamestown Settlement, an Alamo; the new earth was there to be country (Hood: “Outside of my mind I roam free along the rocky shore / The waves crash against the shores where Lewis and Clark explored”), and the country was there to be divided. Without history and barely American, our borders gave us a body, helped us to define ourselves in a desert that kept flushing us out. America was not self-evident (Mike Cooley: “If that’s all you remember / Then it’s been like this forever”) so that we can define ourselves as a United States, separate but united. But the self-definition becomes exclusive and the separation becomes exclusive (Robert Frost: “Before I built a wall/I asked to know what I was walling up or what I was excluding”); boundaries are definitions, but boundaries are designators. With borders, America means what’s inside. America means what’s on the outside can’t be what’s on the inside.

American group (Great Funk Railroad: “We’re an American band / Woo-hoo”) signifies the 11th album by American band Drive-By Truckers, signifies an atomization of 11 songs and an anatomy of what it is and what it means. And like a good Capote couplet, it is submerged below the border and begins with a gunshot: “It all started with the border and it’s still where it is today/ Someone killed Ramón Casiano and the killer got away.Mike Cooley, one-half of the Truckers’ self-investigating V2, bends the barbed line in America until it breaks through on “Ramón Casiano,” the Southern rock launched as a national indictment. “He had the makings of a leader of a certain kind of men / Who need to feel the world against him, to have it if he can“Cooley talks about Harlon Carter, the man in our story who hid behind borders and country and the NRA,”United in a revolution / As in spirit and as in skin.“Like Capote, Cooley lets facts and pop hooks do the moralizing. All he has to do is expose it there: “someone killed Ramón Casiano/ And Ramón still ain’t dead enough.”

There is a story to American group, a mapping of the question of means: what is the American artifact and how did we get there? After the blood on the border, it is the colors that we hoist and why: “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn”, guitars with a descending title, a desire to go beyond the old American flags (“We should light up for the trees or the great beyond / Light up for the love of you that we build our lives on”) and “Surrender Under Protest”, the re-invocation of the contradiction of Appomattox: the war ended and no one stopped fighting (“If victims and aggressors / Remain each other / And the instigators never fight their own / Constrained, but not defeated”). It is with a rethreading of two old flags that American group clarifies the separate-united art of Drive-By Truckers. Two voices, one head and one heart for a sick two-part body: Cooley’s songs are unattached passion, Hood is unattached but warm passion art. Taken together it is American groupThe fractured thesis of: America is full of promise; America exists in crisis. Flags are just the start. Flags must be the end.

Things are falling apart. The shots explode under the borders, in the churches and in the schools; bullets rip through children and army veterans scratching lives teaching college courses. “Guns of Umpqua” is a short horror fiction from the point of view of this veteran, a memory of “the coffee has been gushing in the veins of the morning for half an hour“collide with”gunshots and shouts from the hallway.“It’s the American confinement, the problem of self-definition: can we be better than what we are even when”We’re all standing in the shadows of our noblest intentions for something greater/ Than to be shot in a classroom in Oregon”? We bar the doors of our classrooms, seek security behind the borders, but the depression is heavy: “I’ll be better when the sun won’t shine / I like it better when the sun doesn’t shine.

American group almost falls into oblivion. It begins with American injustice and ends with “Baggage,” a sprawling story of depressions, both from Patterson Hood (“I’ve had my own depression since I was just a kid”) and Robin Williams (“I was listening to the radio when they said you were gone”). America’s depression, that “Sun Don’t Shine” thing unfolds in the worm-eaten centerpiece, “What It Means,” which is at its most incisive when it’s least still. The grammar of American group is frenetic, barely suited to the phrases: “What it Mean” is based on Ferguson (“In a town in Missouri, but it could be anywhere / It could be here on Ruth St., it actually happened here”), but reaches horror in infinity: “And it happened where you’re sitting, wherever / And it happened last weekend, and it’ll happen again next week.“It keeps happening, the gagging of ‘Ramon Casiano’ and ‘Guns of Umpqua’. This prevents the lines of “Surrender Under Protest” from resolving into full sentences, (“No sooner was it over / Than the memory made it nobler“), and that keeps a chorus from being a question: there’s a sharp line between “what does it mean?” and “what does it mean”. The former imagines a solution. The latter resigns of a reality.

American group is a state of disunity, country music relegated to a country on the verge of bleeding. It is not final: no trauma is resolved by being resolutely depressed or hopeful (“The outer edges move and dazzle us/ But the core is something rotten.”). Drive-By Truckers are ready to dive into the country’s rivers (“Throw the baggage that attracts me / Throw it in the river and be free”), fishing folk songs, hoisting up the rotting bodies we all left floating around. One cannot be baptized without the silt of the river; America defines itself, but there is no partial identity. Drive-By Truckers’ faith is in the good people, the songs and the people: “Filthy and Fried” is about fathers and daughters, about a family’s means,”That’s what it feels like to live.“The double soul of American group These are voices too southern rooted in the South as mythology and reality, a committed attachment to, a vilified recoil. It’s a restless, relentless self-orientation on “Ever-South,” a reversal of otherness, where never something means never no: “Broadening our horizons to a distant shore/ Where everyone notices the drawl that comes out of our mouth/ So that no matter where we are, we’re always 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 KKK. Every easy consonant of every chorus on American group recognizes the potential for ridicule and posturing: it’s the white Southern instrument that sounds stories of racial violence: where’s there room for the Trayvon Martin verse of Southern rock? The Drive-By Truckers leader is immersed in good songwriting, his heart in people’s stories. The American crisis needs accomplices and action, not allies and postures.

American group will not transform our American landscape; good country music cannot cure a national soul. But an art of humanity and the faith to be better for each other can help redefine America. We define ourselves (Huckleberry Finn: “It was a close place. I picked it up and held it in my hand. I was shaking, because I had to decide, forever, between two things, and I knew that. I studied for a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then I was like, ‘Okay, then, I’m going to hell'”). American group sends the soul of the South to hell and back; Drive-By Truckers urges and transpires a better American et cetera. We are bigger than our borders.

In 2010, Jesus Mesa, an American and Border Patrol agent, shot and killed 15-year-old Mexican Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca. The bullet left the barrel of an El Paso rifle, cracked a skull in Juarez. Between the barrel and the skull was the Rio Grande, the unfenced bedrock and the ford of the US-Mexico border. Mexican authorities found Jesus Mesa guilty of murder and US authorities refused to extradite him, even after Sergio’s parents took the case to the Supreme Court in September 2016. Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca is dead. Etc.

And that’s still where it is today.

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