On paper, Drive-By Truckers are a band that I should thoroughly enjoy and fully be able to recommend to anyone who enjoys Southern rock. I suppose that I could still offer that recommendation to those with Skynyrd, Outlaws, and even a stray 38 Special album or two in their collection, but there’s something problematic about The Big To-Do, Drive By Trucker’s 8th album, that prevents me from fully placing it on the same level as a bowl of hot grits and a Second Helping of Ronnie Van Zant.
While Drive-By Truckers share the same muscle tone as Skynyrd, they don’t share that band’s lyrical punch. Head Trucker Patterson Hood is no Ronnie Van Zant, and while he tries hard to paint scenes of Deep South imagery throughout The Big To Do, he sounds like a caricature using bits of formulated prose instead of real world observation.
“Drag The Lake, Charlie” tells the story of a husband who fails to make it home after a long night of drinking and a wife with a short fuse. So far so good, but then Hood decides to pepper the tale of possible infidelity with a choice of words so woefully contrived that it’s embarrassing.
If I were a Southerner—and in actuality, my Father’s side of the family hails from a small town in Alabama—I would be insulted when a perfectly capable scenario explains how the missing husband in “Charlie” was last seen “cavortin’ with ol’ Shorty.” And you’re never quite sure why the first action after tracking down a man after a hard night of cavortin’ is to immediately drag the lake or why the worried narrator offers at the end that they’re “almost out of valium, courage, and self-respect.”
On “The Fourth Night Of My Drinking,” Hood documents an alcoholic’s dissent by suggesting one of the primary concerns of the drunk is their disposition. He uses the word twice, and rattles off a list of physical ailments like leather liver, a steely eye, bloody knees, and a sore jaw. You get the sense that the poor sap was forced to give a blowjob while he was drunk, a misinterpretation that really comes (ha!) into view with the last two lines of the last verse: “There was a taste in my mouth / I wasn’t liking it.”
Thankfully, the arrangements on The Big To-Do prevent you from being too distracted by Hood’s lyrical pandering. John Neff’s pedal steel is a wonderful thing of beauty and when the band throws down a guitar triple threat, it’s dirty, sexy, and an identifiable characteristic of the band. If you can get past some of the album’s unintentionally embarrassing lyrics, you’ll be handsomely rewarded with some impressive forays into good, old-fashioned Southern rock guitar heroics.
Of course, Drive-By Truckers have always been able to dish up some sweaty rock moments and not all of Patterson Hood’s songs are duds (“Santa Fe” and “Daddy Learned To Fly” are worthy entries), but The Big To-Do‘s weakest lyrical points actually shine a light on the current line-up’s two, unsung heroes: co-founder Mike Cooley and newcomer Shonna Tucker.
Cooley pens the record’s best two tracks, the closer “Eyes Like Glue” and “Birthday Boy.” The latter, a song about a boy who loses his virginity to an emotionless prostitute, provides the character detail and cleverness that are sorely missing in Patterson Hood’s contributions.
Shonna Tucker brings The Big To-Do its most heart-wrenching moment with “You Got Another,” a beautiful take on the pain that comes when a love moves on. She takes a completely different directions with “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So,” a two minute stomp where Tucker reaches her breaking point, declaring “I’m all full up from the shit I was fed.”
The Big To-Do is hardly a bad album, it’s merely one that manages to suggest the Drive-By Truckers are a competent entry in the land of Southern rock purveyors. And while they may have pointed the way for future bands of similar lineage, this vehicle is mapped with a few wrong directions and some moments of creative cruise control.
If only Patterson Hood would have handed the wheel over to a couple of other capable drivers for a few more miles, The Big To Do would have been another sweet drive through the dirty South.