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Redneck Reveille 

The Drive-by Truckers cashing in on Southern heritage

Telling someone that you're from the South used to instantly cause some people to view you with red(neck)-tinted glasses. These days, it's a foot in the door, a book deal, a record contract, a cooking show.

As far as I can tell, this languid love affair is a matter of "authenticity," a tenuous concept people usually gobble up no matter how hackneyed the premise or the packaging. As marketing slogans go, it's one of the best. Who doesn't want to be authentic? And if we feel that perhaps we're not as authentic as we could be, why don't we have listen to some John Lee Hooker? Maybe some Junior Kimbrough?

Yes, we're painted with a pretty big brush down here. Thing is, like Tom Sawyer, we've learned -- especially in the last 15 years or so -- how to turn chore into "cha-ching!" Like Tom, we've managed to turn whitewashing a fence into whitewashing our friends.

What we discovered is this: We can fleece these Yanks! Pop a paint pen in that old gas station attendant's hands: Folk art! You grew up in a trailer? Write a memoir! You can play a guitar and come from a divorce- and poverty-stricken background?

By God, you can be the next Drive-By Truckers.

Sometimes, you gain a reputation and you can't shake it. This is never good, even when the reputation is a positive one. You can't be truly yourself once you gain a reputation, because at that point you've already begun to serve what we here in the Bible Belt call the "two masters": you and the idea of you. The American South certainly falls into this category, as do their new favorite musical sons (and daughter), The Drive-By Truckers.

The Truckers (Patterson Hood, guitar/vocals; Mike Cooley, guitar/vocals; Jason Isbell, guitar/vocals; Shonna Tucker, bass; Brad Morgan, drums) have received more critical accolades of late than any Southern rock band since Lynyrd Skynyrd. Check that. Even pre-crash Skynyrd never enjoyed the sort of overwhelmingly positive press that the Truckers have received.

Which is part of the Truckers' unofficial mission, probably -- if not restoring the South's good name, whether musically or otherwise, at least showing that we have names that aren't, you know, Bubba.

You've probably heard some of the band's oeuvre by now. There's their famous double-disc ode to the Southern/Skynyrd experience, Southern Rock Opera, their meta-style take about the personal and professional fallout from Opera, Decoration Day, and the bookend to the trailer park triptych, The Dirty South (Aug. 24). In all of these, the Truckers alternate between glorifying the place they call home and skewering those who might stereotype their Southern experience.

As such, they're critical darlings. And why not? They purvey meat and potatoes rock like few other bands dare in this age of niche marketing, and throw in a few pretty ballads ("Free Bird!") to boot. And they damn sure seem authentic enough -- in the finest Southern rock tradition, they have three guitarists, guzzle Jack Daniels on stage, and look like they could hold their own in a bar fight.

However, Simple Men they're not, and neither are their fanbase -- go to one of their shows, and there's nary a black Earnhardt T-shirt to be found. Even calling the band "Southern Rock" isn't quite accurate. They're from the South, of course, but then again, so are Mastodon and the Olivia Tremor Control. They're a Rock band, self-described. Yet, there's no escaping their Yank-geared ledger-balancing commentary on Southern Rock and the Southern experience in general, a worldview that has also started balancing the band's checkbooks.

Money and popular recognition has certainly changed the South as we know it, as evidenced by the current media fascination mentioned above. Will it also change the Truckers? Only time will tell.

Which is not to say that the red clay under my feet is any more stable than that trod by Hood and Co. I've made a decent bit of coin myself over the years, thanks to an equal blend of longitude and attitude. I get calls when there's a Southern Story to be penned, and I usually don't turn these opportunities down -- provided, of course, that I'm not perceived as some sort of quasi-Bo Duke savant who just happens to be able to not type all purty-like when I'm not mouth-breathing. However, like the Truckers, I do have my limits. After all, the only thing worse than someone else's stereotyping is stereotyping yourself.

The Drive-By Truckers play the Visulite Theater Thursday at 10pm. Doors open at 9pm and tickets are $15.

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