Walking the walk
Diametrically different Butch Walker, Drive-By Truckers share celebratory week, attitudes
Cats and martians have as much in common as Atlanta rocker Butch Walker and Alabama-meets-Athens' whiskey-gritty Drive-By Truckers. One's a sassy guy who draws critical sneers; the other's been heralded for resurrecting Southern rock. One's a tattooed former metal man, the others Lynyrd Skynyrd fans.
And their respective new albums Techni-color-highlight their disparity. With his new Letters, the second solo album from the former Marvelous 3 frontman and current hot producer for the likes of the Donnas and Avril Lavigne, Walker crafts a wide palette of buoyant, bittersweet pop about mix tapes, summer jams, race cars and goth rock. Drive-By Truckers' new The Dirty South continues the band's impressive run started by 2001's Southern Rock Opera and 2003's Decoration Day, albums rife with songs about good-old boys and born-to-losers graced with Walker Percy fallible humanity and Cormac McCarthy cold, hard truths.
Both, however, rely on the writer's workhorse maxim to use what they know, and it focuses their respective strengths — and explains what makes each such an uncharacteristically unique act. The Truckers and its three songwriting guitarists/vocalists — Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell — have miraculously smelted a trio of thematically heady and cohesive albums in a row that sound drawn from the same fecund well. And Walker, well, he's an almost 15-year veteran in the major-label game with but the 1998 "Freak of the Week" hit to his name and who is currently better known as a producer, but who comes across as feeling like the luckiest guy on the planet.
"What we write about is not about the South as much as it's about rural America in general, or anywhere in the world," says Isbell from his home in Center Star, Ala. "A lot of the songs are about farming communities and about people who live in small towns. And the settings and the places that we mention and use are all Southern places because that's where we've been and that's where the stories usually happened."
"I'd probably be dead right now if I couldn't laugh at all the things I've done or said or didn't do or didn't achieve," says Walker from a tour stop in Charlotte. "I think it just ended up being one of those things where I didn't want to let this job kill me. Because it hasn't killed me yet, so I might as well keep doing it, because at least there's a few people out there that hear about it and care about what I do."
The Truckers' recent albums are the more impressive at first glance, and South only maintains that run. Its 14 tracks are as visceral as Harry Crews and are painted with such regional specifics that it makes the Truckers' stories come alive, from the Memphis pith of "Carl Perkins' Cadillac" and the Walking Tall myth-skeptic "The Buford Stick" to the lessons learned in "Puttin' People on the Moon" and "Daddy's Cup." It's an imposing achievement for any songwriter, let alone coming from three different brains.
For Isbell, that constancy is easily explained. "We all grew up in the same place," he says. "Everybody except Brad [Morgan, drummer], and he's from South Carolina, but it's pretty much the same sort of town. So me, Patterson, and Cooley, at least, all the subject matter that we deal with deals with issues about our home — rural, Southern issues."
When it comes time to record, the band sits down with acoustic guitars and determines who has the best songs. "And you pretty much have to come in with something that's not going to be embarrassing, because it's fairly competitive," says Isbell. "We don't try to one-up each other, but at the same time, when you know you've got two other really good songwriters, you kind of have to watch your P's and Q's a little bit."
Isbell joined the band in 2001 during the Opera tour and quickly acclimated to the challenge, penning Decoration Day's funereal title song and "Outfit." He contributes four sterling works for South that spotlight his gift to infuse seemingly simple stories with complex emotions. "The Day John Henry Died" takes an American legend and amplifies its human costs ("An engine never thinks about his daddy and an engine never needs to write its name"). "Cottonseed" turns pride into a double-edged sword, and tough-guy boasts barely hide a bottomless sorrow in "Goddamn Lonely Love." And with the lovely "Danko/Manuel," an ode to the Band becomes a mirror for questioning how one's life is being lived.
The songs roil through a novelistic emotional panorama, revealing Isbell to be a songwriter in touch with both his inner 65-year-old curmudgeon and wide-eyed invincible young man. "I try to keep the human element in the song," he says. "And when you get down to it, people are really, really complicated, whether they know it or not. Usually the happiest of people are the people who don't know how complicated their lives really are. But nobody ever accused songwriters of being the happiest people, I don't think."
Walker would certainly agree with that. Long known for his sarcastic, cheeky songs, Letters displays a different Walker, though one that sounds the same at first brush. "Lights Out" is a boisterous rocker riding a plucky guitar and piano chug. But beneath the vacuous patina is a jaded sigh to the very attitude the song celebrates, with Walker twisting the chorus into a bitter middle finger: "Can I get a 'hell yeah'/If you're as lost as I am/Yeah dawg/If you hate that expression/Doggin' on others is now my profession."
"A lot of [Letters'] songs are autobiographical," Walker says. "And that song is just from when I moved to Los Angeles when I was 18 and driving a van out to California with my band and getting signed at a very young age and getting put through the wringer businesswise, emotionally, everything — sex, drugs, alcohol, all those cliches you hear. I wanted to put a twist on it and kind of let people know how I turned out."
Witty, secure and self-deprecating, Walker is unapologetic about his pop-rocker past and self-aware enough to recognize what he wants out of his career. Letters, after 2002's blithely poppy Left of Self-Centered, is a turn toward the serious and meaningful, and Walker has done in it in the context of his pop life. Writing about small-town scenes or something else mundane would be infelicitous from a guy who spent most of the '90s touring constantly in a band with an arena-rock attitude.
"I really didn't want to make another record that was so sarcastic," says Walker. "I think I'm just over that point in my life. I mean, there's nothing wrong with a little sarcasm, but I just think I've exploited all avenues of ironic in my last few albums. I just really don't feel that way anymore. I'm real happy. I'm real content with where I'm at in my life.
"Yet a lot of emotions were riding high in the last couple of years with things," he continues. "I lost a good bit of people, to death and to just friendships falling away. And I think that that reflected in the songs as well. I wasn't trying to make a sappy record. And call that what you will call it, being a cheese ball or whatever."
So while much of Letters sounds like typical Walker fluff, something just below the surface coveys that it's different. Jubilant lead single "Mixtape" tells of a guy too shy to say hello, and "#1 Summer Jam" hides heartbreak beneath a Cheap Trick hook. But the real surprises are the Walker solo at the piano dirges "Thank-You Note" and "Joan," warts-and-all portraits of women too intricate to reduce to sassy rhyme couplets.
Letters isn't the sort of makeover that's going to turn Walkerphobes into true believers, but it is the sort of album that assays how Walker can mature as a songwriter, spotlighting a veteran in his mid-30s who has learned that a rock job can be better than a rock star.
"A lot of people come up to me all the time, people who have known me for a while, people in the industry, even new people, and — it's so weird — are apologetic and almost feel sorry for me for not having a huge platinum record after all this time," says Walker. "And I tell them, 'I don't think you understand. This is the perfect life.' I've been able to sustain and have a great time making music and not burn out on it and not burn the public out on it since I was 18-years-old. And I just don't look at it as half-empty anymore. I used to get discouraged, but now I'm just, 'This is the best job in the world.'"
And that's a workmanlike streak even Truckers could appreciate. "People are the same all over the place in a whole lot of ways," says Isbell. "I think people all have to deal with the same sort of issues and get off on the same kind of rock 'n' roll wherever you go."