Buckets of Mercy
“I do believe / I do believe / I do believe…” This is the refrain that kicks off the Drive-By Truckers‘ most recent album, Go-Go Boots. Sung in Patterson Hood’s characteristically plaintive tenor, which aspires to notes rather than hits them, the lines echo in silence before the band comes in with a tuned-down 60’s style, sludgy, surf groove, setting the scene for a remembered trip to the beach with Grandma in the summer of 1967—“Percy Sledge on the radio / Or maybe Spanish songs.” There’s no nostalgic represencing in this song, however, as the band’s distortion ensures that the description stays decidedly past tense, and Hood obliges as the song ends with the same searching credo: “I do believe I do believe I know that you would never leave me / And when you slipped the earthly binds you still live in my mind.”
Ambivalence about the past is a common theme on Truckers’ records. Claiming both Athens, GA and Muscle Shoals, AL as home, principle songwriters Mike Cooley and Hood walk a fine line between celebrating and condemning the history and mythology of “The South.” Branded as a “Southern Rock” act when they landed on the music scene with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, which follows a recent Class of ’79 high school graduate as he rides the rock n’ roll roller coaster from the death of his friend and bandmate just before commencement to the plane crash that killed Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, the Truckers have always defied the Confederate expectations that a youth spent in the land of Skynyrd, Bear Bryant, and George Wallace, and a three-guitar sonic attack bring. Singing, as Hood did on Rock Opera, about the “duality of the southern thing,” the Trucker’s are well aware of the ironic posture of exclusion and embrace that the past demands, and they treat the fellow southerners that populate their songs with a healthy dose of judgment and mercy.
For this reason, I have always thought of the Truckers as the rural, southern, Protestant counterpart to the suburban, Midwest, Catholic Hold Steady. While Hold Steady singer Craig Finn’s God-haunted narratives about a disaffected and drugged-out youth look for redemption in the immediacy that getting high shares with the bloody presence of the Sacrament, for Hood and Cooley, the present is just too trivial and tragic to bear that kind of metaphysical weight. If Finn’s middle-class, angsty teenagers are clothed in the specter of immanent salvation, the Truckers’ songs are filled with working-class sinners grinding it out between a difficult past and an uncertain future. Theirs is religion that can’t seem to stare down the ghosts of the everyday, and the long shadows at the edges of daylight seem to point more decisively to the darkness of midnight than to the rising of the noontime Sun.
So, it’s fitting that after a doubtful, but determined, reminiscence on the title track of Go-Go Boots, Hood takes a swampy guitar slide into the daily headlines with a murder-ballad about a small-town preacher, the woman he keeps in the side, and his ill-fated wife. In this story, religion legitimates, rather then relativizes, licentiousness:
Daddy’s been preaching the word ever since he was twelve
All about a merciful savior and the fires of hell
I know he meant it, so what’s a little straying
He got everybody singing and a praying
“That devil better not come back down here again”
As the song fades, it is the preacher’s prodigal and patricidal son, and not his holy and homicidal father, who “wonders what the Lord will say when he weighs it all out.” After all, “it’s a small town and word gets around,” which means that, good or bad, Divine or human, Hood’s characters live under the threat and promise of Revelation, and freedom does not always follow the Truth.
This quotidian ambiguity continues in, now former, bassist Shonna Tucker’s winking country Doo-wap concern for “Dancing Ricky,” an aging fan whose shirt is “too damned small for [his] body.” With plenty of bless-his-heart sass, Tucker sings “We got to figure out how to quit all your dancing / And go and check out the swag,” because there is no salvation in growing old at the rock show. In a similar vein, Cooley’s acoustic honky-tonk letter to L.A. prefaces it’s description of the “Cartoon Gold” to be mined in the plastic city with a reminder that the productive tension in art is not necessarily provided by overwrought transcendence, but good songs and stories are “like bringing flowers to your Mama and tracking dog shit all over the floor / Jesus made the flowers but it took a dog to make the story good.” (Hood has said that these are his favorite lines on the album.) Near the end of the side, Hood takes a step back from these tragic tales to remind us that “Everybody Needs Love,” but the fact that the country soul song was written by the late Eddie Hinton, whose career was hobbled by addiction and mental illness, casts a shadow over its rave-up chorus.
The second side of the album continues the stories of some of the characters on the first, and introduces some equally conflicted souls. Our preacher finally makes good on his plan to get his wife out of the way, with the whole scheme washed in the Blood of the Lamb: “The Bible said that Jesus bled for the sins of the rest of us / The Reverend has his wife done in for fifteen hundred bucks.” His son doesn’t quite see it that way, however, and the song ends with the pastor’s demise and the police saying, “Don’t call the son for questioning, that bullet was deserved / Better call it suicide, justice has been served.” This is “the duality of the southern thing.” Eddie Hinton also makes another appearance, but this time it’s Tucker singing an aching, organ-driven ballad in which Hinton casts himself as the lost lover whose beloved is wandering the streets asking, “Where’s Eddie?” Thus, even the man who knows that “everybody needs love” cannot seem to find his way home to its embrace.
In one of the best songs on the album, Hood sings about a rage-aholic, former cop who is haunted by memories of all that he lost in single-minded pursuit of justice. The menacing and persistent beat, anchored by Tucker’s tight bass-line, conjures the image of a police cruiser on patrol with a driver who’s wound too tight, until the chord progression opens up as he thinks about the good times: “I used to play football but I wasn’t big enough for college / But I passed the entrance exam, first try and on my way.” In this story, mercy is a function of one’s posture toward the past.
Yet, as the more sacramentally-inclined might be troubled to hear, mercy can also be a function of the distance one takes toward the present. In perhaps the only great song about Turkey Day, “The Thanksgiving Filter,” Hood gives us an ode to the virtues of checking-out of the forced-joy and overly immediate expectation of the holidays by painting an honest picture of a typical family gathering: “Grandmother’s wheelchair is sitting in the corner / We all sure love her, but the little ones avoid her / Cause she’s gray-haired and wrinkled and her burden looks heavy / Ninety years of survival can look awful scary.” So, while many might be tempted to join Grandma around Norman Rockwell’s sentimental table to gratefully receive that golden-brown, secular Eucharist, given up for the sins of the year, Hood concludes: “Thank God for the filter that enables some distance / From the screaming and crying and the needs of assistance / You wonder why I drink and curse the holidays / Blessed be my family from 300 miles away / It’s Thanksgiving and Jesus I’m thankful…”
This tongue-in-cheek spirituality of disciplined detachment is not the final word on these songs of painful realism and quiet desperation. In the end, Hood comes back, as he always does, to commit himself to walk with his fellow sinners through this earthly veil of tears. The closing track, “Mercy Buckets”—a play on a popular Southern, butchered pronunciation of “Merci Beaucoup”—is a profession of faith that combines sweet-tea fellowship with the bitter pill of solidarity. This jarring combination comes through in the searingly loud blast of the otherwise inviting guitar chord that starts the song, and its opening lines, which juxtapose the corny and the criminal:
When all your good days keep getting shorter, count on me
When you’re about twenty-cents shy of a quarter, count on me
When you just need a place to hide out for a while
I’ll help you hide the bodies in a little while
For Hood, while the mercy that one gives oneself might be predicated on maintaining a certain mental and aesthetic distance from the sordid present, the mercy that one promises another requires a sincere sharing in their sin. It’s not enough to assume that Jesus got his hands dirty so that we might skip all of that to vicariously partake in the eternal now of his salvation. A truly non-trivial, difficult love is about pledging our participation in and not just pity for the life of a sinner. Thus, Hood promises:
I will bring you buckets of mercy
And put a smile back on your pretty face
Bring a shovel if you want it
Carry your secrets to my grave
So, as we look forward to a summer filled with angry fortnights, which talk as if Puritanical virtue ought to be enshrined as the “natural” norm rather than heralded as a grace-filled exception, allow me to recommend some modern-day prophets who are willing to admit that they are in the same “cauldron of unholy loves” as the rest of us. The Truckers’ form of mercy is not one that is poured down from a priestly class that stands above the rest of us, but it is carried and passed in buckets across a chain of tortured believers all trying to put out the same fire. So, instead of taking to the barricades of civil disobedience with a righteous apocalyptic fervor, maybe we can just stop and turn to each other:
I will bring you buckets of mercy
And hold your hand when you’re crossing the street
I will be your saving grace…