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Rock and Roll Book Club

'Where the Devil Don't Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers'

Stephen Deusner's 'Where the Devil Don't Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers.'
Stephen Deusner's 'Where the Devil Don't Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers.'Jay Gabler/MPR

by Jay Gabler

October 21, 2021

In June 2020, Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers penned an essay called "Now, About the Bad Name I Gave My Band." In it, he wrote, "Our name was a drunken joke that was never intended to be in rotation and reckoned with two-and-a-half decades later, and I sincerely apologize for its stupidity and any negative stereotypes it has propagated. I'm not sure changing it now serves any higher purpose, but I'm certainly open to suggestions."

A year later, Drive-By Truckers are still Drive-By Truckers. Stephen Deusner acknowledges the tension over the band's name in his new book Where the Devil Don't Stay, but gives Hood more credit than just attempting a failed drunken joke. Hood admired the hip-hop artists coming out of the south in the '90s when the band was formed, Deusner notes, and wanted to make a kind of southern rock that was as dynamic and honest as that music.

But...Patterson Hood is white. A white Southern man, like his former bandmate Jason Isbell. The latter artist grew up listening to soul and R&B, but decided not to work in that idiom himself. "I can imitate those sounds," he says of Otis Redding and Etta James, "but to actually make the art they're making, you would have to live a life similar to theirs."

The art Isbell, Hood, and Mike Cooley — Drive-By Truckers' three leading songwriters over the years — do make, Deusner argues, represents a grappling with the legacy they've inherited. Thus, Deusner determined to examine the band's music through the lens of some of the places where that legacy has been shaped, and where the band members have tried to reframe that legacy.

The story starts in Muscle Shoals, where Hood and Cooley grew up and where they launched their first band, Adam's House Cat. Muscle Shoals is best known to music fans as the site of iconic recordings by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, the Staple Singers, and many more. The new Franklin biopic dramatizes the way Muscle Shoals brought white and Black artists together, but beyond the studio walls, race and class divisions were and are very real. Deusner's story then moves to Memphis, where Adam's House Cat tried and failed to make it big.

Drive-By Truckers are known as a band from Athens, Georgia, but as Deusner notes, the band's planned destination was the big city of Atlanta. Hood visited a friend in Athens, though, and got "immediately drunk on the spirit of this college town and its weird history." The days of R.E.M. and the B-52's were were past, and Drive-By Truckers would end up being contemporaries with bands like the very different Neutral Milk Hotel. In Athens, Hood and Cooley found the right scene to incubate their new project: a band that would represent a distinctly self-aware form of southern rock. The covers they chose were emblematic of their ambition: in the same set, they'd play Tom Petty's "Southern Accents" and Prince's "Sign O' the Times."

Deusner stretches his discussion of the band's epic Southern Rock Opera (2001) over two chapters: one centered on Birmingham, Alabama (where the band first gained traction on the album's sprawling range of topics) and one on Gillsburg, Mississippi, where Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane crashed in 1977. Deusner delves extensively into the history of that band, which grappled in its own way with what Drive-By Truckers famously called "duality of the southern thing" and would become a significant inspiration for Southern Rock Opera.

The book continues "Back to the Shoals" (where the Truckers enlisted Isbell to join the band); then to Richmond, Virginia (an important market for the band); McNairy County, Tennessee (where Pauline Pusser was killed in 1967, making her surviving husband Buford "one of the South's defining legends" per Deusner and another subject of fascination for the band's songwriters); and finally "Out West." Hood moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2015, putting his Southern heritage in new perspective both for himself and his audience.

Is Where the Devil Don't Stay for you? Consider it a sort of book-length version of Hood's 2020 essay: it takes the complex work of a revered band in historical and social perspective. If Drive-By Truckers aren't the band for you, Deusner's book won't change that, but if you've enjoyed the band's music and want to dive deeper into their changing world, you'll enjoy this nuanced appreciation.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

October 28: I Put a Spell on You: The Bizarre Life of Screamin' Jay Hawkins by Steve Bergsman

November 4: Unrequited Infatuations by Steven Van Zandt

November 11: Baby Girl: Better Known as Aaliyah by Kathy Iandoli

November 18: Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art * Words and Wisdom, edited by Nora Guthrie