The Drive-By Truckers are a group of novelists parading as a country rock band: amazingly well versed in telling stories in their songs, often done in the most literary ways. Adopting the voice of a character, using metaphor and image in ways seen traditionally in literature, sometimes even forgoing singing and just delivering lyrics as spoken monologues. Not that this is unique in music, by the Truckers take on everything, from lyrical content to song structure, is
rare and unmatched as far as anything else going on in the rock world. Their catalog is full of characters and settings that would be lucidly at home in any Flannery O’Connor story. My favorite member of this outfit is the now solo Jason Isbell. He’s delivered a library’s worth of southern gothic, tall tales and legends, outrageous characters and backwoods, down-home spirit in his music. My words pale in comparison and in accurately praising or describing the true-to-life and tangible literary landscape that Isbell is responsible for bringing to vivid life though song.
One of my favorite songs is the ballad Outfit, from Decoration Day. It’s a monologue, delivered to an unseen child by a distinctly opinionated, and somewhat weary father. The speaker’s voice is soaked in wisdom, perhaps whiskey, too, and the advice he offers covers some distinctly strange notions and concepts of how to live a good life. But in the end, it’s a story of a man’s love for his family delivered to a possibly wayward child who he fears losing, or perhaps sees slipping into the kid of life he himself could have had and because of his proximity and understanding of that particular danger, wants nothing more than for his child to do right. And in that worry about his child going wayward, we also read the father’s lamenting the life he’s lived. Good or bad, you can tell dad wants better for his own son, and though the advice is delivered out of love, there is a bit of envy, too: the speaker has lived a life, that while live primarily out of love, hasn’t been quite the one he wanted. His son, meanwhile, is a singer, as opposed to a house painter and refrigerator repairman. When the father tells the son “Don't sing with a fake British accent”, there’s a bit of envy there. As if he should harbor such opinions.
But more, so, there’s the admonishment to not repeat the same mistakes and above all, to never act like “act like your family's a joke.” In the end, I suppose it’s a song about what every good father wants for his children: for their lives to be better than his own.
Here's Isbell, post Truckers, doing Outfit on KEXP...