Sunday, January 15, 2012

On The Air: 18 Wheels of Love

Drive-By Truckers: 18 Wheels of Love

I used to be a member of one of those record clubs where you got a bunch of records for a penny, then had to buy a bunch more at full price, and it still ended up as a good deal if you knew how to play the game. I once ordered a CD from the club, and as a bonus, got a copy of Decoration Day by the Drive-By Truckers, a band I had never heard of. I have no recollection of what I bought, but Decoration Day became, and still is, one of my favorite CDs, and the Truckers became one of my favorite bands. I started to fill in their back catalog, including their debut, Gangstabilly. At the time, I liked it, but didn’t think it measured up to more mature efforts like Decoration Day, Southern Rock Opera or The Dirty South. But there are good songs on there, and they have grown in my estimation over time.

“18 Wheels of Love” is a fine song, telling the story of Patterson Hood’s mother’s romance with a massive trucker, Chester, who drove for the company she worked at, but I can’t really say it is a great song. However, when they played it live, Hood told the whole background story, and a version with the full story was released on Alabama Ass-Whuppin', a live album that came out in 1999. One of the things that can elevate a live performance over a studio version is when the band tells you about the song or comments on it. I think of some of the great Springsteen monologues as an example. Patterson Hood is similarly a master storyteller. Hood’s father is David Hood, a studio musician who played on many great Muscle Shoals recordings, and many other great songs. You can look them up. Patterson’s parents divorced, and as he tells the story, his mother did not handle it well, taking to her room. Ultimately, she got a job as an auditor at a trucking company, and one of the drivers kept messing up his logs so that he could spend time with her. They fell in love and got married. This song was her son’s wedding present.

I have purposely not told this story well to encourage you to listen to the way Patterson Hood tells it—he does it so much better than I ever could. However, the version I have posted is not the Alabama Ass-Whuppin’ version, but one that was recorded during a September 2008 taping of Austin City Limits, the great PBS music series. Here, not only does Hood tell the usual story, but he adds “the rest of the story.” In this version, Hood tells about getting a call from his sister, informing him that Chester was dying. But Chester recovered to drive his truck again. Honestly, it gives me chills every time I hear it. You can hear in the way he tells the story the love that Hood has for his stepfather and mother and his joy that Chester cheated death.

Unfortunately, and as probably was expected considering Chester’s health issues, the recovery was short-lived. Chester Adams died in May, 2010. Announcing the death to the Drive-By Truckers fans who knew the story, Hood wrote: “Chester was a cool guy and truly a force of nature that will be forever missed in our family.”

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