The Drive-By Truckers released their fourth studio album in June, 2003—but it seems more fitting to take Memorial Day as its tenth anniversary. It is, after all, the modern successor to the Decoration Day from which the album and title track draw their names. The songs, frontman Patterson Hood has said, are about choices made. They are, invariably, dark: incest, murder, suicide, family feuds, abandoning a bride at the altar. The band doesn’t necessarily see the situation of all poor and working-class Southern whites as desperate; it’s just that the only stories which interest them are tales of desperation.
And yet, amid this desperation there is time for reflection. Decoration Day requires setting aside time not just for backyard barbeques, but for visiting the graves of the dead. Once there, as Jason Isbell’s title track tells it, there’s a choice to be made: whether to “lay a stone on” or to “spit on” a loathed father’s memory and resting place, whether it is right that this man’s own children have never, and will never, visit it. The borderland between the living and the dead still, all these years after Odysseus met his mother’s ghost, serves as a place of reflection on the present and future as well as the past.
All the songs present figures capable of this self-reflection but not all are capable of acting on what they see. The man in Patterson Hood’s marriage songs (“Heathens” and “Your Daddy Hates Me”) is stuck and always will be stuck in a perpetual adolescence that dooms his family; Isbell’s north Alabama gangster can’t change who his father was and so can’t ever escape the rivals out to kill him, as weary as he is of the ongoing fight.
Mike Cooley—a lanky, deep-voiced country singer who’s happened into a career in rock-and-roll—offers the suggestion, in his contributions to the album, that these are the same figures and choices that rock in its glory days depicted—but without showing the wrecked marriages, jail sentences, and silver-bullet suicides that ended the stories. “Rock and roll means well,” the man proposing marriage announces in “Marry Me,” “but it can’t help tellin’ young boys lies.” Some of these lies, perhaps, were found on the Truckers’ previous, breakout album, 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, based in large part on the myth of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The second half of Decoration Day opens with a run-down man who’s lost everything but his guitar, and is sick to tears of Skynyrd’s words: “‘Lord knows, I can’t change’ sounds better in the song than it does with hell to pay,” he laments.
That, perhaps, is the album’s theme in a nutshell. Even if those lyrics and songs have by now been replaced in the stereos of parking-lot tailgates across the South, the only way to sing along to them (or their replacements) is to remain willfully blind. Stop to think about the words, and there’s a desperate horror: the bleak landscape of men somewhere north of thirty, long locked into the same pattern of self-destructive choices, whose punishment, it seems, is to have eyes that see but hands which serve no purpose. Southern Rock Opera laid a stone on Skynyrd’s grave—and while Decoration Day doesn’t spit on it, it at least hesitates in recognition of a choice to be made.