Welcome to Playlisted. I’ve been contemplating a series like this for some time, and finally, after a sort of break from blogging I’m back and giving it a shot. What I want this series to be is an in depth, or as close to in depth analysis as I can get of some of my favorite songs. One a week, until I think I’ve exhausted the idea. I’m passionate about music; my knowledge of the subject is extensive. An aficionado to a certain extent and I’m sure there are those who are more dedicated than me, but I like to share music with people. If I can introduce someone to a new song, band, or album, I feel like I’ve done my job. Music, by and large, is shared experience; it’s empathetic, sympathetic, and it sounds fucking great. It makes you feel good, or it can make you feel rotten. That parts up to you. These posts are going to be my experiences with music, and what moves me. Strap in. I hope you find something you like.
Some people stop living long before they die. Work a dead end job just to scrape on by, but I keep living just to bend that note in two; and I can’t die now ‘cuz I got another show…
Drive-By Truckers are a special band, becoming my favorite over nine albums and a career spanning 20+ years. The group is the brainchild of front man Patterson Hood and long time musical partner Mike Cooley. Both have played in various bands together since the 1980’s, but the Truckers are the one that really stuck. Since 1996, the band, with various lineups, have toured virtually non-stop. Their self-destructive nature is a lot to be admired even to wonderment.
Despite being a band from the south, they’re not a southern rock band. Sure, the influence is there, but there is country deep down in those roots too. The mash-up sounds familiar on paper, but once you hear it, sets itself apart. In their own special way, DBT are the heart of Alabama; their songs weave in and out of that state and the south in general. They have a way of documenting human experience at its most tragic while managing to find these pockets of humanity within all of that darkness. DBT’s style sounds “common” or like it’s developed for the “common man.” It’s those kind of blue collar people that more often than not, populate these songs. From murder, to the effects of the TVA, Lynyrd Skynyrd, political subjects. You name it, they’ve probably wrote about it.
“The Living Bubba” is DBT’s most affecting song. It was released on the band’s debut album, Gangstabilly; Patterson Hood has stated that this is the best song he’s ever written, and it’s not hard to hear why. It’s deep with rich human experience, and populated by one man: Gregory Dean Smalley.
In 1995, before Drive-By Truckers’ were doing their thing, Patterson was employed as a sound guy for the High Hat Club, located in Athens, GA. The area has produced many bands including Widespread Panic and R.E.M., but during this time there was a new musical revolution occurring called “The Redneck Underground.” Surprisingly, until the “Revolution,” alt-country music was limited to the suburbs of Atlanta, until a band named Deacon Lunchbox came the town with their alt-country style, paving the way for groups like Cabbagetown and The Diggers, both bands of Greg’s. The Truckers emerged from that scene as the only band to break through into the mainsteam.
In 1995, Greg contracted AIDS. Instead of giving up, he took to playing as many shows as he could. During that time, Patterson and Greg struck up a friendship. Not a close one, but close enough to inspire “The Living Bubba.” I won’t go to deep into the story – Patterson tells it better, but I urge you to read it.
During his time of dying, he played well over 100 shows. When he was on stage he was described as being full of life, and like nothing was wrong with him. Before and after them, he barely had the energy to move. It’s that relationship that developed and Greg’s inspiring experience that influenced Patterson to write the song, not long after his death.
The song opens up with a very basic acoustic set of guitar chords, electric backup, laced with feedback, and signature to The Truckers. In those opening notes, when each cord is played, it sounds tragic. There is a sad story to unfold, and yet it remains so deeply ingrained as a natural part of life. When Patterson Hood’s vocals kick in, they sound like nothing you’ve ever heard; they’re common, they’re basic. They speak to you in a way that’s straightforward, without panache, and adds that deep human element to the story. The song then leads into a country-style bass and drum melody..
The lyrics are written from Greg’s perspective. They’re unapologetic, self-serving, and honest. They’re Greg, from the way Patterson and others describe him. By the end of the song, it’s as if we’re experiencing Greg going through the stages of death and grief, but it always come back to the same lyric, “but I can’t die now ‘cuz I got another show to do.” Those lyrics mirror, exactly, the disease that’s killing him. They’re words of survival, and while Greg is trying to do just that, so is the AIDS, summed up greatly here: “I ain’t got no political agenda. Ain’t got no message for the youth of america, ‘cept ‘wear a rubber and be careful who you screw,’ and come see me next Friday cuz I got another show…”
Truth is, if it wasn’t for Gregory Dean Smalley, we wouldn’t know Drive-By Truckers. He booked their first show, at his inaugural alt-country festival, Bubbapalooza. Mr. Smalley is now immortalized in this song, coming full circle in a redneck, ying-yang sort of way. I tear up a little every time it plays, and I play it often. This is a song that makes you feel comfortable with your own humanity, even if it deals with an uncomfortable subject. As great as the Truckers’ discography is, this is a song that they’ll never be able to top. I’m alright with that, and I think they are too.