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  1. Back in the 80’s I knew this guy, name of Billy Bannister, actually “knew” isn’t the right thing to say cos I still see Billy around Shrewsbury sometimes. Anyways, Billy was in a band called Kiev Exocet that my band, The Libertines, would do gigs with every now and again. Billy was fiercely left wing, a devotee of Joe Strummer and The Clash and every time we got to talk he always managed to squeeze in a mention of Steve Earle. I never did anything about that at the time. Steve Earle ? That’s country and western right ? Naaaah, not for me, or so I thought at the time ?

    Fast forward maybe 15 years or so and I’d discovered that actually, country and western, or more accurately country music (there’s a difference), was for me and on one of those cover mounted CD’s on the glossy music mags we’ve talked about before was a track titled “The Revolution Starts Now” by that guy that Billy used to talk about, Steve Earle. So let’s have a listen shall we, and…f*cking hell this country boy is more Punk Rock than most of those that claim to be punk rockers these days. I could instantly see where Billy had been coming from.

    I downloaded the whole album (it was those times and proved expensive in the long run as the LP cost me a small fortune many years later!) and none of it disappointed. It’s an album primarily concerned with the aftermath of the Iraq war and US militarisation that still finds room for a gorgeous duet with Emmylou Harris on “Comin’ Around”.

    Apart from the title song, which tops and tails the album in two slightly differing versions and outlines how nothing changes until you change yourself and your immediate surroundings, I’m gonna highlight two other songs here. 

    Firstly “Rich Man’s War” which I believe bought Steve Earle a mountain of criticism back in the US. Verse one is about Jimmy, who joined the Army cos there was no other choice, no jobs where he lived. He has dreams of learning a trade, moving to the city and getting married. But right now he’s rolling into Baghdad wondering how all this happened…”Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man's war”…in verse two we meet Bobby, a patriot with an eagle and flag tattoo. He left behind his wife and baby to chase ghosts in the desert while back at home his car was repossessed…”Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man's war”…finally we’re introduced to Ali who grew up in Gaza throwing rocks at tanks. He’s persuaded by a fat man in a shiny car to praise Allah and strap on a suicide bomb…”Just another poor boy off to fight a rich man's war”…BOOM!

    Secondly I’ll tell you about “The Gringo’s Tale”. Here we have another unnamed patriot from a military family who’s now living in Mexico, ageing, maybe on the run from his past (mis)deeds but “If you buy me a strong drink of whiskey, I will tell you the tale of my life, It's long and it's sad but it fits me, And it may bring a tear to your eye”. What unfolds is a railing against certain nefarious doings of the US military and how some higher ups in that institution may be more concerned with making illicit profits for themselves than liberating the world. What really sticks out musically on this song is the string arrangement by US composer and arranger Chris Carmichael. Wonder Stuff violinist Erica Nockalls was so taken with it she contacted Carmichael to find out more about him and the arrangement for this song.

    The rest of the record is pretty damned fine too including a country/reggae crossover (no, I didn’t think it was possible either) about Condoleezza Rice and had Francis Ford Coppola had “Warrior' available to him at the time it may well have made an appearance in “Apocalypse Now” (“Take heed for I am weary, ancient, And decrepit now and my time grows short, There are no honorable frays to join”). To complement all the wonderful music contained within, this record is wrapped in a beautiful sleeve with artwork by Tony Fitzpatrick who has been designing sleeves for Steve Earle for almost 30 years making them instantly recognisable. You can check out his art at https://tonyfitzpatrick.co

    And finally, thanx Billy, I got there eventually…

    The Gringo’s Tale - https://youtu.be/lwgaCm7H1MU

  2. Here’s our final dip into the Drive-By Truckers. I had to have this the minute I saw it. A 4 LP boxed set of coloured vinyl records, 2 of  translucent red and 2 of translucent blue (I have explained my addiction to coloured vinyl, right ?), containing a complete recording of the Drive-By Truckers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley being joined for part of the show by ex Trucker Jason Isbell at the Shoals Theatre in Florence, AL on 15/6/14 and playing an acoustic “best of” set. The show was a benefit for local journalist Terry Pace who was suffering from some (in America) expensive health difficulties following a stroke (remember to treasure our NHS kids !).

    The one thing that sticks out to me from this recording is that when Jason Isbell sings his songs (and he even does one of his solo songs “Cover Me Up”) he’s playing and singing his guts out, almost like he’s saying “see where I managed to go, see what you’re missing guys”. I’m certain that’s not what is happening but that’s what it feels like. I’ve linked to two versions of Jason Isbell’s other great song from “Decoration Day” below, “Outfit”, one from this album and the other shot from the audience that very night. Does it bug the rest of the band they really can’t play this live anymore (in Trucker-world if you wrote it, you sing it) ? but Isbell can. It’s a superb song.

    “Live At The Shoals Theatre” is a thing of beauty and a glorious balm to my ears.

    Outfit - https://youtu.be/65XaIsKZ4iM

    Outfit - https://youtu.be/KCd14ngsw2g (shot from the audience l-r Jason Isbell, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley)

  3. Jason Isbell departed the Drive-By Truckers following “A Blessing And A Curse” and it all went downhill for me, not just for the Truckers. Isbell’s first solo records (which we’ll get to in time) were patchy at best and something similar happened to the Truckers. Cooley still kept writing at least one incredible song per album but the overall quality of songs suffered badly. It felt like Hood, Cooley and Isbell really pushed each other to write better and once one that trio broke up, everyone’s work suffered.

    I still kept an ear on what they were doing and in 2014, 8 years after Isbell’s departure, they released the album “English Oceans” and followed that in 2016 with “American Band” both of which were much more like it to my ears. So when, in 2020, it was announced there would be a new Truckers album I figured I’d shell out and get this one on vinyl.

    On “American Band” and here with “The Unravelling” the Truckers have become less of the torch bearers for a South that they see that most others don’t and have become more a band that are openly commentating on the current landscape in American politics. Patterson Hood now dominates the songwriting credits with 7 of the 9 songs here written by him. This may explain why the Truckers no longer hit so hard with me as of their three pricipal songwriters (Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell) Patterson was always third on my preference list.

    Most reviews drew attention to the song “Thoughts And Prayers”, a gentle but angry attack on the kind of US politician that has only those platitudes to offer after yet another nut has shot up yet another school/supermarket/shopping mall “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers”. That, alongside “Babies In Cages” are Hood’s stab at the state of America in the Trump years. As he says in the sleeve notes “William Gibson's dark visions have come to pass, everyone is connected and more disconnected than ever. Our children have lock-down drills."

    Neither of Cooley’s songs here, “Slow Ride Argument” and “Grievance Merchants" are much to get excited about. A rocker first and a plodder that even he seems to be struggling to work up much enthusiasm for !

    It’s an okay album, mercifully short at just over 40 minutes. It’s good but not great, and right or wrong, great is what I came to expect from the Truckers. But I’ll always lend them an ear.

    Thoughts And Prayers - https://youtu.be/tkD4xSqNVII