If you broke down the techniques employed by the Drive-By Truckers — formed in the late '90s in Athens, Ga., by guitarists and singer-songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley — the band's music shouldn't really work well at all. Their signature sound consists of massed guitars, drums and keyboards that owe a lot to '70s hard-rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band and Black Oak Arkansas. The vocals wouldn't sound the way they do had Bob Dylan or The Band not existed. The lyrics tend toward fiction, stories, the kind of stuff that usually works better on the printed page. But put them together with the kind of pitiless precision and gleeful tendency to turn every downer into a musical rave-up, and you've got their new album The Big To-Do, yet another entry in what has become a really impressive body of work.
Patterson Hood's latest addition to the murder-ballad tradition is "The Wig He Made Her Wear." It's the story of a small-town preacher shot dead by his wife because of the humiliating sexual peccadilloes he foisted upon her over many years. The rumbling music behind Hood's folksy recitation of degradation carries all the foreboding and menace. The tension between Hood's calm detailing and the craggy guitar lines transform the song into a crime novel. At other times on this album, guitarist Cooley relieves Hood with a slightly lighter bit of boogie-inflected country rock that is really only chipper until you listen closely to the words.
The Drive-By Truckers are chroniclers of smallness: small-town life, lives crushed by small tragedies or rewarded by small kindnesses, kindness closed off by failures that go unnoticed by anyone except the people involved. On one song called "It's Gonna Be I Told You So," the band sets a small argument — the way one person in a squabble needs to have the other person acknowledge that he or she is right — against a soaring rush of melody.
Ultimately, the Drive-By Truckers are doing something that's common on certain TV shows and in many independent films but increasingly rare in pop music: celebrating losers, people in trouble, people who feel trapped. That such subjects used to be more prevalent in music is one reason why the Truckers can sound like throwbacks. It's also what makes them sound so head-clearingly refreshing. They do it by making a big to-do about small but important things in life.