The ghost of Buford Pusser rises on the Drive-By Truckers’ Dirty South

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ORIGINALLY POSTED ON STRAIGHT.COM, OCT. 21, 2004

By Steve Newton

On the back of the booklet that comes with the Drive-By Truckers’ latest CD, The Dirty South, there’s a photo of a bare-chested toddler standing in front of Buford Pusser’s gravestone. For the uninitiated, Pusser was the Tennessee sheriff whose brutal approach to law ‘n’ order inspired the hit 1973 “hixploitation” flick, Walking Tall. He was noted for using a hefty chunk of lumber to mete out wooden justice to the criminals and lowlifes who dared mess with his town.

The real-life events portrayed in Walking Tall took place not far from where DBT vocalist-guitarist Patterson Hood grew up in north Alabama, but Pusser was no hero to Hood as a kid. He still isn’t.

“It’s nothing personal,” drawls the rocker, on the line from his home in Athens, Georgia. “I didn’t know him or anything. But I wrote the song from the point of a view of someone who certainly wasn’t a fan of his. I’d really thought that there was a more interesting story in the people he was fighting and why, you know, why they wanted him dead. And what their perspective on it was.”

When he was nine years old and Walking Tall was packing them in at his hometown theatre, Hood and his cousin Tommy would play pretend games based on the film’s vigilante premise. Because he was the bigger of the two, Tommy got to be Sheriff Pusser, which was okay with Hood, who preferred the outlaw role. He still does, even though he’s 40 now, with his first baby due in February.”I kinda revisited the movie as an adult a couple of years ago,” he says, “and all I could do was picture that guy comin’ and pullin’ me over, with a couple of open beers in my car. The big stick knockin’ on the window, the sunglasses on, the whole thing. I think I have a problem with authority, and so [the song] just kinda came outta that.”Something else Hood has a problem with these days is the polarizing effect of American politics, so he takes his own hickory stick to President George Bush on the Dirty South tune “Puttin’ People on the Moon”. He’s received hate mail from Bush supporters for the song, which attacks the high levels of unemployment and sickly state of the health-care system Stateside. “Another joker’s in the White House,” sings Hood on the caustic track, “said a change was comin’ round/But I’m workin’ at the Wal-Mart, Mary Alice in the ground/And all them politicians, they all lyin’ sacks of shit/They say ‘better days upon us’, but it’s suckin’ left hind tit.”While The Dirty South is quick to take umbrage with redneck cops and puppet politicians alike, there are some real-life characters whose work garners respectful vibes, as on “Danko/Manuel”. That sombre tribute to former Band members Rick Danko and Richard Manuel was penned by DBT guitarist Jason Isbell, but echoes Hood’s impressions as well.

“We’re huge, huge fans [of the Band],” he stresses. “This week I actually went and saw Festival Express at a theatre here in Athens, and the footage of Richard Manuel singing ‘I Shall Be Released’ is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. I mean, if it doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, you probably need to go to the doctor.”

The Drive-By Truckers have been known to raise a few goose bumps themselves. As anyone who’s witnessed them in concert can attest, Jack Daniel’s–drenched, triple-guitar southern rock hasn’t sounded so sweet since the heyday of Skynyrd. No wonder roots-rock bible No Depression named the group–which returns to Richards on Richard’s on Sunday (October 24)–as 2003’s Band of the Year.

“I love it any time anybody ends up liking the band,” says the modest Hood. “It makes me very happy. [Guitarist Mike] Cooley and I have been playing together for 19 years, and really, up until about three years ago we had been in pretty much total obscurity. We got a couple of nice reviews for the live record [2000’s Alabama Ass Whuppin’], but it was still two- or three-thousand people in the world who might have known a little bit who we were. So it’s kind of a treat for us to all of a sudden have all these people seeming to like it.”

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