By Steve Newton
The Drive-By Truckers have always been a politically minded outfit, but on their brand-new album, American Band, they really waste no time in tackling the big issues of their home country. The opening track, “Ramon Casiano”, tells the fact-based (but little-known) story of former NRA leader Harlon Carter’s shotgun murder, in 1931, of 15-year-old Casiano, who had been loitering with two friends near the Carter family’s property in Laredo, Texas.
“It all started with the border,” sings DBT singer-guitarist Mike Cooley in the song’s opening line, “and that’s still where it is today. Someone killed Ramon Casiano, and the killer got away.”
After leading off with that riff-driven blast of outrage, the Truckers continue with hard-hitting tunes that confront issues of race, income equality, police brutality, and Islamophobia—all of which have been front and centre stateside since a certain billionaire turned politician threw his hat in the ring down there. But Cooley denies that the heavy political bent of American Band is a direct response to the rise of Donald Trump.
“No, no,” he says from his Alabama home, “that’s just a bonus, I guess. All of this stuff was being written up to two years ago—some of the ideas, for me, go back even further than that. And we started recording this thing back in November, and at that point most everybody in the country still thought that once people actually started voting, this guy would fall by the wayside. We still really thought there was no chance in hell this guy was gonna be a nominee of a major party.
“But then people started voting and, lo and behold… So we’re writing all these songs, basically asking the question, ‘What the hell is wrong with you people?’ And now by the time [the album] comes out it’s like, ‘No, really, what the hell is wrong with you people?’ It’s worse than we thought.”
American Band was released in the U.S. last week, just four days before the start of a 30-date North American tour that hits Vancouver’s Rickshaw Theatre tomorrow (October 2). So, politically speaking, the timing was impeccable. Do Cooley and his bandmates feel like they’re on something of a mission to get those new cautionary tunes out to the voting public before it’s too late?
“Well, the bad news, the sad reality, is we could probably sit on this thing for a year and put it out, and it would be just as relevant, just as timely,” he says. “I mean, once we realized what we had, we did want to get it out soon, and get it out while a lot of this is goin’ on. But the way things go, and the way things have been trending, the bad news is songs like this stay relevant and timely a lot longer than they really should, in a perfect world.
“Or,” he adds after a short pause, “in a more perfect world, at least.”