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Southern Rock, Midwestern Soul

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Alex Chambers:  For Stephen Deusner, songwriters fall into one of two camps. There are the ones who wanna tell you something, and then there are the ones who wanna figure something out.

Stephen Deusner:  And I think that the Truckers definitely fall into that category.

Alex Chambers:  He's talking about the Drive-By Truckers, the band he just published a book about. He says their interest in leaving things open ended is a big part of their genius in writing and singing about the American South. This is Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. I'm Alex Chambers. This week a conversation with music critic Stephen Deusner about Southern Rock, Rockets, the masculinity of Jimmy Carter, and more. We also have a review of a local band that made President Obama's best of list. That's all coming up right after this.

Alex Chambers:  There's a rocket in Northern Alabama. It's on Inner State 65. You see it as you cross into the state from Tennessee. You can see it from quite far away. That, for me, was always the indicator that I was getting to where I was going, which in my case was Tuscaloosa. I was coming from Indiana. I don't know, but that wasn't an aspect of the south that I thought about that much. The fact that Huntsville has one of the major space programs in the country. I would stop at the rest stop, get up, walk around, stand under the engines, eight of them, five feet across each, look straight up, think about how much power it would take to lift that giant tower all the way up into the sky. What I wanna say is for me that rocket was the entrance into the south. Even though I'd been south of the Mason Dixon line for two states coming through Kentucky and Tennessee, I didn't really understand anything about the south when I moved to Tuscaloosa in my twenties. I grew up in the north, a small liberal arts college town and was a Yankee through and through. I probably still am. I learned that some of the stereotypes about the south have some truth, and also that it's a much more complex place than I think people tend to give it credit for. So, I was excited to see Stephen Deusner's new book. Stephen's a music journalist. He writes for Uncut Magazine, Pitchfork, Stereo Gun and other online and print publications. His book is called "Where the Devil Don't Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers". It came out in September 2021, and as of January 2022, it's gone into a second printing. He's a southerner, talking about a southern band. And the Drive-By Truckers and Stephen both have really complicated relationships with the south. So, I'm excited to present this conversation about how we think about the south, its legacy, its imprint on American culture more broadly, especially now in the 21st century, when in theory the past would be dead, but of course, the past is never dead. It's not even past. The south brings with it a legacy of racism, big questions of class come up as well, and the fact that the Tuckers really seem to love where they're from. What does it mean to not believe in the things associated with a place? Which really is relevant for anyone living in the United States, or should be. But might feel especially present for southerners, because of the associations we have with the south, that racism, which again is all over the country. The Confederate flag, you know, and so on. The Truckers and Stephen are both trying to reckon with those legacies. This is Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers.

Alex Chambers:  Stephen Deusner, welcome to Inner States.

Stephen Deusner:  Oh, thank you for having me. I'm honored to be here.

Alex Chambers:  So, your book is organized by geography rather than chronologically, which I kind of loved. Each chapter is about a different place. So, it starts with the Shoals, Muscle Shoals, then we go to Memphis Tennessee, Athens, Georgia, Birmingham and more. But I wanna start in Selmer. That's the county seat of McNairy County Tennessee on the border with Mississippi and it's also of course where you grew up. Can you just start by telling me about growing up there.

Stephen Deusner:  You know, it's a very, very small town. You knew your neighbors and you pretty much knew everybody in town, you know. It was great 'cause you got to play in the woods all the time and you got to just, you know, walk into town whenever you wanted to. But it also meant that if you did something wrong, people would know and people would tell your parents about that.

Alex Chambers:  You moved to the north from, was it from Memphis? You moved to Delaware. And you write that it was around then that you started to see McNairy County as a place tinged with tragedy.

Stephen Deusner:  Yes. First I discovered the Drive-By Truckers, which helped me kind of romanticize my southern past. But it was, I don't remember the exact year, but after I'd left, Mary Winkler shot her husband. She was a pastor's wife in Selmer and for a variety of reasons, she shot her husband with a shotgun and grabbed their small children and fled. And it made national news. I learned about it from CNN and I remember like it was the top story on CNN dot com one day and I just kind of clicked on it and said oh where did that happen? I was like oh that happened next door to where I grew up. And it was so strange in the days following that to see like the parents or friends of mine from Selmer on national TV giving interviews. And I was struck by a sort of measured response to all of this, where they accepted it as a tragedy and they understood that she had done it, but they were not condemning her yet. They were still interested in finding out the reasons behind it and what brought this on and trying to understand it. And of course that also became a Truckers song, The Wig he made her Wear. Which is it's a very different take on the sensationalism of the trial.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, I think one of the ways we tend to think about the south in the more national consciousness is like as the Gothic, you know, just this exaggerated sort of grotesque tragedy all over the place constantly. And the Truckers are dealing with that clearly and trying to make it more complex. So let's go to the record store in Delaware where you first picked up the Truckers, Decoration Day. Tell me about what was important about that album, and you know, sort of that discovery.

Stephen Deusner:  Well, a lot of what made it important was when I discovered it. I mean obviously I'd moved out of the south, I was living somewhere, a totally new culture for the first time in my life. And I went up there to follow my wife. She was attending graduate school for art history. And, you know, I went up there with her, but I didn't really have any job prospects and, you know, Northern Delaware is not necessarily a thriving hub for would be writers. I had a really bad job at a credit card company with some what I thought were dubious practices that I was not very happy about. And my dad was back in Selmer and he had been diagnosed with brain cancer. And he would die within about a year of me moving up there. So all of this combined to kind of make me feel a little lost in the world. And so I went by Rainbow Records in Newark Delaware and I saw a used copy of Decoration Day on CD. And I knew the name, 'cause I was like what is this band with this awful name? But, I didn't really know them very well and so I just bought it on kind of impulse.

Stephen Deusner:  You know to hear, to be in that state, both you know, mentally and physically in the State of Delaware, I guess, you know. To be in that state and to hear that band sing about things that reminded me of home, that were home in a lot of ways. And to hear a band sing with that kind of accent and with those kinds of details in them, like this was not the storybook south. It was not a Gothic kind of retelling of old stories of anything like that. It was the south as it existed right then. It was the south that I understood and I recognized. And it was truly profound. It's one of the most profound introductions to a band I think I've ever had in my life. And I mean, obviously, it's followed through to a book.

Alex Chambers:  Okay, so let's say we're in that record store now and someone is like, so, who are the Truckers? How would you describe them?

Stephen Deusner:  Well, first and foremost I would say they're just a bad ass rock and roll band and I hope I can say that on the air. I mean 'cause that's the best word I think to describe them. They are, you know, a band with roots in Muscle Shoals in Athens, Georgia. They are southern rock, but they are many other things as well. And I think that's kind of the key to their longevity is that they are so many different bands at different points in their career. So that, you know, they kind of start as this hokey country band. And I say hokey in an affectionate way. I mean there are some sort of jokey songs at the beginning, but even at their very beginning, they are writing songs that are very character driven and very sort of rooted in place. And then they become the southern rock band who records Southern Rock Opera in 2001. And I think it is probably the most impactful and consequential statement about the south, of the white south in the 21st century. But, you know, even then they sort of shift from that into this band that is really playing around with these R&B influences in the late 2000s, and then they shift from that into being a political band. They've written some of the most remarkable and affecting and smart protest songs of the last decade. American Band, I think is a landmark album, rock album for the 2010s. So, a lot of different bands all in one.

Alex Chambers:  So, let's get into them a bit. And maybe we'll go, sort of going geographically also in this conversation, let's go to the Shoals and their start. Tell me about Patterson and Cooley and how their childhoods got them ending up as the Truckers.

Stephen Deusner:  Well I think of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, they're the two main song writers, guitar players, front men. I think of them as they're the two mainstays in the band and they're sort of the two main characters in the book. And it's kind of exploring their relationship with each other and they're very different people. So, Mike Cooley is kind of born out in the country. He grows up with his grandmother. He comes to song writing and playing music kind of late in life. And he only knows Muscle Shoals as just home. He did not know a whole lot about the music that was made there and the music that was still being made there when he was born. It just all seemed like oldies on the radio to him. Meanwhile, Patterson was born, you know, his dad is David Hood, who's the base player for the legendary Swampers. He played with pretty much everybody who ever recorded down there. Aretha Franklin, Wilson Picket. You know, they get called out in Lynyrd Skynyrd song Sweet Home Alabama. He gets called out by Mavis Staples on one of the Staple Singer songs. And I think that's the height of the highest honor is to have Mavis Staples call you out in a song. And so he's living a very different life in the same place. And so they kind of meet when they've kind of moved out of their houses and they're trying to make a go of college. And they're roommates, they're very different. It's like the Odd Couple. You know, Patterson is very talkative, very outgoing. Cooley's kind of reserved, kind of cool, kind of quiet. But they're kind of, you know, they have in common this desire to be in a rock band and to put Muscle Shoals back on the map. And so they formed a band called Adam's House Cat and played as much as they could. They even won like a national, not won, but they were runners up in a national contest for best unsigned band. And they never went anywhere.

Alex Chambers:  If you're just tuning in, I'm talking with Stephen Deusner about southern rock, the south and the book he just published about the Drive-ByTruckers. This is Inner States.

Alex Chambers:  It's Inner States. I'm Alex Chambers. I'm talking with Stephen Deusner about souther rock, the south and the book he just published about the Drive-By Truckers. So, Adam's House Cat, they get frustrated. That doesn't work out in spite of their talent and they move to Memphis. Stephen wrote really eloquently about this. So, I asked him to read a paragraph about how Memphis affected Patterson and Cooley.

Stephen Deusner:  Here may be the beginning of Patterson truly figuring out his position as a white man confronting the lived reality of racial tension. He says he was naive about racism in Alabama, but our truest beliefs aren't always challenged in our home towns. Instead they must be tested elsewhere in a place that puts everything in sharp relief. It's impossible to be naive about race in Memphis. Through their experiences with the mayoral election and the deep seated anxieties it aggravated in the city, Patterson and Cooley began to recognize these cues, possibly without even knowing it. Their time in Memphis was crucial to their development as a socially conscious rock and roll band. It's the source of their formulation of the duality of the southern thing, that mix of pride and shame that informs their, my, our feeling about our home.

Alex Chambers:  That relatively brief stay in Memphis made Patterson and Cooley into songwriters who could write about social issues, who had to write about social issues. It was hard to avoid, and that mayoral election was a big part of it. It was 1991. W.W. Herenton was running to be the first black man elected as mayor or Memphis against the white incumbent, Richard Hackett. Herenton won, but by less than 150 votes. And what happened next, or didn't happen, was a result of the deeper history of race in the city.

Stephen Deusner:  Beale street historically has been the sort of capital of black culture in America. It's hugely important and locally disregarded for a long time. But, when the votes were counted, they were very close and the black candidate had the higher count, and they thought that the white candidate would contest. And they thought if it was contested, there would be riots on Beale street by black Memphians, which probably tells you a lot about, you know, the attitude white had towards blacks in Memphis at the time. So that didn't happen, but I still think that the possibility of that happening, and having to confront that, left a big impression on both of them.

Alex Chambers:  Were there aspects of their thinking about class relationships also that came up in Memphis?

Stephen Deusner:  Yes. And it's interesting, because they don't really write explicitly about race very often, but they write about class a lot and they saw greater poverty in Memphis, especially when they were there, which was in like '91. There was not a lot going on, you know, the city had not really done much to sort of celebrate black history, black musical history in the city. They've corrected that a lot now and I think it's a very different city now, but at the time there was a lot of poverty and I think they saw that they were exposed to a very different kind of poverty than they saw, you know, urban poverty being very different from rural poverty.

Alex Chambers:  I think one of the things that I've found most intriguing about them as I was discovering them through your book, and listening to their music, and hearing you talk about their songs, is what you already mentioned about the way they're writing in characters. And, you know, there's the heathen songs, which I'm interested in thinking about. These characters that they're writing and who are. At one point you write the "Truckers aren't necessarily defending these men and women who operate on the outer most fringes of capitalism." But one of the things is, you know, capitalism doesn't give everyone access, equal access to like not being on the fringes, you know. [LAUGHS] Like people have to be in and out of the fringes for it to work. I think the rural south is a good example of that, of people not having access to, you know, good jobs, you know, there's just a lot of economic struggle. And so I wonder if you could talk more about what it means for them to be writing these songs. And this is throughout their career. Writing these songs from the perspective of these outsiders.

Stephen Deusner:  Okay, so let's start with a song called Putting People on the Moon... Which is basically a monologue from the point of view of a character who lives in or near Huntsville Alabama and understands the importance of Huntsville for NASA and, you know, that's the rockets that are there. Hold on. No, I got distracted 'cause I always stop at a rest stop near Huntsville and there's this giant rocket.

Alex Chambers:  Right, I remember that.

Stephen Deusner:  Yeah. It's a pretty traumatic site there. It's really something, especially when you kind of see it and you're still a mile or two away. It's like yeah, it's huge.

Alex Chambers:  You know like you've made it into Alabama at that point.

Stephen Deusner:  Yes, yeah.

Alex Chambers:  And I would never have expected again just to think about my relationship to the south, like I at the time didn't know about Huntsville and it's relationship to the space program and stuff. So, I was like what's this rocket doing [LAUGHS] in Northern Alabama?

Stephen Deusner:  Well, I knew 'cause at one point my parents talked about sending me to space camp there. And I was not sure I wanted to go because I think I was young enough to think you actually went to space. And thinking like that's a little further from home that I wanna go when I'm like, I don't know, ten or whatever, you know, so.

Alex Chambers:  I wanted to do space camp too when I was around that age. And, but I think that Huntsville Alabama would have felt like going to space for me [LAUGHS] being from Massachusetts.

Stephen Deusner:  Oh yeah, yeah, that's a little further for you. Okay, so what was the question? [LAUGHS]

Alex Chambers:  So, the question was thinking about the characters.

Stephen Deusner:  Yes. So, I think writing in character is very important for them to give a kind of grounded realistic and sympathetic portrayal of the south at this time. And I think about a song like Putting People on the Moon, which is a Patterson song. And it is a monologue by a guy who understands that Huntsville, which is where he's from and where he's writing this song, is important to the space program. He knows a lot of money comes into town for that, but he never sees this. And his life is just kind of falling apart. His wife dies of cancer, he loses his job. All of these things are impacting him. And the only way he can stay afloat, that he sees it is to sell drugs, basically. And that's the sort of crux of the song. And it's a very powerful thing, because it's, you know, you can sing about like why don't we take the money that we spend on space exploration and make people's lives better. You can say that in a song, but it has more power when it comes from a character. It has more power when it's a story that way. And, Patterson, in particular, writes almost like short stories with these great characters, who maybe you don't wanna have a beer with, maybe you don't wanna hang out with, but they're still so complicated. And ultimately they are so sympathetic. I mean he creates all of these people who are relatable, even if you don't know the sort of milieu that the inhabit, even if you're not a southerner, you can still identify with these people. And I think that is part of what makes their songs powerful, but also what makes the message powerful when they became more explicitly politically song writers. People were kind of upset and I always thought like no, they're been political songwriters since the very beginning. It's just now they're, you know, they don't have that filter of character and story. They're just, you know, telling it like it is and very directly now. And so that I think that character based storytelling and I think that class based story telling are linked. I think they're pretty much the same thing, actually.

Alex Chambers:  And I mean again, I think even in their first two albums, they were doing this with these more, these really like not necessarily very likable or respectable kinds of characters. But still trying to make them, like not trying to put them on a pedestal, but make them somehow sympathetic.

Stephen Deusner:  Yeah. One of the first songs they ever recorded was called Bulldozers and Dirt... And it's about a guy who's trying hard to resist the advances of his teenage stepdaughter. And so he goes out in the back yard on a baco and pushes dirt around all day to kind of try and, it's like his cold shower. It's like how do you make a song about that? How do you make it good that you wanna hear it more than once? Like how do you make that into something that that's compelling? Like that's, like when I first heard that, it was like I didn't realize that rock songs could do that. That was a big deal. That song in particular, I still think about as like it's like a magic trick or something. Like sleight of hand, how did he do that? It's like I still don't know.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, yeah. It's amazing. So, I feel like this connects to, if we keep moving around a little bit throughout the south, outside of Gillsburg, Mississippi and what happened there. And the chapter, the conceptual chapter that that opens up. [LAUGHS] Also that actual chapter in your book. But I wonder if you could talk about the story of what happened there and then how that also connects to the Truckers themselves.

Stephen Deusner:  Okay. So, as far as I understand it, the Truckers have never been to Gillsburg, but the band that has been to Gillsburg is Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their plane actually crashed there and killed, among other people, the front man Ronnie Van Zant. And, that plane crash became sort of like a, I don't wanna say urban legend, but rural legend, like in the south for a certain generation of guys, there were a lot of rumors that spread that sort of, those legends that arose out of that, that really fascinated the band. And so they started writing a rock opera about Lynyrd Skynyrd and about that plane crash and about all of those legends then that kind of informed their own love of rock and roll, but sort of that generational relationship with southern rock. And that became Southern Rock Opera. And that's kind of when they kind of make a name for themselves with that. And, you know, it ends with the plane going down and this incredible song called Angels on Fuselage that kind of tries to imagine an afterlife for the band. And it's a very moving, moving moment at the end. And I've seen them play that song and end shows with it a lot, and it's always just a remarkable moment where they all kind of leave the stage all at once. And usually Brad Morgan, the drummer, is left playing this beat, the stoic beat and he just plays it a little longer than you expect. Like he's just trying to keep them alive, those few extra moments. It's a very moving thing. So, yeah, so the Trucker story and the Skynyrd Story are kind of intertwined in interesting ways.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah you argue in the book that early Skynyrd before the plane crash was actually a little bit more complex than what they then became.

Stephen Deusner:  Oh yeah. That was one of the amazing discoveries for me, at least. I think other people knew this, but I always thought of Skynyrd as being that, you know, that kind of rock band that always had the Confederate flag around and they were just, you know, southern pride and blah blah blah. But they were really interrogating that in certain ways and in certain ways there weren't. But there were ways that they were subverting what at the time was a pretty widespread ideal of southern masculinity that you see in Walking Tall, or Deliverance, or, you know, even like Jimmy Carter, even Jimmy Carter seemed like his presence, he seemed like a product of this idea of southern manhood in the 70s. And Skynyrd were subverting that. There's this song called Three Steps, where this guy at a bar comes up and threatens him and I think there's a line where he like, you know, pisses himself and then like is asking the guy, just give me a head start to run away from you. And it's like in the middle of a fight, he's not a hero, he's a coward. He wants to run away. And it's like that's a pretty powerful thing to write a song about as a southerner. And then you've got a lot of songs about guns. There's a song where he's just basically saying like we ought to take these guns and put them at the bottom of the ocean, because that's where they belong. And it's like that is a band that has been adopted and is now viewed as a very right wing pro gun band. And they're not really that at all. They're something a little bit more complicated. Granted, that's the band without Ronnie Van Zant, who was the songwriter. So, there's a distinction between the Skynyrd we know now, which I think of as a zombie band, kind of rose from the dead after he died and kept going without him. And I don't think they're nearly the band that they were.

Alex Chambers:  Side note, Jimmy Carter's presidency as an example of a certain kind of southern manhood. Just can you explain. I'm not sure what you're talking about there.

Stephen Deusner:  Oh sure.

Alex Chambers:  'Cause I just haven't thought about like, you know, I think of the like, put on a sweater and solar panels when I think of Jimmy Carter. [LAUGHS]

Stephen Deusner:  So, somebody asked me one time about Southern Rock and what makes Southern rock as we sort of know it from the 70s different from like rock bands from the south. And I think of Southern Rock as being a very specifically 70s thing that encompasses the Allman brothers all the way up through Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane crash and Carter. As a point where you're getting these new depictions of what it means to be a man in America and seeing the southern redneck as like this great example of masculinity, 'cause he's somebody who's, you know, physically strong and speaks his mind and can win a fight. And, you know, you kind of get that in the Allman brothers, a very soulful version of that and a very problematic example of that. And I think that kind of leads up to Carter. I mean, a lot of those guys were campaigning for Carter. The Allmans played several shows for him. And I think he kind of played into that. He wasn't as much of an example as like Gregg Allman would have been, or Ronnie Van Zant, but he was sort of like, I think people saw him in that same way as this kind of like southern man who was gonna get in there and push people around, I guess. Which is totally not what happened. He was a very different sort of southern man than the 70s offered us. And I think that's really fascinating and I find it very rewarding to see his legacy being rewritten. There's a documentary recently called Rock and Roll President about him and about his relationship to rock and roll and music in general and hosting all of these great concerts at the White House. And, you know, it feels like a continuum to me.

Alex Chambers:  If you're just tuning in, I'm talking with Stephen Deusner about Southern Rock, the south and the book he just published about the Drive-By Truckers. This is Inner States. When we come back, Stephen talks about having to take a hard look at his own and stories, when he wrote about his grandmother,Love, in the book. And yes.

Stephen Deusner:  That's her real name.

Alex Chambers:  We'll be right back.

Alex Chambers:  Inner States. Alex Chambers. We're talking about Stephen Deusner's book, Where the Devil Don't Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-ByTruckers. Stephen wrote a lot more about his own life in this book than he ever had before as a critic. Was it a challenge for you to write more personally, like to include yourself? Did you feel uncomfortable with it?

Stephen Deusner:  There were times. You know, it started out the first sort of chapter draft that I wrote was for my home town Selmer, that's the first one, that's where I started. And so I really did have to kind of examine a lot of my own assumptions about the south and ideas about the south and really challenge myself. And I really had to challenge myself to write very precisely. There's a part in the Birmingham chapter which is where my mother's family is from, where I write about sitting in bed as a child with my grandmother, Grandmother Love, that's her real name. and she would read me, or tell me, she didn't have to read, she had it memorized, the Brer Rabbit and Brer Bear story Brer Fox. The Joel Chandler Harris stuff. And at the time I just thought these were great stories. She would do the voices and the dialects and everything and I think now people would see that as very problematic. Joel Chandler Harris is a very sort of complicated and contradictory character. These stories, I did some research into them and they're like, people don't know what to do with them because they do on one hand preserve a lot of folklore but they kind of benefited a white man who really thought slaves were better off if they stayed on the plantation. And I really had to sort of dive into what this meant for my grandmother to be telling me these stories as a child. And I still don't think I've quite figured that out, but when I think back on them, I think back on the sort of boundless love and just this feeling of security of being in a child with her and I think that's important, and I think that that complicates things and I have to deal with that. And so yeah that was one that really I went through several drafts. I found myself trying to write away from it or put too fine a point on it and I think it kind of allowed me, I think it finally allowed myself to leave it unsolved and unsettled 'cause I think that that is something that will probably be unsolved and unsettled when I die. I probably will not have like figured out exactly how to feel about that. So, yeah, there were moments that were a little uncomfortable, but I think that discomfort was useful.

Alex Chambers:  Which I think the Truckers teach us too.

Stephen Deusner:  Oh exactly, yeah, yeah. It's weird 'cause for a band that is so beloved, they really do challenge their fans. They don't let them get too comfortable, so.

Alex Chambers:  So, I have I think two more things I wanted to ask you. And one of those things is about that. If you have any particular songs that you wanna just maybe make sure to give a shout out to. I mean I know there's like probably 200 that you probably want to.

Stephen Deusner:  I mean right off the top of my head, there's a song called the Deeper in, that's off of Decoration Day. Which is Decoration Day is still, to me, I think their best album. It's the first one with Jason Isbell. It's the first one after Southern Rock Opera. And so I think they're kind of feeling it, like they're just like this is our moment, let's just let's hit it hard. And it starts with a very quiet song about a brother and sister who fall in love... And they run off together. And they start a family. And they are arrested and jailed and their family is split up. And it is taking something that is such a cliched southern joke about incest, about rural families, sort of the family trees that sort of grow back into themselves, that has always been a sort of joke about the south, about the rural south. And Patterson takes that song, takes that idea, puts it to a story and finds so much humanity and so much compassion. And it ends in a way that I find very devastating, 'cause it's very open ended. It's not a settled ending. It's still sort of up in the air and it is, I don't know I find that really remarkable. I remember talking to Jason Isbell and he said that that was one of the first ones he was like oh, I get it, I get what these guys are doing. And I think you can kind of tell that there's a little bit of that song in a lot of what Jason Isbell does these days too.

Stephen Deusner:  I would also wanna shout out Uncle Frank, which is a Mike Cooley song. And that's like one of the first like ten or 12 he wrote. Like he was a late bloomer, but man when he started, it's like he had everything he needed just right there. But anyway Uncle Frank is sort of about building the Wilson Dam. Or building Wilson Reservoir and flooding this area... That had been sort of home to a lot of people who were like we said, kind of on the fringes a little bit. Guys who sort of made a living off the earth in a very resourceful manner. And how those people and that kind of culture that built up around those people was completely obliterated when they flooded this area to build the Wilson reservoir. And, you know, it's not anti progress, it's not trying to suggest that this larger project was not worthwhile. But it is just trying to say these are the people who get left behind. These are the people who get rewritten out of history. This is sort of the debris or progress. And much like the Deeper End, it ends with just one of the finest moments in their catalog where Cooley is singing about Uncle Frank who he says is fictional, but is based on real people. And Uncle Frank couldn't read or write, so there's no note or letter found when he died, just a noose around his neck and a kitchen table turned on its side. And it's just like that just give you chills. I mean that is coming down to a person. That's the price. And that's a song that every time I hear it I find a new implication, or a new angle on it. I was listening to it on the way here, in fact. And just like damn, I've picked a good subject for a podcast [LAUGHS] I think.

Alex Chambers:  And I think another reason it's such a good subject is just they've been so prolific over the years. Which brings me to the last thing I wanna ask. And because I was thinking about this geographically, I was sort of thinking to come back. You know, Patterson moves to Portland, Oregon. So, we've got, you know, that part and your book ends out west. But here we are in Bloomington and you're writing a lot of the book at the coffee shop that we both have done writing in in the past. And thinking about what you got from writing the book and spending all this time with him. Do you have insights as a result of this about maintaining like a creative life, managing to continue to create really interesting and worthwhile work over such a long period of time? I mean, they've been writing songs for decades.

Stephen Deusner:  I mean that's a very good question and I can't speak specifically for them, because I think Patterson would probably have a very good answer for this. As I see it, I mean I think the secret to that is kind of having these obsessions that you can move from and onto the next. That, you know, or using your craft and your art to, it's not having something to say, it's about figuring out what you wanna say, figuring out what you believe and how you see the world. I tend to think of a lot of songwriters as falling into two camps. One is the people who wanna tell you something. They're gonna write a song in order to express something that they already know. And then I think there are other people who write a song to figure out what they're feeling or what they think. And I tend to gravitate toward the latter. And I think that the Truckers definitely fall into that category, because even these songs that are so concrete that are filled with these beautiful details and these incredibly complex characters, they're never quite settled. They never quite, you know, they don't mean one thing. You can read a lot into them, but even just living with them and growing with them and, you know, hearing them in different contexts, they reveal new things. And I think that that not only gives people like me and all these die hard fans something to grab onto and to sort of live with, but I think it gives them something to bounce off of. They don't get tired of playing these songs. They played the Living Bubba and Three Dimes Down. They've played those 100s of times. And they don't get tired of them because I think they're still trying to figure out what the implications of these songs are. I think that's a big part of it. And just they don't get as much credit for the breadth of their catalog too. So I think having all of these different musical ideas and paths that they wanna go down is a big deal as well.

Alex Chambers:  Yeah, next time I interview Patterson, I actually kinda wanna ask him that 'cause that's a very good question and one that I will probably wake up at two o'clock in the morning thinking, oh, I should have said that. That's the obvious answer. But I guess I'll leave it there for now. [LAUGHS] Well awesome Stephen Deusner thank you so much for taking the time.

Stephen Deusner:  Oh, it's my pleasure. My pleasure. Thank you.

Alex Chambers:  Stephen Deusner's book is Where the Devil don't Stay. Traveling the south with the Drive-by Truckers. Coming up, a review of a band that started almost by accident here in Southern Indiana and ended up on a best of list from someone you've probably heard of regardless of where you live. This is Adriane Pontecorvo reviewing the latest album from Durand Jones and the Indications.

Adriane Pontecorvo:  When former president Barack Obama released his favorite songs of 2021 play list, no one was surprised by his eclectic mix of chart toppers and critical darlings, including much talked about artists like Lil Nas X, Mitski and Lizzo. Bloomington locals though would likely have been even more interested in another featured act, Durand Jones and the Indications, a local favorite rooted in classic soul sounds that's been making waves since their first live show at the Bishop Bar in 2014. At the time, that show as also meant to be the band's last, the fleeting combination of a serendipitous collaboration. Instead it launched a nationally acclaimed career. Like so many local artists, front man, Durand Jones, first came to town as a student at Indiana university's Jacob's school of music. The school has plenty of high profile acts and it wasn't long before Jones was deeply involved. He played alto saxophone in the famed Canary quartet. Then he started singing in the IU Soul Revue. The Soul Revue has been an incubator for R&B, soul, funk and black pop performers for half a century. It was with the Soul Revue that Jones met engineer, Blake Rhein. Rhein invited Jones to start writing songs with him and drummer Aaron Frazer. And before long they had enough music to put on their single planned show.

Adriane Pontecorvo:  By the end of the gig at the Bishop though, it was clear that audiences wanted more of the newly minted Indications and their retro stylings. Soon they got it. In 2015, Coal Mine Records released their self titled debut, made up of recordings from their early jam sessions. It established the group as fully in tune with 60's soul and 70's funk. The album picked up so much steam that the group finally started touring in 2017 with Steve Okonski joining the line up on organs. In 2018, the group's debut got a much needed reissue from Indy label, Dead Oceans, a member of Bloomington's Secretly group. That same year, a live album with tracks recorded in Bloomington and Boston brought the group's on stage energy to listeners everywhere. 2019 sophomore album, American Love Call showed off the Indications' thoughtful side. Packed with ballads on issues of social justice and anthems of love and loss. A handful of singles released over 2020 included a cover of Young Americans and originals Never Heard Him Say and Power to the People.

Adriane Pontecorvo:  Most recently, Durand Jones and the Indications have launched their productions to greater heights by supplementing slow jams with modern takes on vintage disco on 2021s Private Space. Witchoo, the album's second track and former President Obama's pick, is a particular stand out in that regard. It takes us straight to the dance floor with neo colored synths and a particularly nimble base line. As Jones and Frazer pass quick verses back and forth, they build up energy. Raising it up even further is a cloud of carefully placed background chatter suggesting a full crowd. Other tracks keep the disco references more classic. The Way that I Do punctuates heated lyrics with bars of four on the floor beats and airy sections of intricate strings. Okonski's piano cords and Michael Montgomery's riveting base line carry the cool mid tempo groves of Sea of Love from a low key start to an electrifying finale. There are new vocal dynamics on Private Space between Jones and Frazer, the group's two lead singers. Jones grew up singing in gospel choirs and it's always served him well with the Indications. He brings a powerful range of emotions to every song. On More than Ever, he gives one of his most versatile performances yet as he winds smoothly from soft and soothing to totally exuberant.

Adriane Pontecorvo:  On the other hand, Frazer sings with a Smokey Robinson adjacent falsetto. There's a sweetness to even his strongest moments. On the soaring title track, this is especially clear as Frazer croons over a full bed of keys, flutes and harps. While Jones's name still gets top billing in some of the group;s best tracks, Frazer's voice has become more prominent in the Indications mix over time. The added high end lends itself well to many of the group's more sentimental ballards, making for a satisfying foil to Jones's richer tones. It's especially sublime when Jones and Frazer sing together, like they do in the warmly layered course of Love Song Ride or Die. Songs about love, lust and good times make up the bulk of Private Space, but the Indications always take some time to go deeper. Perhaps the album's greatest lyrical triumph is right up front with opening track Love Will Work it Out. Here Jones delivers heartfelt messages of hope and solidarity in the face of violence, systemic injustice, sickness and death. He's deeply sincere as he sings about feeling the pain of lives lost and global strife. He's even more passionate as he sings his solution that joy will set us free. On the other end of the album, I Can See offers a rosy outlook on an unknown future. One kept clear by the relative simplicity of the track's mellow keys and gentle base line, and elevated by simmering guitar fuzz. Together, these two tracks frame Private Space as an album that signals change for the better.

Adriane Pontecorvo:  For old fans, this album is a moving reintroduction to Durand Jones and the Indications. For new listeners, it's an electrifying place to start. The Indications forged their initial bond over a love of the classics. Now, they're far beyond revival as they expand their sound into modern electro soul. As much as they continue to pay tribute to their longtime musical influences, their appeal here goes beyond vintage curiosity and nostalgia. Familiar sounds have a fresh cutting edge and contemporary relevance. This is a group at the top of their game so far in terms of song craft and production. At the start of the pandemic, the Indications spent a lot of time apart. Private Space is a celebration of coming together again. They're reconnecting with each other and with the musical community, both in Bloomington and beyond. And for all the album's surprises, the amount of buzz the group is getting isn't shocking. While they'll always hold a special place in the hearts of their [PHONETIC: hooger] fans, it seems likely that Durand Jones and the Indications are destined for fame on a much larger scale.

Alex Chambers:  Adriane Pontecorvo is a music writer, studying ethno musicology at Indiana university. You've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington Indiana. If you have a story for us, or you've got some sound we should hear, let us know at Speaking of found sound, we've got you a quick moment of slow radio coming up. But first, the credits. Inner States is produced and edited by me, Alex Chambers, with support from Eoban Binder, Aaron Cain, Mark Chilla, Michael Paskash, Payton Whaley and Kayte Young. Our executive producer is John Bailey. Special thanks this week to Stephen Deusner and Adriane Pontecorvo. Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music. Alright, time to take a breath and listen to a place.

Alex Chambers:  In case it's not obvious, that was the sound of ten million crows. Winter, Bloomington, Indiana. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.

Stephen Deusner

Music critic Stephen Deusner (Anna Powell Denton)

For music critic Stephen Deusner, songwriters fall into one of two camps. There are the ones who have something they want to tell you, and then there are the ones who want to figure something out. For him, the longevity of the Drive-By Truckers comes from their residence in the second camp. For decades now, they’ve been writing smart, complex songs whose characters add complexity to our picture of rural America, especially the South. Stephen’s book about the Truckers, Where the Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers, was published in the fall of 2021, and is now on its second printing. On today’s episode of Inner States, we talk about the South, Southern Rock, rockets, the masculinity of Jimmy Carter, and, of course, the Truckers.

Music Review

After our conversation with Stephen Deusner, Adriane Pontecorvo reviews Private Space, the latest album from Durand Jones and the Indications. The band started almost by accident in Bloomington, Indiana. The second track on Private Space, “Witchoo,” ended up on Barack Obama’s best-of list for 2021.


Our theme song is by Amy Oelsner and Justin Vollmar. We have additional music from the artists at Universal Production Music.

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