Review: Drive-By Truckers, The Unraveling & Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Reunions
The next time you’re driving through northern Alabama along the Tennessee River, make a point to pull over at the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama. A Who’s Who list of artists have been laying down tracks there since 1969. Outgrowing the original building (now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation), the studio moved to a new facility in 1979. It ceased operation in 2005.
Two of this year’s most lauded new releases come from Muscle Shoals artists: Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Patterson Hood of DBT was born in Muscle Shoals while Isbell was born about 15 years later and 30 minutes north in Green Hill, Alabama. Hood relocated his band to Athens, Georgia just before Isbell began playing in northern Alabama circles. Hood’s father, bassist David Hood, was already a well-known musician and part of the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, affectionately known as the Swampers. Isbell grew up in an immensely musical family, learning to play the mandolin at the age of six. The senior Hood became a mentor, of sorts, to Isbell. Eventually, Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers in Athens and remained with them for six years and three albums, Decoration Day (2003), The Dirty South (2004), and A Blessing and a Curse (2006).
The respective artist’s new releases have striking similarities, while remaining very unique to each band’s sound. For example, both releases contain a track with the subject matter of substance abuse. The Truckers’ “Heroin Again,” is a call to friends not to partake. In it, Hood sings, “Didn’t ’71 teach us anything / Didn’t ’94 teach us anything / Discovered me and tempted me / Never quite captured me / Always just turned away / I’ve lost so many friends that way.” Isbell, on the other hand, has been vocal about his struggle with drugs and alcohol, voluntarily checking himself into rehab in 2012. On “It Gets Easier,” Isbell sings, “I can say it’s all worth it but you won’t believe me / Hold down your liquor, or swallow your pride / You’d rather keep it inside / It gets easier, but it never gets easy.”
Both The Unraveling and Reunions have received critical and commercial success as each band continues to exponentially grows its fanbase. The Truckers’ first single was “Armageddon’s Back in Town,” a rocking reminder of the fire in their respective bellies. Another commonality of these two groups is the unfettered and outspoken political opinions, despite the lack thereof from others in this genre. On “Thoughts and Prayers” a song commenting on America’s growing gun epidemic, Hood sings, “When my children’s eyes look at me and they ask me to explain / It hurts me that I have to look away / The powers that be are in for shame and comeuppance / When Generation Lockdown has their day.” Another stark reminder of America’s current situation is the powerful “Babies in Cages” – and yes, that’s what it’s about
Isbell does his part, as well, to add to our country’s political discourse. On “Be Afraid,” he sings, “We’ve been testing you, and you failed / To see how long that you could sit with the truth but you bailed / I don’t think you even recognize the loss of control / I don’t think you even see it in yourself / See every one of us is counting dice that we didn’t roll / And the loser is the last to ask for help.” The song could become a battle cry for American citizens speaking out on the current state of our union.
Neither artist suddenly came to the realization in 2020 that our democracy was in tatters. Social justice has been in their DNA for sometime. The DBT’s 2016 release American Band called out hate based simply on skin color. On “What It Means,” the band illustrates episodes of killings of young, Black men and boys: “And that guy who killed that kid / Down in Florida standing ground / Is free to beat up on his girlfriend / And wave his brand new gun around.” Powerful words. Isbell and his 400 Unit made us stare down injustice and racism on 2017’s That Nashville Sound. Tunes such as “White Man’s World” and “Last of My Kind” spoke to implicit bias and white privilege in a powerful and plaintive voice. How many fans will they lose as they speak out?
As many in our country seek to preserve the rights our Constitution laid out for every American, it is important for voices such as these to reach out and be heard. Both releases will give you a renewed sense of hope in music and in our country. Do yourself a favor and buy them now. For more information, visit and interact with these two artists on social media: Drive-By Truckers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Bandcamp. Jason Isbell on Twitter, Instagram, and Bandcamp.
Long live rock…and VOTE.
Categories: Commentary, Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Muscle Shoals, New Music