Whether Drive-By Truckers really is “America’s greatest rock band” (Blender Magazine) or “the best hard rock band in America today” (All Music Guide) is certainly worth debating over a couple of beers in a roadhouse some night. Whatever the ultimate verdict, when these alt-country rockers from Alabama take the stage at Baltimore’s Virgin Festival on Saturday, they’ll be playing some of the best rock music around and walking in the footsteps of rock ‘n’ roll greats.
On their latest album, “A Blessing and a Curse,” there are echoes of everyone from the Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival to The Replacements and Modern English, with Neil Young, Tom Petty, and Blue Oyster Cult thrown in for good measure. Combine this archetypal sound with lyrics that examine the dark edges of living a hard life — a life of hard partying, hard loving, and hard choices — and you have an album that is an education in straight-up rock.
“We’ve always written about that [dark] side of things. I think there’s something a little bit rock and roll about that aspect of life,” says Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell. “For me, it’s a lot easier to write about unhappy things than it is to write about happy things.”
Mr. Isbell and Truckers co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley share the writing duties. Part of what makes this great rock ‘n’ roll is the band’s ability to look at the dark and the tragic without making it maudlin and depressing. Instead, as they look at lost love, lost friendships, and lost years, it is stark, real, moving and full of sharp images and hook lines that linger in the consciousness.
They often write about the dangerous atmosphere that surrounds a rock ‘n’ roll band. “It’s very easy to have the excuse, ‘I’m a creative person, I’m predisposed to addictions, any sort of trouble that comes my way, it’s just because I do what I do’ — but that’s not really true,” says Mr. Isbell. “For the most part, people have decisions to make, and they can go either way with them.”
Mr. Isbell, Mr. Hood, and Mr. Cooley also share guitar duties in a configuration that also includes Shonna Tucker on bass and Brad Morgan on drums. The triple guitar attack is one that is rare except in Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet.
For Drive-By Truckers the configuration came about as a result of the band’s breakthrough album, “Southern Rock Opera” (2001). The album was a two-CD, coming-of-age tale about a Southern youth who moves north and takes up punk music. He eventually reconnects with his Southern roots through the pull of Southern rock. The Southern rock band in the opera is modeled after Lynyrd Skynyrd. Mr. Isbell was added to the band in 2001 to be the third guitar for the album tour.
Even though Southern rock is only a small piece of the band’s music, they have managed to find space for all three guitars. “We all enjoy listening to what each other plays,” Mr. Isbell says. “That’s real important when it comes time to find your place.”
Charlottesville’s Old School Freight Train is a band that’s hard to label.
They look like a bluegrass band, complete with banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and stand up bass. Musically, they like to play the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Jazz, Radiohead, an occasional jig and, of course, their own material, which draws on all of the above. Whatever they play Saturday on the free Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center, they’ll do it with youthful enthusiasm and veteran skill.
It’s that combination that attracted the attention of acoustic music virtuoso David Grisman. After hearing their demo, he invited the band to jam with him after one of his gigs at the Birchmere. He immediately asked them to record an album for his label, Acoustic Disc. They have since been invited to tour with him, both as an opening act and as a backup band for some shows.
Their critically acclaimed Acoustic Disc album, “Run,” is a great example of their signature acoustic pop style. For Old School Freight Train singer-guitarist Jesse Harper, it is very simple. “We like playing the instruments that we play,” he says. “They happen to be acoustic banjo and mandolin and fiddle. But you can play anything that you want to. It doesn’t sound the same as other people do, but it’s organic. A lot of things that we jam on when we hang out with other people are pop songs, so we just expanded it. Any music is fair game.”