By Worth Parker
Home is the place we run from or to, depending on the winds that blow across the oceans of our lives. Sometimes the world comes calling, sleek, seductive, and so dripping with real and imagined promises it draws you away from home and everything you know. Sometimes you outgrow the frailties of home or have to get some distance to fathom its beauty. Growing up in Georgia, I was quick to find the faults with my home while simultaneously clinging to many of them.
I came of age in the 1980s, when the vestiges of the Ku Klux Klan still stopped people at rural intersections to solicit money, using their pointy hoods to collect change the way firefighters use boots. I’m 46 now, and my father remains proud when he tells the story of 10-year-old me and my middle-finger salute as we pulled away from one such four-way stop. Though there was never a question that organizations like the KKK were beneath our contempt, the political roots of my mother’s family tree run deep in Georgia, a fact bearing all the implications of mid-20th century Southern politics. I sometimes struggled to reconcile aspects of that lineage with the decency, kindness, and generosity I regularly saw in the people around me.
During my formative years, my father made his living as a songwriter in Nashville, leaving me as awash in a regional artistic culture, while my mother’s side steeped me in the state’s political heritage.
Standing outside his tour bus when I was 6, Willie Nelson knelt down and asked if I wanted to write music like Dad. I told him I planned to be in KISS. By my teen years I had evolved to the Clash and still disdained anyone who wanted to go to Luckenbach, Texas, with Waylon and Willie and the boys (except for Guy Clark, who somehow struck a punk-rock chord with my 15-year-old self that still rings today). Growing up in Athens, Georgia, the musical hub of ’80s college rock, it was easy to disparage anything I saw as “redneck.” I did not appreciate the music my father loved so much. I lacked the intellectual and emotional maturity to put the South into perspective, but I knew I wanted something different and left Athens for Boulder, Colorado, upon graduating high school.
Between college and a stint in the Marines, almost a decade away illuminated how fundamental being Southern was to my identity and how much comfort I drew from knowing home was always waiting. After the Corps, I moved in with my Mom in Athens and took a job framing houses for $7.50 an hour. That was more than I was worth as a carpenter, but housing was booming in Georgia, and my minimal Spanish, lack of DUIs, and current driver’s license meant I could bridge considerable gaps in the crew.
A blistering July day found us digging a ditch in my Nana’s front yard in Winder, Georgia, while she sat on the porch swing, drinking sweet tea, and watching us work. Her gardener’s assistant was working in a nearby flower bed. He was a big, shaggy, fellow in cutoff jeans, a white undershirt, and gold TCB sunglasses like Elvis wore. We got to chatting during a water break. He told me his name was Patterson, and he had a band in Athens called Drive-By Truckers. He said he’d appreciate it if I’d come see them. He was as nice as he could be, if a bit too enthusiastic about his band, at least for a man with my Nana’s mud on his knees.
“Neat,” I thought. “A band. In Athens. Just like everybody else.”
Not long after that, I walked through the door at the fabulous 40 Watt Club, midway through a Drive-By Truckers show. The sound pushed its way through the door as soon as I opened it, a visceral force that I felt as much as heard. The crowd was a sweaty, happy melee. My Nana’s gardener was on stage singing his guts out; multiple guitars were blaring. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t think much about it till months later when I was watching my future wife Katy and her band, the Plum Nellys, play a bar called Tasty World. I looked over at the guy running the sound board. There was Nana’s gardener again. I wish I’d said hey, but that night I only had eyes for one person and she was singing on stage.
By 2000, I was living in Saint Augustine, Florida. My teenage musical rebellion had abated, though London Calling remains one of my desert-island records. I was falling back in love with my home, my musical tastes expanding in the face of what passed for rock in the late 1990s. On trips home, I looked through my Dad’s country records with interest, seeking the authenticity I once found courtesy of I.R.S. Records. And the Southern literary genre known as “grit lit” obsessed me, specifically the work of Larry Brown.
By 2001, I was deep into the Brown canon. When he referenced a band called Slobberbone in Billy Ray’s Farm and then Stephen King mentioned the same band in Black House, I figured I owed myself a listen. I ordered Slobberbone’s Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today. When it arrived, I laid on my couch with the lights off, surf sighing outside and the breeze rattling the palm at the window. From the first verse of the first song, I was hooked. I listened all the way through, but a funny thing happened; on track 7, “Lazy Guy,” I heard a familiar raspy roar. I didn’t know why it tickled my subconscious, so I looked in the liner notes. Yep. Nana’s gardener again. I about played a hole in that Slobberbone CD (and saw them play the single greatest show I’ve ever seen in front of about eight people in Jacksonville, Florida) but in the days before Amazon became an easy default, I still didn’t think to buy a Drive-By Truckers album.
Then, one sunny Tuesday morning in 2001, the world came apart at the seams. Everything changed. Suddenly, home was more than the Deep South. I put down Larry Brown for books on Al Qaeda and looked for ways to join a fight that seemed existential. For reasons too complex to enumerate here, law school seemed the answer. By the spring of 2003, I was at Florida State Law, and Katy and I were about to get married.
I listened to an “Americana” music station on our TV cable package while studying, and it happened again. A song came on, and I knew the voice, even if I couldn’t say from where. It was rough and not exactly pretty but compelling and from my part of the South. “My Sweet Aaaanette was left standin’ at the alll-tarrrrr...” I looked up at the TV screen and saw ...
Band: Drive-By Truckers
Song: My Sweet Annette
Album: Decoration Day
I said out loud, “Damn if that ain’t Nana’s gardener!”
I got serious about the Truckers. I read an interview where Patterson Hood talked about being an oddball kid in Alabama. About not liking country music. About not appreciating the South. About moving away and realizing what he’d left behind. About moving to Athens and starting a band. I felt like someone had written my story. I ordered Decoration Day on the spot and slap wore it out. Had it become fused with the CD player in my truck, I would not have been surprised.
I love every song on that album, especially those by Jason Isbell. I love father-son stories, and there is none better than “Outfit” and its recounting of a house-painter father’s advice to a son. I love tales of people living at the edges of civilization and hard justice, and Decoration Day nails those. The other songs are all sublime. They bring to life people you know if you grew up in the South. You don’t get more Southern Gothic than “Sink Hole,” a song inspired by Ray McKinnon’s The Accountant, one of my favorite movies. “Heathens” may be the single best distillation of everyday problems born of everyday bad decisions. Every time I hear it, I see the ditches lining the roads around my Nana’s farm in Winder.
Something about the wrinkle in your forehead
Tells me there's a fit about to get thrown.
If we get the van out of the ditch before morning,
Ain't nobody got to know about what I done.
It also made me remember the time I drove my Uncle Jim’s truck into a pond, and my Nana paid a guy with a wrecker to haul it out before he got home from work.
Perhaps the greatest irony of my life is that just as I was getting settled into life in 2004, the world came calling. Having left active service six years before, the Marines called me to duty in Iraq. If the Rolling Stones and the Doors were the soundscape for Vietnam, then Decoration Day was my Iraq soundtrack. Its battle between the Hills and the Lawsons stood in for Sunni and Shia and Marines. DBT’s The Dirty South had come out by then, and I was wearing it out, too. Its song “The Sands of Iwo Jima” played well to a Marine who felt like he was at the absolute end of the earth:
And I thought about that movie, asked if it was that way.
He just shook his head and smiled at me in such a loving way.
As he thought about some friends he will never see again.
He said, "I never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima."
I am certain neither artist meant me to use their work as hype music. But in my reserve unit — filled with men from Mobile, Alabama — Isbell’s “We Ain’t Never Gonna Change” (“strong like the people from South Alabama and mean like the people from here”) and Hood’s “The Boys from Alabama” did the job.
There'll be no place to run and hide.
And your family ain't safe at all.
Don't piss off the boys from Alabama.
We're keeping an eye on you.
Those songs helped me to contend with the constancy of the violence in Iraq. I also missed my wife fiercely, and Isbell’s “Goddamn Lonely Love” said it better than I could. To me, he unintentionally described the dichotomy I was living — I worked with 25 men I loved like brothers, men who would take a bullet for one another, but I had to leave everyone else who mattered to do it.
And I could find another dream,
One that keeps me warm and clean,
But I ain't dreamin' anymore, girl, I'm waking up.
So I'll take two of what you're having and I'll take everything you got,
To kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love.
By the spring of 2005, I was back in Tallahassee and law school. I saw the Truckers play for more than three hours in front of about 75 people at the FSU Student Union, my first live Truckers show since that serendipitous night in Athens. That show cemented my love for the band.
The Drive-By Truckers finally brought me home. They saw the failings and the splendor of the South and weren’t afraid to speak of either. They made me understand you can love home deeply and still want it to be better. They bravely expressed the fury, fear, love, and bliss that are all part and parcel of life in the South.
Of course, the Truckers and Jason Isbell parted ways in 2007. It felt like a divorce to me then, but now I appreciate them both for what they give me in my understanding of my home, and I’ve lost track of the times I’ve seen either. I appreciate the kindness Jason Isbell showed me in a bar in Tallahassee when I told him what his songs meant to me in Iraq. He said he hoped I wouldn’t have to listen to them there again. I will ever be thankful I saw him play “Dress Blues” and “Tour of Duty” back to back at the Greenfield Amphitheater in Wilmington, North Carolina. Standing with my wife and another Marine and his wife, all of us long practiced at separation and return, heartbreak and elation, I looked around at an audience full of fellow Marines and their spouses, all of us silenced during what was otherwise a raucous show. I realized we were having a transcendent moment of shared understanding, one of those epiphanies that are the reason music — all art, really — exists.
I returned to the active ranks of the Marine Corps for good in 2006, and I’ve carried the Truckers and the beautiful, sad complexities of the South back to war with me twice more since. They allow me to carry home, and my understanding of it, wherever I go. A friend of mine asked me why the South produces so much art. I don’t know, but I believe it comes from having so much beauty to imbibe that sometimes we are drunk on her glory — yet so many flaws that sometimes I despair of ever putting her ills to rest. It’s the contrast that Patterson Hood so famously called “the duality of the Southern thing.” The artists I love understand that duality better than I. Perhaps they are why I have any understanding of it at all.
To be from the South, to be of the South, is to love and to hate, to be prideful and ashamed.
I am certain of little in this world, but I know I will die in the South. They will spread my ashes across the waters of Doboy Sound off Darien, Georgia. I hope there will be the clapping, cheering, and ringing of bells that signal a homegoing in my family.
But the afterparty? That’ll be all DBT.