Great Music For Awful Days

by Matthew Sitman

Nick Rynerson praises one of my favorite bands, the Drive-By Truckers, for the way they “write songs about real people having bad days — or bad lives.” He thinks Christians could learn from their honesty:

Life is hard — for everybody. Well, maybe not everybody, but more people than you think. Pastors, accountants, students, baristas, and cashiers are all trying to keep their head above water, just like you. And Christianity is not a quick fix emotional high that takes away all of our sin, problems and struggles. And in the fight of faith, sometimes we just need to be reminded that what we are going through is normal.

Christians aren’t immune from hard marriages, toxic jobs, and alcohol problems. Instead of judging our brothers and sisters or at least pretending that we aren’t as bad off as everybody else, we can empathize. The Truckers write and live in the world we know so well, but are afraid to tell anybody about.

Jesus isn’t typically in the business of saving people who have it all together; in fact, it’s usually the misfits, failures and screw-ups who best understand grace. Following Drive-By Truckers, we can learn from people who are hurting. And we can admit that we rank among their numbers. In sharing the garbage of our lives, we can do more good than if we pretend to have all the answers.

Reviewing the Truckers’ just-released album English Oceans, David McClister highlights “Primer Coat,” a song about “a factory foreman, a Southerner, sitting by his pool and thinking about his twentysomething daughter leaving home,” that exemplifies the kind of writing described above:

This is an unusual subject for a rock ‘n’ roll band, which is more likely to focus on freewheeling characters in the no-man’s land between school and marriage/career. But the Truckers have always specialized in characters with jobs, spouses, little glamour and lots of debt.

This song is sung by the foreman’s son, who knows more than he’d like about painting houses. His mother may be as plain as a primer coat, he realizes, but there’s a clarity and necessity in that undercoat of paint that shouldn’t be underestimated. In four minutes, [guitarist Mike] Cooley lets us know all four members of that family, while his Keith Richards-like, just-ahead-of-the-beat guitar riff and Morgan’s Charlie Watts-like, just-behind-the-beat drumming supply all the tension the story needs.

“I had this image of this guy, middle-aged and working class, sitting by his swimming pool,” Cooley explains. “I didn’t know what he was thinking about, but I liked that image. I thought he might be thinking about politics and how working class families can’t afford pools like they used to. But that wasn’t it; he was thinking about his daughter. The mother of the family’s almost always stronger, especially when it comes to things that kick you in the gut. She’ll do what she has to do; she won’t be moping by the pool.”