The duality of the Southern Thing

The Drive-By Truckers are opening for Eric Church at the Verizon Center in a few weeks. I find that odd; I always assumed the DBTs could not get within restraining-order distance of a big arena show. All I can think is that Church must have big enough huevos or small enough sense to have these boys open for him.

Drive-By TruckersI love the DBTs. The Verizon news caused me to pull up and play the album that caused all that love some years ago — “Southern Rock Opera,” which consists of more than 90 minutes of trying to explain, as Patterson Hood puts it, the duality of the Southern Thing.

That topic is tackled by a bunch of guys who look and mostly act like the core Skynryd audience, because they mostly are (and they’re also from Alabama, which Skynryd is not). They give you a lot of philosophy to chew over while they blast guitar chords in your face.

The music sounds like it could have been recorded in 1974 or 1992 or 2000, and the lyrics, which touch on all of the topics southerners (and most other people) don’t like to discuss, have a sad timelessness.

***

I am not a southerner. I lived for only six years in the real South (the part of Virginia where I now live is about as southern as Seattle). Still, I feel that duality; I consider those six years the most influential of my life and I somehow still feel the need to discuss the Southern Thing when issues of race and class and inequality come up in conversation.

I spent most of those six years in Little Rock. People hear the name of the town and think of two things: Bill Clinton (talk about your dualities) and Central High circa 1957.

The Central High school crisis happened before I was even born, but it still nagged at me when I moved to Little Rock in 1984. The crisis still had some sway in the town even then; for example, one of the local papers was still basking in the Pulitzer it got for taking on Orval Faubus, the powerful governor of the era. As a partial result, that paper of that era still looked like it was designed in 1957 and still covered the news with a patrician tone that Ward Cleaver would have recognized.

I once thought my high school history class gave me a good understanding of what happened at Central. Shortest version: Rednecks vs. the oppressed, and the good guys won.

It wasn’t until after I moved to Little Rock that I found out that, hey, the local school board voted to integrate the school well before  everything went bad at Faubus’ hands (and where else was a southern school board — hell, a school board in most of the country — doing that in the 1950s?). I also was surprised to learn that Faubus had a pre-crisis record that could be considered progressive for his era (so did George Wallace, who subsequently followed and enlarged upon the Faubus template). The whole crisis just reeked of the worst sort of political manipulation. That is a pretty crass calculation when you’re talking about fundamental human rights, but it is a different calculation than just straight-up racism. Not that it mattered to those nine kids.

The crisis ended with National Guard troops enforcing the law of the land after Faubus wouldn’t. But Faubus, who had to run for office every two years, became unbeatable for a long time and stayed on as governor for another decade. He even got 81 percent of the black vote in 1964. Of course, the ‘black vote’ of that era might have been the black voters who didn’t fear for their lives if they went to the polls.

He beat Win Rockefeller, of Those Rockefellers, who subsequently got elected in ’66. Yep, Arkansas put a rich progressive Republican in the governor’s chair in the middle of the 1960s, and Rockefeller had the will and money to rip up a lot of things that needed demolition.  Faubus faded into nostalgia/infamy.

Some of his enemies still remember him with a certain backhanded fondness. I talked to him a bunch of times in his final years, when he ran for office just for the sport of it. He was a charmer, and he swore he was just misunderstood. Dualities upon dualities.

***

A lot of famous people come from Arkansas. The list of the musicians alone is staggering. Most of them left, though, because they weren’t going to be famous or successful if they stayed. Living in Arkansas made them good, and leaving Arkansas made them great. That duality thing again.

***

Hillary Rodham Clinton might be president in a couple of years. She once served cookies to me and a few other reporters at the White House while we interviewed her husband in the Roosevelt Room. This happened the day after a story was published that basically accused him of using the state police as a pimp squad while he was governor. It is not the ground you expect to cover in an interview with the president of the United States.

When she came at me with the spatula, I bottled up a caseload of anger. This was the worst kind of photo op,  and I knew why it was happening. But I also knew this was not the place or time to make a scene. I politely accepted the cookie.

I wasn’t a Southerner and neither was she, but I was there representing the southern president’s hometown newspaper and she was there representing the southern president. We had specific roles in this duality vignette and if I had a caseload of bottled anger, she must have had a tractor-trailer’s worth. But she was keeping it together, just like me.

That night on the national news, while a voice-over reporter talked about the president’s very bad no good day, the video featured a homey image of the first lady serving me a cookie.  I ate it after the interview and it was delicious.  Later, a thought came to me that I’ve never been able to shake: I wonder if she spit on it.

***

I made yearly Arkansas trips for a long time even after I left my southern employer. I’d head to Helena, a poor Delta town where old times definitely have not been forgotten, to attend a huge blues festival. Most of the performers and local residents were black. Most of the audience was white. Admission was free, but a lot of the locals stayed out of the main venue — and not out of fear. They don’t listen to the music any more, and the beat that drove their working ancestors to early graves is now adored by white older comfortable suburban guys like me. The duality is pretty much all that keeps the music alive these days.

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Did I mention I’m probably going to move back to the South sooner or later? I fully anticipate I’ll be happy when that happens. I also picture myself enjoying barbecues with neighbors whose politics make my soul angry.

I lived long enough in the South to understand that you will never reconcile yourself to the region’s many contradictions. They’re just there, like the air. Change comes, but it is achingly slow and often requires the application of years upon years of constant pressure. Until then, you live with the dualities until or unless you cannot.

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I last saw the DBTs about a year ago at the 9:30 Club. The song that I remember the best from that night is one they didn’t even write: the late Warren Zevon’s “Play It All Night Long.” It’s a screed about the South that Zevon used to spit out with all of the judgmental fury he could muster. But the DBTs played it straight and loud and with a celebratory edge. They passed around a bottle on stage and then blasted right into it:

Grandpa pissed his pants again
He don’t give a damn
Brother Billy has both guns drawn
He ain’t been right since Vietnam
Sweet home Alabama
Play that dead band’s song
Turn those speakers up full blast
Play it all night long
The band roared through lines about incest and broken souls and cattle with brucellosis, and I realized that this song is Sweet Home’s perverted cousin. And that, right there, is the duality of the Southern Thing.

Randy

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