When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature a couple of weeks ago, I experienced a slew of competing emotions. There was the surprise that the Nobel committee honored an American (the first since Toni Morrison in ’93), the skepticism that they’d named a “non-traditional” writer sheerly to gain attention, and the disappointment that they’d surveyed the whole of literature and somehow decided that another old white guy needed another award.
But in addition to all that stuff, the Nobel also got me thinking about Dylan’s lasting influence, which, as much as the pure brilliance of his work, is the real reason he won the prize in the first place. Thousands of people with middling voices have picked up guitars and started writing songs because he showed them that having something to say gave you as much of a right to create music as a tuneful voice. As a result, we’ve been looking for the “next Dylan” for 40-plus years. We’ve failed to find one because such an artist couldn’t exist; Bob’s own outsized mythology (not unlike Michael Jordan’s in basketball) will always overshadow even the best efforts of any imitators.
That’s not to say some artists haven’t learned a thing or two from the master and taken full advantage of his example. Case in point: just before the Nobel’s announcement, I picked up a record that wore Dylan’s influence (unexpectedly) on its sleeve: Drive-By Truckers’ American Band.
I don’t mean to say that American Band sounds like a Bob Dylan record; it doesn’t, at least not musically. What I mean is that it’s an album full of earnest, politically-charged songs that sometimes double as rallying cries, confessions, or scathing takedowns. It’s a record of unembarrassed conviction and big ideas. That’s what makes it Dylan-like.
Consider these lyrics about a murderous real-life border agent, from album opener and standout track “Ramon Casiano”:
He had the makings of a leader / Of a certain kind of men / Who need to feel the world’s against ‘em / Out to get ‘em if it can
Men whose triggers pull their fingers / Men who’d rather fight than win / United in a revolution / Like in mind and like in skin
The track is a brutal rejection of anti-immigrant racism, delivered in an election year where one of the candidates’ big ideas (and a depressingly popular one, to boot) is to build a literal wall between the U.S. and Mexico. And that’s just the first five minutes.
The album also features songs written in response to the murder of A.M.E. church members in Charleston, South Carolina (“Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn”) and racial tensions across the U.S. (“What it Means”), and they’re similarly powerful. Band leaders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are, simply put, not screwing around. It’s a bold move in an age where controversial statements are as likely to get you publicly vilified as celebrated for the courage of your convictions (Hello there, Mr. Kaepernick, can I introduce you to the Dixie Chicks?). And that’s especially true of a band whose music is deeply rooted in the Southern Rock tradition, even if their politics lean left of their audience’s.
Because on the one hand, there’s no doubt that some people will be turned off by DBT’s pull-no-punches use of their platform, but I’m guessing that Bob Dylan’s most powerful protest songs (“Masters of War”, “Blowin’ in the Wind”, and “Hurricane” to name a few) ruffled a few feathers in their day. Dylan didn’t care; he had to write about what he saw as the vital issues of his day: civil rights, the morality of war, and a growing generational divide.
Ultimately, that attitude (and, of course, the songs it led him to write) is his legacy, and it’s the thing that made a bunch of very serious Swedish folks decide to pin a medal on him. It’s good to see a band unafraid to follow in those footsteps, even though they’re plainly aware that having strong opinions about controversial issues will bother some people.
I worry that people aren’t going to listen to the album for that very reason. We tend to avoid what makes us uncomfortable or raises difficult questions. It’ll be shame if nobody hears this record for those reasons, because just like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and Bruce Springsteen and Marvin Gaye and Kendrick Lamar did before them, the Drive-By Truckers have written music that actually has something to say.
Good for them.
Now get to listening.