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No 'Surrender': Defiant Drive-By Truckers roll on 'American Band'

The Drive-By Truckers (from left): Brad Morgan, Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, Matt Patton and Mike Cooley. Special to The Forum1 / 2
The Drive-By Truckers (from left): Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mke Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. Special to The Forum2 / 2

FARGO—Over its 20-year run, the Alabama/Georgia-based Drive-By Truckers have commonly been labeled a Southern rock band with good reason.

They broke out big with their double-disc 2001 release "Southern Rock Opera," mixing coming-of-age stories with the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the shady history of Southern politics. Southern mythology and history would be a continued theme, coming to a head with 2004's "The Dirty South," including a song cycle about infamous Sheriff Buford Pusser.

Over the years the group's focus has broadened to take in the national landscape, and as they saw that scenery shifting recently, they recorded last fall's "American Band."

The group brings the album to the stage at Sanctuary Events Center on Sunday, June 11, night.

Singer/guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have always written independently, but this time they discovered they were on the same page.

"In a nutshell what we were looking back at and writing about is how bad the reaction to a black president turned out to be," Cooley says from his home in Birmingham, Ala. "It went beyond our expectations even though we were never under any illusions that racism was over."

The two men — both in their 50s — were taken aback by the rise in violence and racism, lack of civility and the growing class gap. Their responses are anthemic rebuttals to the "Make America Great Again" movement.

Their songs ring true for the DBT fanbase and the album has been praised by critics as the band's best work in years.

The album's cover is a photo of an American flag at half-staff, an image that has stirred Cooley for years.

"How often you see flags at half-staff and can't even keep track of why?" Cooley asks. "Was it a shooting? It got to where the flags never went to the top any more because this thing was happening."

He was particularly haunted by the 2015 Charleston church shooting, where a 21-year-old white man killed nine black worshippers in Emanuel African Episcopal Church in hopes of starting a race war.

"Charleston was such old-school racist terrorism by such a young man," Cooley says. "It was chilling to me at the time that this young man brought up in the modern age was able to radicalize himself so thoroughly in some of those ideas we thought were mostly gone."

The incident isn't reflected outright on "American Band," but Cooley takes aim at the gun culture in the country. The album opens with "Ramon Casiano," about the Mexican teenager murdered in Texas in 1931. The man who killed him, Harlon B. Carter, served no time and and would go on to lead the NRA.

He doesn't name names on the album, but Cooley takes issue with crooked leaders, fingering "culture warriors" in "Kinky Hypocrite." The song was partly inspired by Roy Moore — who he calls the "Grandstander in Chief" — the former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. Moore was removed from office for not taking the Ten Commandments out of the Alabama Judicial Building as he'd been ordered. After being elected again in 2013, he was under fire for enforcing the state's ban on same-sex marriages after it had been overturned. Earlier this year he announced he would run for the Senate seat left vacant when Jeff Sessions became U.S. Attorney General.

"All of these people building a following, writing the same damn book every two years and selling it to the same audience that read it like it's the first time they've ever heard it," Cooley says. "Shining a light on how ridiculous some of those people are. That's been the best way to take some of the hot air out of this balloon is making fun of it, exposing the ridiculousness of it, people who go down swinging in opposition to change but scoring points."

The ridiculousness can have deep roots. In "Surrender Under Protest," Cooley addresses the reluctance of some Southerners to move past the Civil War, framing it as a family history.

While he's proud of the songs and the album, he acknowledges that it hasn't made any of the issues the group addressed any better.

"When we finished (the album) I was optimistic, thinking we would still move forward. Now I still try to remain hopeful, but I think there are darker days ahead. I think it will get worse before it gets better," he says. "Once you lower certain standards in a society, they almost never get raised back up. Now that running for president and winning by acting like a jackass, there will be more. It's been proven to be a winning formula and the bar is lowered, we'll see a lot more of this."

If you go

What: Drive-By Truckers

When: 8 p.m., Sunday

Where: Sanctuary Events Center, 670 4th Ave. N., Fargo

Info: Tickets for this ID-only show are $29.50, plus fees., (866) 300-8300