The name gets your attention, but if it gives you the idea that the Mother Truckers play aggressive roadhouse punk, or country music of the black-and-blues-obsessed 1930s, when "Can't Nobody Truck like Me" was a Texas hit, you're headed in the wrong direction. Instead the Mother Truckers begin with the harder edges of contemporary country music — especially
Dwight Yoakam's mixture of traditional honky-tonk and rock psychedelia. Yoakam has always had a strong following in the San Francisco Bay Area, the original base of operations for the Mother Truckers' core members, Teal Collins and Josh Zee.
Like Yoakam, for whom they have opened, Collins and Zee are fully capable of holding off on the psychedelia and performing older country styles straight. Their tortured, unflinching songs of relationship hell owe something to Merle Haggard; there's a lot of pedal steel in the songs on their last album, Broke, Not Broken; and their harmony singing is pure traditional stuff. Yet all of the foregoing could be said of a number of roots bands in Austin, to which the Mother Truckers relocated about three years ago. It used to be that country rock bands made the opposite migration, but at this point for them to have risen to the top of the Austin scene is an impressive accomplishment. They've done it by adding a new dimension to rock-inflected country music: a dimension that might be called existential.
It's a bit unexpected to hear couplets like "I guess that puts us in an awkward position/
Ain't no one escapes the human condition" ("Passing By Again") or even "We cast a shadow in the sun/For a moment, and then it's done" ("Shadows") in a country song. A traditionalist might say that good country music raises issues like these without being explicit about it, but the Mother Truckers have a couple of answers to that. First, the singers they use as their models have sometimes seemed to reach for abstractions when they could. "Life began to twist its way around him," wrote Haggard (for whom the Mother Truckers have also opened). More important, the Mother Truckers give themselves fully to their lyrics. There isn't a bit of artifice in their performances, which are reputed to have a very high energy level in concert.
The Mother Truckers are following Yoakam's trajectory in another way as well: they're touring with a new album that's said to rock harder than its three predecessors. They'll be at the Ark on Monday, May 5.
[Review published May 2008]