Bobby Bare, Jr.: “Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost)”


By Colin Woodward

Every now and then I like to write about my favorite solo artist and native southerner Bobby Bare, Jr. In September, I caught Bobby again at the White Water Tavern, where he has played twice in the last few months. He had never visited White Water until earlier this year. In September, as always, Bobby put on an entertaining show.

A few years ago, his life on the road was filmed for the documentary, Don’t Follow Me (I’m Lost). The title comes from a song on his 2004 album At the End of Your Leash. It also serves as something of a warning for those who want to pursue a career in music.

I recently finished watching the movie for a second time. The documentary is a godsend for Bare fans, and it gives much insight into the life of a working musician. We see Bare hustling from gig to gig, dropping off a CD for a deejay (who isn’t even there to open the door to the front of the building), avoiding a pesky homeless person, and the anxiety of not sure some nights where you’ll be staying. Sometimes Bobby gets a few hundred dollars, another time as much as a thousand. But after a show, it’s back to the van, which Bobby shares with his underpaid backing players. At one point, Bobby is interviewed in a bar. He is  asked, “What’s your dream?” Bobby’s response: to make enough money so that people leave him alone.

His family is on the road

Amid the musical madness, Bobby, who has three children, juggles a home life. Early in the movie, we see him on stage, where he discusses his girlfriend going into labor. Why isn’t he home with his newborn child? He needs to keep gigging. The film understands the high-spirited nature of live music. But for Bobby and his band, there’s no glamor here, and not much money. Imagine the pressure of a job that provides you with no health benefits, retirement, or even job security.

Bobby lives gig to gig, but he was born into country music royalty. The movie opens with him singing with his father–who is in the Country Music Hall of Fame–at the Grand Ole Opry. Bobby might have become a Hank Williams, Jr., type. But he didn’t, thankfully. Bobby’s music has country flare, but it would leave most Opry types bewildered. And as much as Bobby tries to be a good father, his large family of touring musicians see him more often.


From alternative to alt-country

Bobby established himself in the 1990s alternative scene before taking a turn into what is now called alt-country. His first two albums were the fruit of the still vibrant grunge scene. Since then, he has become more eclectic and introspective. Bobby couldn’t become part of the Nashville establishment, even had he wanted to. And yet, one could say he has done for Nashville what Kurt Cobain did for Seattle. BBJ’s music can be twangy, but it owes more to the Pixies, the Smiths, the Who, and My Morning Jacket than to what you’re likely to hear on Music Row. Still, Bobby says for all the bad music Nashville produces, it also makes some of the best music anywhere. And he can claim much of that good music as his own. Nashville is lucky to have him.

Approach with caution

The film rarely strays from showing Bobby at work, and because of this, he succeeds in remaining something of a cipher. He has a great sense of humor and is passionate about his music. But he’s the kind of guy that a fan would be cautious to approach. When one woman in Richmond has him sign her copy of A Storm, a Tree, she says, “I had never heard of you before tonight.” Bare responds without missing a beat, “I had never heard of you either.” When another fan congratulates Bare on refusing to sell out, Bobby claims, somewhat testily, he would, That is, if he could only find the right person to sell out to.

More than one person the film wonders why Bobby isn’t more famous than he is. Bobby is probably tired of hearing such talk. He knows the music industry doesn’t owe him anything. he could be much worse off. Sure, there are much better paid musicians, but there are many more who can’t earn a living at all from their songs.

Niche music

The music industry has changed dramatically from where it was twenty years ago. Don’t Follow Me could serve as both an inspiration for musicians who stay true to themselves or a cautionary tale in how pursuing your art will destroy any chance you might’ve had at a normal, stable life. The movie illustrates well the highs and lows of being a niche musician. One minute, you’re flanked by people in animal costumes, playing for young kids who have never heard of you. The next minute your invited to a house party where the host has everything you’ve ever recorded. And he had plenty of free booze.

Bobby admits that he is not cut-out for a 9-5 job. He doesn’t say it, but he’s an artist. Music may not be the only thing he could make a living at, but it certainly is the only thing he wants to do. And it’s clear that it’s the only thing he should do.

Play. Repeat.

I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to Bobby’s albums. Hundreds of times, altogether. His music may never appeal to a wide audience, but it has an addictive quality. It hooks you. It’s rare for me to connect at a personal level with a rock musician. But I probably feel a lot like Hayes Carll, who was interviewed for the film and said he liked Bare’s music so much when he first heard it that he wanted to know everything about him.

Rock and Roll Halloween

If you like Bobby Bare, Jr., you may be somewhere in this film. I discovered Bobby’s music in Richmond back in October 2010. Much to my amazement, footage from that weekend was used in Don’t Follow Me. In Richmond, Bobby was in full rock star mode. He had an uncharacteristically heavy cough and looked like he hadn’t slept in days. The movie shows him downing lots of whiskey, and later, we see him “resting” on the ground outside the National Theatre. he was on the same bill that weekend with Drive-By Truckers. And Richmond was probably short of Jack Daniels come Monday.

Before that Halloween weekend, I didn’t know who Bobby was. Despite that, I could remember every song from the warmup set he played before the Truckers came on. The next day, I went to a record store and bought A Storm, A Tree, My Mother’s Head. I loved it. Still do. In fact, it’s one of my favorite albums.

Leave them wanting more

Don’t Follow Me gives one of the best inside looks at a touring musician you’re likely to see. But as for the personal Bobby, we don’t learn all that much. We see things get rocky with his girlfriend, but when pressed to give us details, Bobby declines.

At another point, he says that the ever-changing nature of his backup band has kept him back professionally. But why? Why has he chosen to work with so many different musicians over the years? Is he difficult to work with, or does he like the freshness that comes with so many different players interpreting his music? I’d like to know more.

What is certain is that Bobby’s music is ingenious. And the next time he’s playing in town, I’ll be there.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

The Best of the Drive-By Truckers’ Albums: A List

Music fans love lists. Don’t believe me? Watch High Fidelity. And in honor of that tradition, I’m listing my favorite Drive-By Truckers albums.

May 2013 064
Drive-By Truckers in Little Rock, May 2013.

By Colin Woodward

The Truckers hail from northern Alabama. The band’s founding members, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have been playing together for decades. The two are around 50 years old now, but they show no signs of slowing down. The band has always made southern culture a centerpiece of their song-writing. And many of their songs explicitly address the South’s troubled past, no more so than on their double album Southern Rock Opera, which covers everything from George Wallace to Lynyrd Skynyrd to Bear Bryant. The Truckers could be called postmodern, I guess, but Cooley and Patterson at times also seem like something out of the nineteenth century. They have old souls, and that’s one reason why I like them.

Anyway, here’s my list of my favorite Truckers albums.

1. Brighter than Creation is Dark (2008). Not only is this my favorite Truckers album, I also think it’s their best. It was the first album the band put out after the departure of guitarist, singer, and songwriter Jason Isbell. Brighter is something like the Truckers’ “White Album,” a double album’s worth of material that spans various styles, from hard rock to country. It shows all the players at the top of their game. Perhaps more than any other Truckers album, I like the Cooley-Hood songs about equally. I’d give the edge to Cooley, but that’s because even though I love Patterson, Cooley is the man.


The album opens with the beautiful and haunting “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife.” On its own terms, the song is perhaps the prettiest Hood has ever written. But, it being a Truckers song, there’s a dark undercurrent. The song was written after the brutal home invasion killing of the Harvey family from Richmond, Va. (a town that has treated the Truckers well). The song talks about heaven, but doesn’t explicitly talk about the crime. That’s interesting, because the Truckers catalog is full of murder ballads. But apparently when it came to a real murder, Hood approached the material indirectly.

Brighter’s next track is a classic example of counterpoint. Hood’s “Two Daughters'” is acoustic and gentle. Cooley’s “Two Dimes Down” begins with a filthy, Stones-like blast of electric guitar. The first two songs on the album set the tone for the entire record–a mix of light and dark, acoustic and electric, sad and funny. In addition to Cooley and Hood, Shonna Tucker, then the band’s bassist, adds a few good songs. It must have been hard for Shonna to be in band with so much testosterone and songwriting talent. Now, she is on tour with her band Eye Candy.

Patterson Hood adds what I think is his best song about the middle class struggle in America, “The Righteous Path,” which speaks of having “a brand new car that drinks a bunch of gas . . . a house in a neighborhood that’s fading fast/Got a dog and cat that don’t fight too much, I got a few hundred channels to keep me in touch.” It’s an uptempo salute to those who have a too much debt, a whole lot of fear, and a boat that ain’t seen the water in years.

Mike Cooley’s “Bob” is the goofiest song on the album, but in many ways the most touching, too, as it talks about a small town lone wolf, who is more content to drinks beers and play with his dog than find a mate. The lyrics are in the third person, but in a strange way, it might be the most autobiographical tune that the enigmatic, taciturn Cooley has ever written.

2. The Dirty South (2004). Last I checked, this was the Truckers’ best-selling album. It was the second album with Jason Isbell, who was much younger than the other members of the band, but could hold his own as a drinker (for a while anyway), songwriter, and guitar player. After getting sober, he has become a successful solo artist. At the time of Dirty South, he and the rest of the band could do no wrong.

download (1)

Patterson Hood contributes one of his most moving songs, “Sands of Iwo Jima,” about his uncle, who, it turns out, was more of a father to Patterson than his real father was. The rest of Patterson’s songs are not at all sentimental. “Putting People on the Moon” is one of the bleakest songs I’ve ever heard. The lyrics speak of unemployment, drug-dealing, cancer, and bankruptcy, themes made all the more unsettling because of the song’s pounding tempo and raw, grungy arrangement.

The songs by Patterson and Isbell are good. But the songs Cooley wrote for this album are, quite simply, astounding. The lightest of them is “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” about the heyday of Sun Records in Memphis. The album, however, opens with the terrific and badass “Where the Devil Don’t Stay,” about an Alabama bootlegger during the Great Depression.

Cooley’s other songs are equally good. “Cottonseed” is a companion piece to “Devil” in that it also talks about a criminal, a man who boats he has “put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cotton seed.” Cooley wisely chose to record the song with just him and his acoustic guitar. The song is roughly six minutes long, but the lyrics are so good you don’t want it to end.

The last of Cooley’s songs on the album is “Daddy’s Cup,” about a race car driver and the relationship with his father. It’s one of those songs I wish the Truckers would do live. The song is not as stripped down as “Cottonseed,” but it mostly consists of Cooley and his guitar. But this time, the song is fast-paced, like racing. I always have thought that someone could make a great animated film from this song. The lyrics evoke strong images.

Dirty South doesn’t tackle southern history the way Southern Rock Opera does, but it contains an interesting take on the legend of Buford Pusser, the Tennessee sheriff, who was the inspiration for the movie Walking Tall. Hood talks about Pusser from the viewpoint of the criminals, saying the Pusser was just another crooked lawman shutting down the operations of hardworking businessmen. Maybe someone could make a movie about what Patterson calls the “other side of the story.”

3. Southern Rock Opera (2001). Few bands are as cool as Drive-By Truckers. But their breakthrough album was one of those things that are the bane of the punk generation: a rock opera. SRO, however, was the album on which the Truckers gelled. It was the first one to feature fiery, demented Wes Freed artwork, which complimented the band’s aesthetic quite well. The album has strong elements of punk and grunge. And so it’s more a concept album in the way the Who might have done it rather than say, the Moody Blues.D2CD01

Even in the band’s catalog, SRO remains unusual. It’s the only one that spans two discs. The only one that contains no acoustic guitar. It was an album that took on many topics: the South, history, racism, the battle between Neil Young and Skynyrd. It’s an angry, raw statement. Patterson has said that he thought Cooley wrote the two best songs on the album, though I’m not sure which.

Patterson has admitted that it was an album on which he could geek-out some. He read up on his Alabama history for songs about George Wallace and Bear Bryant. “The Three Alabama Icons” contains so much verbiage that it was recorded as a spoken-word song.

SRO concludes with “Angels and Fuselage” about the plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zandt and other members of his band. I saw thew band do  “Angels and Fuselage” in Richmond as a closer to the band’s 2010 Halloween weekend show. One-by-one, the band members left the stage as the drummer kept the beat–symbolic of those who disappeared during the plane crash. It was a dramatic end to a terrific show.

4. The Big To-Do (2010). I’ve always found this to be the band’s most underrated record. It contains perhaps Cooley’s best rocker, “Birthday Boy,” one of the greatest songs ever written about a strip club. The Truckers played down the southern history angle on this record. And it doesn’t have the best songs the band ever recorded. But it is one of the band’s best achievements in sound and production. The songs explode. Cooley’s guitar is on fire. Truckers fans might not talk much about tunes like “Santa Fe,” but it’s the type of perfect throwaway songs that bands make when they are at their peak.

5. English Oceans (2014). The band went back to basics here. This is the first album to feature only songs by Cooley and Hood. Not much southern history here, and not much country twang. But there’s much more energy than the band’s previous effort, Go-Go Boots. Apparently, Cooley emerged from a long period of writer’s block before writing the songs on this record. Most of them are good. Cooley’s best on the album is “Primer Coat,” which covers the classic country topic of small town life. But Patterson’s songs, on the whole, are better. His memorial to Craig Lieske on “Grand Canyon” is the closest thing the Truckers have ever come to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”

6. Gangstabilly (1998). This was the first Truckers album, and it’s surprisingly good, given what the band would do later. The album blends elements of hard rock and country acoustic. The barnburner is “Buttholeville,” which apparently got the band in trouble in the early days, because it was seen as a swipe at club owners. It’s filthy and funny, like a good southern rock song should be. But the funniest song is “Steve McQueen,” about one of Patterson’s movie heroes. Cooley was still finding his way as writer, but he was capable of his typical smartassery on “Panties in Your Purse.”

7. Decoration Day (2003). This is usually considered one of the Truckers’ best albums, but I’ve never connected with it the way other fans have. Jason Isbell contributes the best song, “Outfit,” which tells of a father warning his son to not ever sing with a fake English accent; call home on your sister’s birthday; and remember that southern men tell better jokes. My favorite song, though, is “Sinkhole,” one of the band’s many murder ballads. When I saw the band in early 2013, they did a lot of songs from this album.I think it foreshadowed the band’s back to its roots approach that would be found on English Oceans.

8. American Band (2015). Amid the most contentious political campaign in recent memory, the Truckers released their most political album since Southern Rock Opera. American Band was an effort to address the ongoing racial divide in the United States, with songs about Trayvon Martin (“What It Means”) and other unpleasant moments in our history. The choice of a photo of the U.S. flag on the cover rather than the usual Wes Freed artwork sums up the album’s intentions.

The band’s heart is in the right place, but is it a great album? Unfortunately, no. The Truckers sound better when looking at the villains in southern history–as examined on the George Wallace-inspired cuts of Southern Rock Opera or the Dixie Mafia characters of Dirty South–than the victims. The album has its moments and stands up to repeated listens, but the energy heard on the band’s previous record English Oceans, not to mention earlier albums, is lacking. Patterson’s songs, especially, feel flat.

8. Pizza Deliverance (1999). An album very similar in style to Gangstabilly. Again, it blends rock and country. It’s funny, too. But the band clearly needed to make a big leap to go from being good to great–a leap that Southern Rock Opera provided.

9. Go-Go Boots. Looking back on this album after a few years, one can see that it was a transition record. Shonna Tucker was on the way out as the band’s bass player and third songwriter. Diehard Truckers fans don’t usually give her much credit, but I always liked her way of balancing the albums with a much-needed female perspective.

The fire one can see at just about every live performance is lacking. As a songwriter, Cooley was out of gas (temporarily), and the music wasn’t inspired.

10. A Blessing and a Curse (2006). Watch the documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending and you’ll see Jason Isbell strumming a guitar listlessly during the Blessing sessions. As the record was being put in the can, Isbell’s marriage to Shonna Tucker was dissolving. Isbell would soon be going solo. His two songs on the album are the worst he did with the Truckers. But, in his defense, no one else in the band was doing great work either. Some good moments here, but I don’t think I’ve heard the band ever do a song from this album live despite having seen them perform four times.

Colin Woodward is a historian, archivist, and sometime music critic. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

Wallace, Thornton, and Drive-By Truckers: Some Sources on Alabama History

By Colin Woodward

George Wallace

For a few months this past winter, I was immersed in all things Alabama. Over the holidays, I finished Dan Carter’s terrific biography of George Wallace, The Politics of Rage. The only complaint I had with the book is that Carter finished it while Wallace was still alive. I would have liked to have read a chapter about Wallace’s death and his political legacy, especially given the rage many politicians–not to mention their constituents–have been in since the fall of 2008.

ImageCarter shows that Wallace, while an extreme politician, represented the views of not just the far Right, but many American conservatives. In the 1960s, Wallace found friends in places like Wisconsin, which, despite being the home of progressives like Bob La Follette, also has its share of conservatives. American politics, Carter shows, isn’t so much purple (a blend of red and blue states) as it is schizophrenic.

When Wallace gave a speech at Harvard during the height of the civil rights struggle, Ivy Leaguers found him impassioned, clever, even charming. Wallace was many things, but he was no dummy. Northern intellectuals were expecting a freak, and what they encountered was a brilliant–albeit especially nasty–politician.

Wallace was fairly progressive as an Alabama judge. It was only when he wanted to “out-nigger” (Wallace’s term, page 96) his competition in the race for governor in 1962 that he became the symbol of white opposition to racial integration. He made headlines and gave the Kennedy family fits. Still, the man had no chance of ever becoming president–any more than Huey Long did in the 1930s.

American Demagogues

Wallace was perhaps the last in a long line of southern demagogue governors like Long, Orval Faubus, and Lester Maddox. Wallace, like Long, was a spoiler. Long, however, never exploited the “negro question” to his advantage. His issues centered on class, not race. Yet, the Kingfish knew how to win publicity, even if that meant notoriety. And both Long and Wallace found themselves on the wrong end of an assassin’s bullet. Long was murdered by a deranged doctor; Wallace was nearly killed by a disturbed loner, whose life became the model of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver.

From Carter’s book, we come to know Wallace very well, even understand him. But Carter does not sympathize with him. His anti-Wallace feelings are clear, though balanced. Wallace could be a mean SOB who had any number of redneck goons (Klansmen as well as others) willing to do his bidding, which meant cracking the heads of civil rights workers and practicing all kinds of dirty tricks. Anyone familiar with the Jim Crow South will not be surprised at how far white Alabamans went to uphold the racial status quo. However, even Wallace’s 1970 campaign for governor–by which time one would think Alabama had cooled off–was shocking and vile in its race-baiting.

Carter’s book is about as fair an account of Wallace as one could read. It would be absurd to accuse him of mistreating his subject. Wallace was a fascinating figure, but he was hardly one to appeal to the “better angels of our nature.”

A leaflet from the 1970 governor’s race in Alabama. From Carter’s book, The Politics of Rage.

Antebellum Alabama

From Carter’s biography I moved on to J. Mills Thornton’s Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860, which I have wanted to read for a long time. It’s one of those books a lot of historians finish in graduate school. But I’m glad I waited, because much of it likely would have gone over my head when I was in my early-20s. It’s a classic work, though a long and dense one.

Thornton says antebellum Alabama was a place “obsessed” with slavery, but he doesn’t devote most of his study to the politics of race (unlike Carter). Thornton mostly takes Alabamans’ pro-slavery convictions for granted. The state had nearly 50% of its population enslaved in 1860, and large planters dominated the state’s “Black Belt” (so named for its dark, rich soil, not its large African American population). Ideologically, the state developed during the Jacksonian period, when southern Democrats (and Whigs, too) were firmly pro-slavery.


Where Alabamans differed among themselves, Thornton shows, was in regard to the state’s economic outlook. The antebellum period was a time when new markets spread across the country with the help of steam locomotives and railroads, rich and vast farmland luring settlers west, and slave labor. Alabama didn’t achieve statehood until 1819, but by 1860, it could boast of rapid gains in education, finance, and infrastructure. The 1850s was a boom-time for the South. Southerners built more railroads in that decade than northerners did. Cotton production made some men vast fortunes, and even the lower classes were pursuing the American Dream in Alabama, which meant money gained through growing cotton and buying slaves.

Amid so many changes, Alabama politicians were concerned with issues of how much to spend and what to spend it on. As is the case today, there were those who wanted to expand and improve infrastructure and education, while others sought to keep government and state budgets very small. There were Whigs, many of them planters, who were more pro-government, though they usually saw government expansion chiefly as a means of helping business. Nevertheless, Alabama’s government only got bigger in the antebellum period. It began spending on education, though it was far behind states like Massachusetts, which established public education in the 1780s. By 1860, Alabama’s government–though tiny by today’s standards–could boast of significant achievements.

Secession, Thornton argues, was not a response to a weakening economic position for the South, but a gamble based on the idea that flush times would continue, provided southerners could pursue their interest free of northern interference. True, Alabamans feared Lincoln’s election would lead to abolition and slave unrest, but they felt they were acting from a position of strength, not weakness. A strong South must secede before the North enslaved its white population.

When it came to secession, Thornton argues that the only meaningful difference was between immediate secessionists (including men such as the Fire-eater William L. Yancey) and conditional Unionists, who dwelt more in Alabama’s northern, less slave-holding hill country. Thornton warns against reading back into the secession crisis for a strong Union contingent in the state. Unionists emerged during the war to be sure, when many whites grew angry and disillusioned with the Confederacy because of battlefield losses and harsh government measures. But Alabama’s Democrats, the author shows, were united during the secession winter.

Alabama society, Thornton shows, was a democratic one born of the Jacksonian era, when most adult white male southerners were–for the first time–allowed to vote and where people were highly suspicious of concentrated power. Politicians were responsive to the people. They made sure banks or other politicians didn’t become too powerful, even if that meant undermining economic development. Alabama had a high turnover rate for its representatives. These were not career politicians who were making decisions for the state.

Obviously, Alabama was not as democratic as it is today. Women, blacks, and Native Americans could not vote. But for its time, Alabama was democratic. Secession was not a conspiracy of planter elites, but a revolution of the people. The war that broke out was, Thornton states, the playing out of a “Jacksonian drama” in which the yeomen and planters played equal parts.

The Boys from Alabama

In January, as a conclusion of sorts to my foray into Alabama history and culture, I went to the Drive-By Truckers show in Little Rock. I’ve posted about the Truckers, who originally are from the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama, before. It might seem odd to blog about Dan Carter, J. Mills Thornton, and the Truckers in one essay, but they are not all that far apart, really.

The Truckers have written songs about George Wallace, who casts a long and dark shadow over Alabama. The band hails from the feisty hill country that Thornton talks about in Politics and Power, and the Truckers are exceptional in the sense of region and history they bring to their songs. The Truckers represent post-modern country at its finest, but the band also is made up of songwriters who seem to have old souls.

The Drive-By Truckers in Little Rock, 2013.

I had seen the Truckers before in Richmond, Virginia. And I must say, that while the Truckers are always fun to watch, the Richmond show was better. When I saw them in January, the Truckers were not having a good week. Their merchandise man, Craig Lieske, had died suddenly a few days before. Front-man Patterson Hood had had his beloved acoustic guitar stolen in Missouri (though he eventually got it back). The Truckers give you your money’s worth, but something seemed missing.

When I saw the band in Richmond, they still had bass player and singer Shonna Tucker, who is no longer with the band, as well as John Neff, who provides great guitar work, especially his slide playing. The Truckers’ new bass player is Matt Patton, who played well in Little Rock. But I miss Shonna, who balanced the heavy testosterone provided by founding members Patteron and Cooley with a much-needed female point-of-view. Former band member Jason Isbell has enjoyed success as a solo act with his band the 400 Unit. I hope Shonna will record something soon with her new band Eye Candy.

Drive-By Truckers’ 2013 Little Rock show.

Another problem I had with the Truckers show was the set consisted mostly of the band’s older songs. The boys played a lot from Decoration Day, which, while a good album, I don’t admire nearly as much as some of the other Truckers’ records. There was very little from the post-A Blessing and a Curse period. I also didn’t think the band’s sound was great. Perhaps it had much to do with the venue. The Rev Room is pretty small. It was great that I was only a few feet from the stage. But often, the songs sounded like a ball of noise.

When I saw the Truckers in Richmond, the venue was bigger, the sound better, and the show more dramatic. Back in 2010, the band was touring in support of The Big To-Do (which I find underrated), and they played in front of a large, Gothic canvas done by the painter Wes Freed. In a moving end to the Richmond show, the band played “Angels and Fuselage”–about the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. One-by-one, the band members walked off the stage, leaving only the drummer pounding an ominous beat before silence descended.

I haven’t seen much of Alabama. I’ve been through it only a few times. Had things turned out differently as I was finishing grad school, I might be teaching at Auburn-Montgomery rather than living in Little Rock. But that didn’t work out. Hopefully, in the long run, I won’t have to experience Alabama only through books. Mobile, for one, looks interesting. And there’s always history to be had wherever you visit.


Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.

Dan T. Carter, George Wallace, and the “Duality of the Southern Thing”

By Colin Woodward

I recently started reading Dan T. Carter’s book, The Politics of Rage, which examines the life and political career of the Alabama Governor, who infamously said in 1963 that he wanted “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

Wallace gained national headlines for standing in the doorway of the University of Alabama in 1963, trying in vain to prevent the integration of the college. He also ran for president several times, running most famously on a “Law and Order” platform in 1968. He was forced to live the rest of his life in a wheelchair after a failed assassination attempt wounded him during his 1972 campaign. Yet, despite being paralyzed by Arthur Bremer’s bullet, Wallace would run again in 1976 (the same year the film Taxi Driver, inspired by Bremer came out). Altogether, Wallace was governor of Alabama for sixteen years, a record unmatched except by a former governor of Iowa.

Wallace’s stamp on the history of southern politics is clear, and in Carter, he has a worthy biographer. Dan T. Carter might just be the greatest living southern historian. He has written not just about twentieth century race relations, as in his terrific Bancroft Prize-winning book Scottsboro, but the Reconstruction Era. His When the War was Over is one of the best books I’ve read on Reconstruction and the white backlash after the Civil War. Carter also has a somewhat personal connection to Wallace. He grew up in South Carolina, but he is a distant relative to Asa Earl Carter, a Klansman and speech writer to Wallace (he is also the author of the story that became the film Outlaw Josey Wales and, oddly, the children’s book, Education of Little Tree, about a Native American boy).

Carter is too good of a historian to portray Wallace as merely a race-baiting demagogue. And the Wallace story isn’t that simple. I’m only about 40 pages into the book, and Wallace has yet to enter the military during World War II. So far, there is little to suggest the future governor was ardently racist. As a young man, he grew up in a small racially-mixed town in Alabama, where he excelled at boxing (his favorite picture of himself involved him giving a gloved opponent a bloody nose) and had a lifelong thirst for politics. As was Huey Long before him, Wallace was a born hustler and politician. Unlike Long, however, he made racial politics the lynchpin of his pursuit of power. It’s that decision that is central to the Wallace story.

Back in 2000, the Alabama southern rock band Drive-By Truckers made an album called Southern Rock Opera, which uses Wallace as inspiration for a couple songs. Unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” (a cartoonish anthem for redneck pride), the Truckers make more than a passing reference to the governor. The Truckers’ take on Alabama, furthermore, is far more nuanced than Skynyrd’s ever was. In the spoken-word song “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” the band’s chief songwriter Patterson Hood discusses Wallace’s early, fairly progressive career, which was eclipsed by his opportunistic stand for segregation, even after the Brown v. Board decision made the destruction of Jim Crow inevitable. “Icons” also examines Wallace’s conversion to a more moderate political stance, which enabled him to get a vast majority of the black vote in later gubernatorial campaigns. The Truckers dub Wallace’s appeal to so many people as example of the “duality of the southern thing.”

Even so, the Truckers talk about George Wallace being in hell (where the devil brews him some sweet tea)–not for his racism necessarily, but his sheer ambition at the expense of black civil rights. After all, not everyone who supported civil rights was racially enlightened. Could Wallace have been another LBJ, a man who grew up prejudiced but came down on the side of promoting, rather than blocking, civil rights? Perhaps. But Wallace didn’t, and we are left with the legacy of a man who became a spokesman for segregation.

The Wallace story is further complicated by the redefining of “conservatism” in America. Wallace was a lifelong Democrat, but his rise to power coincided with a realignment that occurred in the U.S. in the 1960s and 70s. In that time, southern Democrats began migrating to the Republican Party, something helped greatly by Sunbelt conservatives Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Wallace was a creature of the Solid South, which had been strongly Democratic from the mid-19th century up through the mid-20th. But his views found a home in the new, very southern Republican Party.

African Americans would remain Democrat after the civil rights movement, but it was the big government-based Great Society that drove so many white politicians from the Democratic fold. While most white politicians were too shrewd to allow themselves to lapse into Wallace-like language about African Americans, many learned to speak in racial code. They could, however, be much more open, as was Wallace, about being tough-on-crime stance and their evangelical faith. Today, Wallace would, no doubt, be a Republican.

In his book’s introduction, Carter discusses Wallace’s late life conversion to moderation and wonders how real it was. By the 1980s, many people had softened toward Wallace, a fact helped by his obviously weakened physical condition. Many people, even African Americans, seemed willing to forgive his racist past.  I’m not sure if Carter will be as forgiving, but that’s something I’ll find out as I read more.

Colin Woodward is a historian and archivist. He is the author of Marching Masters, Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War (University of Virginia Press, 2014). He is writing a second book on Johnny Cash.