Over Easter 2008, Paddy and I went on a fantastic holiday to the USA. After getting ill in Forth Worth and Amarillo, we visited San Antonio, Las Vegas (in New Mexico, not Nevada), Durango (in Colorado, not Mexico), Monument Valley, Flagstaff and Los Angeles. One day we drove from Durango to Monument Valley and then drove back to Durango afterwards. The following day we drove to Flagstaff and stayed at The Monte Vista Hotel in the John Wayne suite. We then drove from Flagstaff to The Grand Canyon and took a helicopter flight. Before leaving Flagstaff we went to a great record shop and I bought “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark”. On the drive we put the CD on and listened to it all but it was particularly poignant to listen to the last track which was called “The Monument Valley”. I remember Paddy saying how great it was to go to Monument Valley one day and then listen to a song about it the next day.
Monument Valley is the most remarkable place I have ever been to. The valley consists of nearly 100 000 acres of red siltstone. Rising up to 1000 feet above the floor of the valley are hundreds of sandstone buttes. For me, the most relaxing type of holiday is when I feel that I am on another planet, with scenery as far removed from the Sussex Downs as you can get. Driving round the coast of Skye, driving along the Las Vegas strip or looking across Monument Valley are three such examples.
“The Monument Valley” is the 19th and last song on this 75 minute CD. It’s a single CD but was a double vinyl release. The lineup of Drive By Truckers has been fluid over the 24 years they have been going but the two consistent members have been Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. This song was written by Patterson Hood. The last lines of the song are “Turn your back on the comforts of home and wander around The Monument Valley alone.” When Paddy and I went there we enquired if we could join a tour party through the valley and we were offered a chance to have our own personal guide and sit on the back of his jeep for a couple of hours for $100. Of course, me, being a lily livered coward said “No” but Paddy was keen so luckily we went for the most remarkable couple of hours imaginable. The driver was a Native American, not very chatty but obviously a great guy and he drove us to some very remote spots where we could, indeed, wander around The Monument Valley alone. Luckily he didn’t drive off. The album is a brilliant hotchpotch of styles and this song is very slow and quiet with some great singing. There is an atmospheric guitar and restrained drumming along with some excellent pedal steel guitar playing.
There really is a huge variety of musical styles on this record. However, another favourite of mine is another slow paced restrained song called “Checkout Time In Vegas”. This song was written by Mike Cooley. It’s a very mysterious song lyrically. There’s been a shooting in Las Vegas, there are a couple involved but have they been killed or have they done the shooting? I really love it when the lyrics of a song contain a phrase that is not the title of the song but is the title of the record. (“Veedon Fleece” by Van Morrison and “This Year’s Model” by Elvis Costello spring to mind.) It happens here: “They’ll be after me by the time the buffet closes making sure Sin City still shines brighter than creation’s dark”.
There are so many good songs on this record. Another favourite is “The Righteous Path” written by Patterson Hood. This is much more up tempo and describes a man doing his best to hold on to his family by doing the right thing and ignoring any temptations. To my mind it’s a non-cynical tribute to anyone leading a conventional life. “I’m trying to keep focussed as I drive down the road/On the ditches and the curves and the heavy load/Ain’t bitching about things that aren’t in my grasp/Just trying to hold steady on the righteous path.”
The opening song is “Two Daughters And A Beautiful Wife” and it concerns the brutal murder of Bryan Harvey (one half of the well regarded duo House Of Freaks) and his family. It’s tragically powerful. There are three songs written by Shona Tucker who was the bass player between 2003 and 2012. They are great but then so is every song on this remarkable record.