Stephen King on the fragility of the American Dream
This is a sad story about how good you can be in America and still not be quite good enough to make it. It’s about an alt-country band called Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers. Please don’t confuse them with the Drive-By Truckers, a fine alt-country band that’s still going strong; you can only experience Diesel Doug on a retrospective CD — available on the Net at cornmealrecords.com — called Mistakes Were Made.
Although I’m an alt-country freak (think Steve Earle, Dwight Yoakam, Uncle Tupelo, and Ryan Adams’ old band Whiskeytown), I never heard of DD and the Truckers when they were still trying to make it, even though I live in Maine and they were a Maine band. Maine, you see, is a big state divided into two parts: Portland and all the rest of it. The Long Haul Truckers were Portland-based and I live considerably north of there, in that part of the state where everyone’s favorite color is John Deere green.
In late 2005, soon after the Long Haul Truckers’ retrospective album was released, the Portland Sunday paper did a piece on the band, which had released two surprisingly well-reviewed indie-label albums, The Fine Art of Carousing and An Angel Not a Saint, during their 10-year run. These things interested me, but what persuaded me to actually buy the new album were the titles of the first two tracks. My CD collection would not be complete, I reckoned, without ”If I’d Shot Her When I Met Her (I’d Be Outta Jail by Now)” and ”I’d Like to Quit Drinkin’ (But I Live Over a Bar).” How bad could such songs be, I wondered, especially for a survivor of Robbie Fulks’ interpretation of ”Bury the Bottle With Me”?
Well, the CD turned out to be terrific. I’m not flogging it as The Next Big Thing, and if your idea of great music is U2 you’ll probably want to steer clear, but if you like tight loud roadhouse rock with a little tang of country, this is just your ticket. The ballads are sweet without ever getting stuck in the syrup, there’s a great cover of Robert Earl Keen’s ”Merry Christmas From the Family,” and the close-out number — ”My Girlfriend Is a Waitress” — is a euphoric proletarian anthem.
So where are Diesel Doug (real name: Scott Link) and the Long Haul Truckers (Charlie Gaylord on Telecaster, John Davison on drums, Scott Conley on kick-ass bass) these days? Well, Gaylord runs Cornmeal Records, Conley builds guitars, Davison works for a health care company. And Diesel Doug? Well, Diesel Doug sells real estate. And while they no longer harbor any major-label illusions, they still get together to play once a month or so. But how did a band this good, this tight, fail to make the big time (or even the middle time) in a country where a no-talent, off-key screamer like William Hung could sell hundreds of thousands of records?
There may not be any satisfactory answer to this question. We like to say that talent somehow always finds its way; the idea is as American as Mom’s apple pie and li’l ole Sun Records down there in Memphis. A truck driver cutting a record for his mama can become a star. An itinerant Greenwich Village folksinger can become the voice of his generation. A struggling boardwalk rocker from New Jersey can release his breakthrough album soon after his label almost drops him (or so the story goes) and be playing sold-out arena shows five years later. You can hear a hundred similar rock & roll stories, and if you widen your field of focus to include books and movies, you can make it a thousand. But you have to wonder how many bands like Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers may have been left largely unheard, except by their small cadre of fans. Worse — how many potentially searing talents may now be pushing paper in offices or teaching band in Ohio high schools? Because sometimes mistakes are made. Sad, but true.
In his CD liner notes, Scott Link, a.k.a. Diesel Doug, is extremely articulate about both the good times and the missed chances. ”Ten years of bars, clubs, the occasional arena, glass ceilings, Wild Turkey, four-dollar ASCAP checks, no sound checks, blown monitors, rooms with 150 people in them who couldn’t give a s —, and rooms with 15 people in them who were having a great time ….
”[We had] one glimpse of the show. It was in July 1999, opening for Willie Nelson at the Bangor Auditorium. Ah yes, the Willie show. I still have the bottle of Cuervo from our dressing room…. There were four or five thousand people in the hall and we walked onto a blackened stage to thunderous noise (they thought we were Willie, I guess). I got chills. I could’ve gotten used to that.”
And, given the quality of the 16 tracks on Mistakes Were Made, maybe they should have gotten that chance. Link says the Long Haul Truckers got about as far as Double-A on the alt-country circuit before their particular upward curve topped out. You’d have to listen to the record and judge for yourself if that was far enough, or if they got cheated-by the system or just blind fate. All I know is that talent is a lightning rod and America is a thunderstorm. You go running around like crazy, you get soaked, your arm gets tired holding that damn thing up…and still, lightning, all too often, strikes half a block over, electrifying someone else.
Told you it was going to be a sad story.