Since most of the band hails from northern Alabama, the Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA) is a topic of several Drive-By Truckers songs. The TVA brought many changes to that region, not all of them good. In "Uncle Frank" from the DBT's second album Pizza Deliverance, Mike Cooley explores the dark side of the TVA's impact. Uncle Frank lost his land when it was submerged by a new dam, and the promises of economic development were greater than the reality.
This song interests me because I read about the TVA recently in Water Wars by Diane Raines Ward. In its early days, the TVA served as a model for water development. It lessened the flooding along the Tennessee River, which in turn helped combat malaria and other maladies. It provided cheap, clean hydroelectricity for a region where many homes didn't even have power and those that did had been powered by dirty coal plants. It provided jobs during the Great Depression in a region sorely in need of economic development. Its hydropower fueled some of the aluminum plants -- as well as Oak Ridge National Laboratory -- that helped the U.S. win World War II. While some critics complained about too much government control, the TVA showed how important it is to manage a river as a whole system. TVA consultants were sought by developing nations wishing to control their water resources in a similar manner.
The cars never came to town and the roads never got built
and the price of all that power kept on going straight uphill
The banks around the hollow sold for lakefront property
where doctors, lawyers, and musicians teach their kids to waterski.
Uncle Frank couldn’t read or write
so there was no note or letter found when he died.
Just a rope around his neck and the kitchen table turned on its side
But by the time those countries came calling, the TVA was already heading downhill. Instead of staying true to their charter, they decided their business should be power generation rather than river management. Consequently, the TVA started building nuclear power plants and even coal plants (keep in mind part of their original mission was to replace coal plants). The nuclear plants crippled the TVA with debt, so "the price of all that power kept on going straight uphill." Now the TVA is an example of a good idea gone wrong, or at least a good idea that lost its focus. Of course, "Uncle Frank" is looking at the TVA from a "micro" point of view. While overall it did a lot of good, the lives of some people were deeply affected and even ruined in the name of Progress.