The Drive-By Truckers’ terrific new album, English Oceans, arrives after a tough stretch of years for the group. Tensions on the band bus had led to painful separations with singer-guitarist Jason Isbell in 2007; with bassist Shonna Tucker, Isbell’s ex-wife, in 2011; and with guitarist John Neff, Tucker’s new boyfriend, in 2012. Mike Cooley, one of the band’s two leaders, had hit a songwriting dry spell from 2009 through 2011. During these difficulties, the band was recording and touring non-stop till they were ready to drop from exhaustion.
“It’s supposed to be fun,” says Patterson Hood, Cooley’s co-leader. “We all know parts of the job are going to suck: the long drives, the hurry-up-and-wait, a lot of the interviews. But if the two hours on stage aren’t fun, something’s wrong and you’ve got to fix it. But it’s hard to fix it on tour, especially when you get off tour and you know you’re going back out in two weeks.
“So problems fester and get worse, and it’s a downward spiral. In retrospect, it was probably a mistake to put out those two records from one session. We released Big To-Do in March of 2010, toured behind that for 10 months, took two weeks off, released Go-Go Boots in February of 2011 and then toured for another year. We weren’t doing ourselves or our fans any favors by running ourselves into the ground. We said, ‘We’ve got to get off this conveyor belt.’”
So they did. They cut way back on their touring schedule in 2012 and 2013. In 2012, Cooley released his first solo album, the unaccompanied, acoustic The Fool on Every Corner, and Hood released his third solo album, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, with a rhythm section of Truckers drummer Brad Morgan, Truckers producer/bassist David Barbe and Truckers pianist Jay Gonzalez. Cooley started writing again, and the band decided to carry on as a quintet without replacing Neff (but retaining bassist Matt Patton of the Dexateens). They reentered the studio in January 2013 with a fistful of new songs that they were excited about.
“My writing thing wasn’t happening when we recorded those two previous albums,” Cooley admits. “I started getting stressed and that only made it worse. I only had a few songs to bring to those sessions, and some of them were old songs we hadn’t recorded. I was bummed. So taking some time off was healthy. It was time to give the whole thing a rest.”
“In retrospect,” Hood admits, “I think I did Cooley a disservice by making two records at a period when he was going through a rough period and wasn’t writing much. I think ‘Birthday Boy’ was the only new song he wrote in that period. He wasn’t as engaged. I decided I wasn’t going to make another record until Cooley called me up and said he wanted to make a record. The reason I formed this band in the beginning was to have Cooley be part of it. He sent me the demo for his first song on this album, and I said, ‘God damn, that’s a great song.’ And I kept on saying that each time he sent me something.”
“I started getting ideas for songs again,” Cooley adds. “I’ve never been one to have the lightbulb go off, write it down and finish the song in an hour. When I have something good, that’s when I have to be my own boss and say, ‘Take this further, make it better.’ I have to twist my own arm. Maybe the chord needs to change; maybe the story needs a new scene. It’s almost like writing for the screen; you ask yourself, ‘What do you see? What’s she wearing? Is it sunny? Is it hot?’ I answer those questions and then I’m off.”
This resulted in songs like “Primer Coat,” the story of a factory foreman, a Southerner, sitting by his pool and thinking about his twentysomething daughter leaving home. This is an unusual subject for a rock ‘n’ roll band, which is more likely to focus on freewheeling characters in the no-man’s land between school and marriage/career. But the Truckers have always specialized in characters with jobs, spouses, little glamour and lots of debt.
This song is sung by the foreman’s son, who knows more than he’d like about painting houses. His mother may be as plain as a primer coat, he realizes, but there’s a clarity and necessity in that undercoat of paint that shouldn’t be underestimated. In four minutes, Cooley lets us know all four members of that family, while his Keith Richards-like, just-ahead-of-the-beat guitar riff and Morgan’s Charlie Watts-like, just-behind-the-beat drumming supply all the tension the story needs.
“I had this image of this guy, middle-aged and working class, sitting by his swimming pool,” Cooley explains. “I didn’t know what he was thinking about, but I liked that image. I thought he might be thinking about politics and how working class families can’t afford pools like they used to. But that wasn’t it; he was thinking about his daughter. The mother of the family’s almost always stronger, especially when it comes to things that kick you in the gut. She’ll do what she has to do; she won’t be moping by the pool.”
“Primer Coat” is just one of many songs on English Oceans filled with memorable Southern characters. Hood’s “Pauline Hawkins” is the story of a nurse telling a suitor that she’s just not interested in romance, no matter what he might say. Cooley’s “Made Up English Oceans” is the alcohol-fueled confession of a right-wing campaign manager, chuckling about how easy it is to fool voters. Hood’s ”’Til He’s Dead or Rises” is the story of a man who knows he’s being used by his teenage-sweetheart-turned-wife but has learned to live with it.
Cooley’s “First Air of Autumn” describes how the smell of early September can get a working man thinking about high school, “popcorn, heavy hairspray, nylon pantyhose” and all those things that are gone forever. Hood’s “When Walter Went Crazy” describes a dissolving marriage with the picture of a man carrying a can of gasoline and a pack of matches past a wife drinking Tab on the sofa and watching Matlock on TV. The characters may be on a downhill slide, but the five musicians singing and playing their stories sound like they’ve caught a second wind and are on the upswing again.
In mid-January 2013, the band took some time off from the studio to play their annual three-night stand at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, Ga. The first night went great. Opening the show was an ad hoc band called Thundercrack doing Springsteen covers; the lead singer was the Truckers’ longtime soundman Matt DeFilippis, and the lead guitarist was longtime merch guy Craig Lieske. Lieske, the former manager of the 40 Watt, had become the band’s unofficial ambassador to the fans, if only because he charmed everyone who met him.
So it was devastating when everyone learned that Lieske had died in bed from a heart attack after the show. It was all the more difficult because the band had to finish the other two nights at the 40 Watt and then leave for a short tour with an empty bunk on the bus. It was during that tour, as the bus drove from Fort Worth to New Orleans, that Hood, sitting way in the back, scribbled down a song for Lieske called “Grand Canyon.”
“One of my fondest memories of my time with Craig,” Hood recalls, “was a trip to the Grand Canyon; he and I had spent a lot of time that day staring off into the glare of the distance. That memory unlocked the song, and I wrote it in 15 minutes; it took me longer to learn how to play it than to write it. I like the ascending and descending chord sequence that’s part of it, and I like the weird coda we added in the studio; it needed that kind of ending to pay homage to the improvisational music he did. I sang that song at his memorial service instead of reciting a eulogy.”
The recorded track begins with Hood’s ringing half-notes on the guitar climbing up a staircase of chords and then back down again; Morgan’s drums kick in and create the feel of hymn-like processional. Hood sings of standing with Lieske on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon as “the rocks change color” in the fading afternoon light. Remembering that day much later, Hood sings, “I wonder how a life so sturdy could just one day cease to be.” He then immediately contradicts himself by shifting to a minor-key bridge and adding, “I’m never one to wonder about the things beyond control.”
Most of us struggle with that: asking unanswerable questions, resolving to stop asking such questions, asking them again. Hood tries to reconcile this dilemma by turning it all to metaphor. He describes the Drive-By Truckers’ bus rolling away from the Grand Canyon across the darkened, nighttime deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, the canyon’s glowing sunset fading in the memory, that memory packed away under the bus with the drums and amplifiers and with “our sorrows, pains and anger.”
And years later there’s a sunset over Athens, Ga., where Hood and Lieske lived, and the singer recalls the folk legend that “the recently departed make the sunsets to say farewell to the ones they leave behind.” If he can’t accept it as science, he can accept it as metaphor, and he can at last say goodbye. Meanwhile, the chords keep rising in hope and falling in disappointment, rising and falling.
“Everybody loses people, like your beloved grandmother,” Hood says, “but you know you’re going to lose them. It’s the ones like this that come out of nowhere that get you, especially when you’re coming out of a long dark period and finally breathing a sigh of relief. After I wrote that song, I had to recalibrate the whole album, because a lot of the songs, when they sat next to that one, suddenly didn’t seem good enough. As soon as I wrote it, I knew it was the last song. So the question became, ‘What songs lead us to that one?’”