Drive-By Truckers: Southern Storytelling

Music Features Drive-By Truckers

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?’”

During the previous autumn, Hood had been receiving song demos from his longtime partner Cooley 220 miles away in Birmingham, Ala. Hood’s first reaction was excitement that Cooley had finally broken through his writer’s block and was writing songs as terrific as those during the band’s peak years of 2001-2006. Then Hood started noticing the similarities between the songs he was writing and Cooley’s.

“Primer Coat,” for example, has a line about the daughter leaving her mama’s “apron strings,” and Hood’s “Hanging On” has a line about a twentysomething son cutting his own “apron strings” and going out on tour with a band that’s making no money. Cooley’s “Made Up English Oceans” is about a cynical, right-wing Southern politician, and so is Hood’s “The Part of Him.” Cooley’s “Natural Light” describes a woman ignoring her husband by watching TV, and so does Hood’s “When Walter Went Crazy.” Cooley’s “First Air of Autumn” uses the sun setting on the horizon as a metaphor for loss, and so does Hood’s “Grand Canyon.”

The give-and-take between Cooley and Hood reminds one of the relationship between co-leaders in other bands: John Lennon and Paul McCartney in The Beatles, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger in The Rolling Stones, Grant Hart and Bob Mould in Husker Du, Dave and Ray Davies in The Kinks, Liam and Noel Gallagher in Oasis, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham in Fleetwood Mac, Chris Bell and Alex Chilton in Big Star. Far better than most of their predecessors, Cooley and Hood have managed to remain friends and willing collaborators. Maybe that’s because they had their break-up before they became well-known.

They both grew up in the Quad Cities (aka the Shoals) of northwest Alabama. Cooley lived in Tuscumbia, next to Muscle Shoals and Sheffield on the south bank of the Tennessee River. Hood lived on the north bank in Florence. Hood’s father David was the bassist in the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section that played on records by Aretha Franklin, the Rolling Stones, the Staple Singers, Paul Simon, Jimmy Cliff and many more. But Patterson Hood rebelled against that legacy by joining a succession of punkish garage-rock bands. He was 21 when he met the 19-year-old Cooley on that circuit.

“We had a shared desire to be in a band and a shared incompetence,” Cooley recalls with a chuckle. “We didn’t have the skills to play with those other people who were playing in bands around town. Because of that shared incompetence, we could relate to each other and we got better together—and sometimes got frustrated with one another. We seemed to have enough of the same idea about where we wanted to go, though we didn’t know how to get there.”

They formed the band Adam’s House Cat in 1985, named after the old Southern expression, “I wouldn’t know him from Adam’s house cat.” It was a prophetic choice, for the band would never be very well known outside northern Alabama. The group’s mix of Crazy Horse, Rolling Stones, R.E.M. and Replacements did win them recognition from Musician Magazine in 1988 as one of the nation’s “Ten Best Unsigned Bands,” and they lived up to that accolade by remaining unsigned.

They recorded a full-length album, Town Burned Down, in 1990 at the legendary Muscle Shoals Studio. But no label wanted to release it; the band had no money left to release it themselves, and the group collapsed during an ill-considered move to Memphis. Cooley and Hood formed an acoustic duo called Virgil Kane (named after The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”) and then a short-lived group called Horsepussy. Frustrated by failure and tired of each other, the two men moved to different towns and didn’t speak for several years.

“Adam’s House Cat was trying so hard not to be the things we were naturally meant to be,” Hood confesses, “that we ran from our Southernness and so many other things that deep down we really were. Cooley was the one with the big Carl Perkins influence, and I was too caught up with the Replacements and R.E.M. to pay attention. The Drive-By Truckers are the band Cooley wanted Adam’s House Cat to be. All these years later, we’ve embraced our Southernness, but at the time that seemed too easy.”

“Patterson and I had dropped out of college to do that first band,” Cooley adds, “and we put so much pressure on ourselves because we were getting so much pressure from our families for throwing away our lives. We were like the guy at the party who’s not going to get lucky because he’s trying so hard. When we started the Drive-By Truckers, we didn’t care—and that’s when we got lucky.”

Cooley finally started writing songs after he separated from Hood, who had never stopped writing. When Hood played his new songs, he knew they deserved a band behind them and he knew that band had to include Cooley. So he scraped together some money to record a single in Athens and invited his estranged ex-bandmate to play on the session. Things clicked, and soon the Drive-By Truckers were born.

“On many levels we’re opposites in that classic-rock-archetype way,” Hood says. “We have very different temperaments. On the surface, I’m the warmer, friendlier one, and he’s got that dark, surly streak, though sometimes we swap roles. We’ve been able to coexist with that and even thrive on that; it’s one of the greatest strengths of the band.

“I’ve always loved the way he could deconstruct whatever I built. If I wrote a pretty song, he’d put an ugly guitar part on it. If I wrote an ugly song, he’d put a pretty guitar part on it. He was like a pain in the ass who was trying to fuck up whatever I did, throwing a hand grenade in the middle of the dinner party. That’s essential for great rock ‘n’ roll, and he provided that. When he wasn’t there, I missed that, and I couldn’t find anyone else to do that.”

The Truckers’ first album, 1998’s Gangstabilly, featured a line-up of Hood, Cooley, acoustic bassist Adam Howell, drummer Matt Lane and steel guitarist John Neff. Rob Malone replaced Howell for the 1999 album, Pizza Deliverance.The line-up really solidified, though, when Brad Morgan took over the drum stool in 1999. He, Hood and Cooley have been the unchanging core of the Drive-By Truckers ever since.

“In forming a band it’s important to have the two opposites that Cooley and I represent,” Hood argues, “but it’s just as important to have that guy who plays the role that my dad played in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section or that Charlie Watts plays in the Rolling Stones: the calm guy who’s not hot-headed. That’s Brad; we call him Easy Bee. We have a saying in the band: ‘You know you’ve really fucked up if you piss off Easy Bee.’ I’ve never seen anyone work harder at getting better; he practices all the time. Every record, every tour, he’s a little better than he was before. When we did that record with Booker T., he was so complimentary about Brad’s drumming.”

The quartet of Morgan, Hood, Cooley and Malone recorded the live album Alabama Ass Whuppin’ in 1999 and released it in 2000. Featuring five songs from Gangstabilly, three from Pizza Deliverance, three new originals and a cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died,” it summed up the Truckers’ first phase so well that the band decided to re-release it last fall, with a new mix by their current producer, David Barbe.

“We were never happy with the way that album was mastered,” Cooley explains. “It now sounds so much better than it did the first time. I’m glad we got it out, because that band and that sound will never exist again. There was a sense of abandonment to it. That’s as good as that band ever got.”

The Drive-By Truckers finally burst onto the national consciousness with 2001’s double-CD concept album, Southern Rock Opera, a song cycle about Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, Neil Young, Bear Bryant, George Wallace and “The Southern Thing.” Earl Hicks was on bass; Malone became the third guitarist, and Virginia artist Wes Freed drew the iconic cover—just as he would handle all the band’s artwork from then on. The band deserved all the attention it got, for it was a magnificent recording.

The best was yet to come. When Malone suddenly quit later that year, the band hired Jason Isbell, a green-as-grass kid from Green Hills, Ala., 17 miles northwest of Florence. He was hired as a guitarist but turned out to be a terrific songwriter and singer too, and he contributed key songs to a pair of albums as good as any back-to-back combo in rock ‘n’ roll history: 2003’s Decoration Day and 2004’s The Dirty South.

The band was no longer writing about celebrities; they were writing about their neighbors, the kind of blue-collar adults they might have become if the band hadn’t worked out—people who drink too much, earn too little, marry too hurriedly and grope for answers in a cryptic universe. The Drive-By Truckers did for those Alabama residents what Bruce Springsteen had done for New Jersey’s.

“We ended up writing about these working-class Southerners who weren’t having too much luck in life,” Cooley acknowledges. “I came from that kind of family; I had a lot of that around me. It’s something I can get my head around, and it’s something I feel strongly about. My brain doesn’t do pop fantasy. I appreciate people who can do it, but Patterson and I are more interested in people we know and what makes them tick.”

“I write about what’s bugging me,” Hood adds. “During the Dubya Bush years, politics were driving me crazy, but how do you express that without being just another guy with a guitar ranting about how life sucks? You tell a story about someone who’s not you. Maybe it’s the Uncle Remus influence, all those tall tales I had as a kid. I’ve always loved Southern storytelling, books and literature; that comes from my mom’s side of the family—a lot of frustrated writers on that side. Springsteen was an influence too, especially when he released Darkness, River and Nebraska when I was in my mid-teens.”

It’s not often that a rock ‘n’ roll band has three songwriters operating simultaneously at the peak of their powers—the Beatles on Abbey Road, the Byrds on Fifth Dimension, Buffalo Springfield on Buffalo Springfield Again, Fleetwood Mac on Rumours, few others.

“It’s very unusual to have three songwriters in the same band—especially nowadays—but it wasn’t very competitive,” Isbell claims. “Everyone was very open to everyone else’s songs; it was pretty obvious which ones were going to work. As a result, there wasn’t any pressure on any one of us to write a full album of material.”

“I knew we’d struck gold,” Hood told the New York Times last year. “This chubby kid—he was 22 but looked like he was 15—was going to be one of the great songwriters of our time.” But it all went sour. Isbell was married to the band’s new bassist, Shonna Tucker; then they weren’t married—there was tension, belligerence and alcohol, and it all blew up in 2007. It was portrayed as an amicable parting at the time, but the principals are more honest about it now.

“Some people get drunk and become kind of sweet,” Hood told the Times. “Jason wasn’t one of those people.” When Hood suggested Isbell take some time off, the latter replied that he wasn’t going to miss even one show. Cooley then called and said, “That isn’t going to work for us.”

“At the end it got to where it wasn’t very much fun creatively,” Isbell told me this year, “because it wasn’t very much fun personally. But I learned a lot from those guys. We worked really, really hard. They always recorded the songs they wanted to record. It was never about what was going to sell; it was always about what was the best song. I learned that you can make a living by taking that approach; if I hadn’t, I might have ended up writing songs like what was on the radio. I’m infinitely grateful for that.”

Last year Isbell sobered up, married Amanda Shires and released Southeastern, an album of songs as good as his contributions to the Drive-By Truckers. The best of those songs is “Elephant,” the unflinching story of a woman refusing to change her personality just because she’s dying.

“I didn’t ever not love Jason Isbell,” Hood insists. “I was so angry at him for a few years that I wanted to throttle him, but I’d never trade those years when he helped us make Decoration Day and Dirty South and tour behind them. And it did end happily, because I’m so proud of what he’s done. ‘Elephant’ is the best song ever written by someone I personally know, and I know a lot of great songwriters.”

If Southeastern is an impressive return to form, so is English Oceans. The songwriting balance between Hood and Cooley has been restored, and both men deliver the kind of Southern oral storytelling they’re famous for. We expect that from them; what’s surprising is the new sophistication to the music.

On the earlier records, the band relied on their smart lyrics and tremendous energy to compensate for the predictability of the music. But this time, the chords move in unexpected directions; the vocal melodies don’t necessarily sit on the triads, and unusual breaks and codas wordlessly expand the lyrics’ implications. A lot of this is catalyzed by keyboardist Jay Gonzalez, who has a newly prominent role in the soundscape.

“The shows are more streamlined now,” Cooley points out. “We got a third guitar when we did Southern Rock Opera, just to be true to the form. Then for some reason we never changed. Then it occurred to us that we didn’t start as a three-guitar band, why not go back to two guitars? We used Spooner Oldham on piano for an album and a half, then we did a record with Booker T. We segued from that into having Jay as a full-time keyboard player. I think he’s proud that the only keyboardists we’ve had have been Spooner, Booker T. and him.”

Hood and Cooley gained a new appreciation for the non-verbal side of their songs after backing up Booker T. Jones on his 2009 instrumental album, Potato Hole. The former leader of the MGs wanted to nudge his R&B sound in more of a rock direction, but the sessions did not begin well. On the third day of a four-day session, Jones and the Truckers had completed only two songs. They were working on a slow tune called “Reunion Time,” but it just wasn’t happening.

“Booker made this face like he smelled something he didn’t like,” Hood remembers. “It wasn’t like Bettye Lavette yelling at you, but you could tell he was unhappy. He stopped in the middle of the take and gathered us around in a circle. He asked us to imagine a family reunion with pumpkin pie, our aunts and everything else. Then we went back to our instruments and nailed the take. From then on, we did that for every take. He said, ‘Yeah, I realized that you were used to playing off the lyrics. I’m telling a story too; I’m just not using words.’

“He opened our eyes to so many musical ideas and concepts, and we’ve spent the last three records and my solo record trying to deal with that. I always used to say I wanted the lyrics to hold up just on a piece of paper, but after playing with Booker, I realized I also want the music to hold up too as an instrumental without lyrics. I wouldn’t want to listen to Pizza Deliverance as instrumentals, but I think these songs would work as instrumentals.”

The Drive-By Truckers reached a similar impasse in the studio while working on English Oceans. Hood was trying to tape the lead vocal for his song, “Til He’s Dead or Rises,” but he just wasn’t getting it. It was an unusual song for him, a sludgy, bluesy, bottom-heavy rocker that tells an elliptical story about a couple who bonded as teenagers over an auto accident and now find their marriage a different kind of car wreck. It was a good song, a Drive-By Truckers song, but for some reason Hood couldn’t nail the vocal.

“It was late at night,” Cooley remembers. “Patterson went in to do another vocal, but he still wasn’t happy with it. He came into the control room and told me, ‘You know, this sounds more like your kind of song. Why don’t you sing it?’ I said, ‘I was just thinking the same thing.’ It’s funny; sometimes you write for a voice in your head and it’s not your voice.”

That’s the mark of a true band, a healed band, when one songwriter can sing the other songwriter’s song, when one guitarist can play the solo on another guitarist’s song (Hood’s favorite guitar solo on the new album is Gonzalez’s on Cooley’s “Primer Coat”). And the mark of a great songwriter is when he or she can write in someone else’s voice: a fellow band member’s, a neighbor back home, yours, mine.

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