Drive-by Truckers get an overhaul
Aspen Times Weekly
Drive-by Truckers were not exactly a band that was screaming to have its engine rebuilt. The quintet played, more or less, in a style that has a track record of popularity ” Southern rock, fueled by a three-guitar attack. Moreover, they had reinvented the genre sufficiently to earn the blessing of critics. “Southern Rock Opera,” a 2001 two-CD concept epic that examined the American South through the saga of a Lynyrd Skynyrd-type group, has become a classic at a time when few rock albums earn such a designation. In terms of popularity, Drive-by Truckers were cruising nicely, with a reputation as a sensational live act that made them a feature attraction at such festivals as Bonnaroo.
But after a monstrously busy stretch, which saw them release four albums in five years, and hardly ever leave the road, the Truckers themselves saw it was time to take a turn. In late 2006, the band took its first extended break from touring. When they returned last spring, they unveiled a new facet ” a sitting down, strumming acoustic guitars version of the loud, electric Truckers. Their Dirt Underneath tour was inspired by the pre-“Southern Rock Opera” days, when it was possible for the band to set up at a friend’s farm, drink copiously, and swap songs.
“It was something I’d wanted to do a long time,” said singer-guitarist Patterson Hood of the Dirt Underneath tour. “It gave us a chance to reinvent ourselves from the ground up. If nothing else, it gave us a chance to strip everything down to the bare essentials of the songs. Everything that had become baggage got left behind. It works out different muscles. We’re the type of people who gravitate to something new anyway.”
Hood ” whose father, David Hood, was the bassist for the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in the family’s home state of Alabama ” eventually got more reinvention than he bargained for. On the eve of the Dirt Underneath tour, singer-guitarist Jason Isbell, who had been with the band since just after recording “Southern Rock Opera,” parted ways with the Truckers. Hood says the departure wasn’t out of the blue, but the tour had been planned with the idea that Isbell would be involved.
Despite the changes in membership and musical approach, the Dirt Underneath was a resounding success. A stop at Aspen’s Belly Up demonstrated that the songs ” those of Hood and fellow singer-songwriter Mike Cooley, who founded the band with Hood in Athens, Ga., in the mid-’90s ” would stand up to the spotlight, and that cranking down the volume didn’t necessarily mean a lack of energy. (The show made the list of best concerts of the year in The Aspen Times.)
To Hood, the strategy worked on all counts. It took him and the band off cruise control, and it revealed another dimension of Drive-by Truckers.
“It’s always best when the music takes you, and you can’t control it,” he said by phone from his home in Athens. “That was one of the goals of the Dirt Underneath. The nights I respond to the most aren’t necessarily the nights we play the best, but when we get those moments of transcendence, where you forget where you are. If you can achieve that sitting down, it’s like boxing with one hand behind your back.” Realizing the Truckers could, in fact, actually accomplish that without an arsenal of electric guitars was “profound,” said Hood: “We can do those different things and do them each legitimately.”
The Dirt Underneath might not have been such a momentous experience had its effects ended with the tour. But with their image of themselves altered and their creativity refreshed, the band embarked on making a new album, their first since 2006’s “A Blessing and a Curse.”
Several songs had been written before the Truckers began the Dirt Underneath tour. Hood, who was writing songs before he learned to play guitar, came up with some 50 songs in the break before the tour. Cooley had written 10. When the tour ended, the plan was to start working out those new tunes, and any others that might come up while making the album. There was no overt intention to use the tools they had acquired during the Dirt Underneath, but to be open to those ideas. One component from the tour ” keyboardist Spooner Oldham, an Alabaman who had played with Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin ” was specifically retained for the recording sessions.
The original idea of those sessions, last June in Athens, was to arrange and fine-tune the songs and see if they had the beginnings of an album. But something more transpired. The Truckers recorded 17 songs over 10 days.
“That sounds like we were working hard,” said Hood. “But we weren’t. It was so easy. We didn’t realize how much we had there. So much. If it didn’t happen really quickly and really naturally, we just moved on to the next thing.”
The result is another masterpiece. Released last month, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” earned four stars from Rolling Stone, and four and a half from All Music Guide. Moreover, it is a different sort of masterpiece. While the Truckers don’t shy away from amped-up guitars in spots ” “3 Dimes Down” recalls raucous “Exile on Main Street”-era Rolling Stones ” there are more country textures (steel and acoustic guitars, banjo) than ever and as many slow songs as rockers. The production is marked by spaciousness, with room between the notes rather than the density of previous albums.
Standing on their own, the songs stand tall: “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife” is a reflection, calm and affecting, by a dead man on what he’s left behind; Cooley’s deadpan humor is the most prominent element in the straight-up country tunes “Lisa’s Birthday,” about a bad girl, and “Bob,” about a strange guy. “The Righteous Path,” a rocker that Hood wrote during the recording sessions and which he says ties the album together, addresses the band’s standard, overriding theme of balancing sin and salvation.
Another dimension to this change in direction is the emergence of Shonna Tucker. The former wife of the departed Jason Isbell, Tucker joined the band as bassist at the end of 2003 and added background vocals in concert. On “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” Tucker emerges not only as a frequent presence on backing vocals, but as a singer and songwriter. She contributed three songs whose lyrical content fits in comfortably with those of her bandmates. Her aching countryish voice, not too far from Emmylou Harris’, might not have worked so well on “Southern Rock Opera,” but here it is a wonderful complement to the Truckers’ gentler side.
Hood says that he had heard some of Tucker’s previous efforts at song-writing, but she was shy about trying her wings around two accomplished writers like Hood and Cooley. If either of them walked in the room when she was writing, she’d put down her pen. “It was nice when she walked in the first day [of recording “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark”], and she walked into the studio with a four-track of two songs she’d written,” said Hood.
One thing that the Dirt Underneath didn’t change was the band’s Southern quality. With the subjects of God and guns, cars and the devil, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” could depict most anywhere in rural, white America. But layer on the banjos and steel guitar ” and the beer and whisky, always lots of beer and whisky ” and the album brings the Southern reality into focus.
Hood says the Southern-rock label is a tag that doesn’t fit as well as most people try to make it. It started with “Southern Rock Opera,” an album that was very much about the South: civil rights, George Walleye, Muscle Shoals and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“We earned, or got stuck with, that Southern-rock-mantel thing,” said Hood. “But we never saw ourselves like that. It’s, like, an actor plays a psychopath ” does that make him a psychopath? We were trying to be honest to the subject matter; we even added a third guitarist to fit the role. But we didn’t set out to be this kind of band. It’s method acting without the acting. Method acting with music.
“The upside is it changed our career trajectory. But it hung us with a label that we’re not real comfortable with.”
Trying to persuade someone that the Drive-by Truckers don’t represent Southern rock is an argument that Hood isn’t going to win. Hood probably worries that people are going to hear the phrase and think of the band as Skynyrd knockoffs, which they certainly are not. But on another level, Hood is simply ducking away from any label that would tend to confine what he can do musically. As he said, the Truckers are a band always looking to navigate the next bend.
“Punk, country, rock ‘n’ roll ” this record moves in all those directions,” he said. “We’re most comfortable when we’re doing that.”
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