SINGING SONGS ABOUT THE SOUTHLAND: The Drive-By Truckers Raise A Ruckus

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The Drive-By Truckers steamrolled me to the asphalt the first time their 2001 opus, Southern Rock Opera, a sprawling ode to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of the South, hit my ears, and then my head. After I managed to pick myself up from the blazing bed of triple-thick/triple-threat Lynyrd Skynyrd-meets-Thin Lizzy electric guitars that must have broken my fall (I was still in one piece, you see), they knocked me on my butt again. Here was a shit-kicking, hell-raising American gang of ’70s-style Southern Rock Traditionalists, but with a bracingly fresh, decidedly ambivalent take on the traditions they were writing about (but not the style of music they were playing).southern-rock-opera

I would go on to devour Decoration Day, The Dirty South, A Blessing And A Curse and the slew of terrific albums that followed. (Those floored me too). But I didn’t need to in order to know that DBT was no flash-in-the-pan fluke. These guys had a unique vision, a million stories to tell, and were building something worthy, honest, and proud from the ground up. The Truckers quickly became a favorite, especially after I saw their ferociously enthralling, truth-telling live show that convinced me they were one of the absolute top-notch bands to take a stage anywhere.  I put my mind to writing about them and championing their music whenever and wherever I could.

My first interview was with co-founder and singer/bandleader Patterson Hood, for a profile piece aimed at introducing DBT to the broad readership of The Boston Globe back in the summer of 2003, just as Decoration Day was hitting record stores (remember those?).  Coincidentally, that album became a constant soundtrack and backdrop to my life that summer. Not just because I was prepping for my interview with Hood (and immersing myself in an album I loved), but because my dad was terminally ill, and Decoration Day is an engrossing, deeply meditative work: a brooding landscape of bitter anthems about life and what it costs, and strewn with totems marking the loves and lives we lose in the exchange.

I’m still not sure whether it made me feel better or worse. The music, some of it scorching and some of it wistful, certainly made me feel everything harder and more acutely and intensely (if that was even possible). But its dark emotional core felt oddly soul-nourishing, strength-giving to the specific events of my life at that moment.  In the layered weave of hard-luck songs and those melancholic but resilient voices I found a palpable poetry, a plain-spoken wisdom that made the grim circumstances (theirs and mine) somehow romantic, noble, even heroic. 

But mostly, those raging guitars were instant catharsis.  As hard as Southern Rock Opera had knocked me to the ground with the sheer force of its sound and ambition, Decoration Day pulled me up, got me to my feet, and shook me into fierce focus.

I interviewed co-founder Mike Cooley around the same time the next year for the Boston Phoenix’s sister publication, Stuff@Night magazine, when the band released yet another superb new album, The Dirty South. Like the previous summer, I had listened to the new music constantly in preparation of covering the band when it hit Boston (for those interested who want to stick with our long-form program, my original live review of their concert at the Paradise that September is tacked to the end of this post). This time, however, I was listening alone. My dad had died a month earlier.  

In the years since those tumultuous back-to-back summers, The Drive-By Truckers have gone on to hard-earned success, a few lineup changes (most notably, the addition and departure of killer singer-songwriter turned solo star Jason Isbell), and a respected career with a loyal following and an enduring, frequently brilliant body of work. 

Now, the DBT’s have hit the road again (at this road-hog rate, they just may match the miles-logged by the Allman Brothers someday). Their latest release is a live album called “It’s Great To Be Alive!” and it does a  good job of capturing the sprawl, depth, and breadth of the band’s body of work — not to mention its blistering stage show.  So, as a companion to the new tour, here’s that conversation with Cooley (and for a further fix of  DBT, you can also read my previous interview with Hood here: SOUTHERN EXPOSURE: The Drive-By Truckers Roll From Darkness To Daylight And Hit The Road Behind A New Live Album).

 All these years and lineup changes later, the song of DBT’s improbable start remains the same. But like all good yarns, it’s a story that bears retelling, because it’s about fate and fortune and famine, and a terrific rock & roll band whose defining moment almost didn’t happen.

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Patterson Hood and Co. at the Fillmore, where “It’s Great To Be Alive!” was recorded. (Photo Credit: Greg Chow)

 

Everywhere he looks, it seems, Mike Cooley sees stories. Some of them come from the sprawling highways and backwoods byways that thread through America like crazy-quilt stitching sewn onto the land. Others come from the faces of the folks who huddle as close as they can to the stage where Cooley’s band, the Drive-By Truckers, is telling another tale swamped in loud electric guitars.

But mostly, the stories that comprise the heart, soul, and guts of the albums the group has have made with fast frequency since forming in the late ‘90’s come right from Cooley’s Birmingham backyard.

“There’s a lot to write about, and at some point I’d like to move on and write about something else,” says Cooley with a hearty laugh over the phone from his hometown, while preparing for yet another jaunt across the country to promote the DBT’s latest album, The Dirty South, which comes out later this month on the New West Records label.  “But right now, when it comes to writing, all I have to do is look out the window. There’s always something about the past, present, or future of the South that makes me think, and this is the only place where I have that level of understanding.”13451-McClister-3

That “level of understanding” has led Cooley and DBT co-founder Patterson Hood to chronicle – with acerbic humor, stinging criticism, staggering poignancy, and a wall of woolly guitars – life, death and hardship in the American South, where ugly truths and beautiful myths merge messily. It’s a big subject, as rich, wide, and full of prickly contradictions as the geographical region itself – or the DBT’s, for that matter. It’s terrain that writers and artists have tackled before with memorable results (think Truman Capote, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd), and it’s one the band nailed on their justly celebrated double-disc opus, 2001’s Southern Rock Opera.

On the one hand, the work was framed as an explicit homage to Southern rock heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd and the tragic 1977 plane crash that claimed the lives of several of the band’s members and entourage. On the other, the album contemplated nothing short of the psyche and “duality of the Southern Thing” – the region’s misunderstood history; its painful racial and class divisions; generational politics; and troubled sense of identity – through the lens of someone looking from the inside out, and vice versa.

The double album, initially self-financed and self-released, was later reissued up by Mercury/Lost Highway and wound up on a truckload of nationwide year-end best-of lists. Last year, the DBT’s released the similarly praised Decoration Day, named for the traditional day Southerners place flowers on the graves of loved ones. Much of the material was searing and deeply personal, documenting the failed marriages and doomed relationships that took their tolls on band members before and after the laborious process of birthing Southern Rock Opera.Drive-By_Truckers_-_The_Dirty_South

“In the years leading up to making that record, we were sleeping on people’s floors,” Cooley says. “Then word got out that we were doing this giant, ridiculous, huge thing, and there was a lot of pressure involved in making that record. Wherever we went, that’s what everybody wanted to talk about, and so making that record was the only way we were going to be able to move on. But we were all broke as hell.” There have been a couple of lineup changes since then, including the arrival of female bassist Shonna Tucker, but the frontline of Cooley, Hood, and new guitarist Jason Isbell (all three write, sing, and play guitar) have made DBT as formidable a force as ever.

Proof of the Truckers’ unswerving approach to kicking up classic-rock shitstorms that aim for the head as much as the lower regions is evident in the song-cycle that makes up The Dirty South. Like the sunny-themed discs that came before it, this one takes up economic desperation, crime, and political corruption as its centerpiece subjects. A tattered humanity coming apart at the seams hangs inside the long, ragged guitar solos. Imagine Neil Young’s Crazy Horse and the Marshall Tucker Band lit on moonshine and lacing into songs about Sheriff Buford Pusser of Walking Tall fame and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what The Dirty South sounds like.

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“The Dirty South”-era Drive-By Truckers (Mike Cooley, far left)

Not only are the narratives situated in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where four of the five Truckers grew up (drummer Brad Morgan’s from Greenville, South Carolina), but much of the disc was also made there, at it the legendary FAME Recording Studio where scores of classic soul sides by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Percy Sledge were cut. Not coincidentally, Hood’s father, David Hood, was a session musician at FAME in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s and played bass on many of the era’s seminal recordings.

“Doing that record, based around the themes we were writing about, and then going in there, seemed perfect,” says Cooley. “It’s still very much, as far as I can tell, like it always was. Before we went in, we had already recorded a lot of stuff, but we didn’t feel like the album was really there yet. By the time we went in there, the band had really solidified and the timing was perfect. As for the history of the place, we definitely felt it.”

Cooley agrees with his bandmate Hood’s surprising assessment that DBT’s biggest fan base lies north of the Mason-Dixon line. Both say that, for some Southerners, the subject matter that drives the Truckers’ best work may hit too close to home. Writing songs about the infamous Alabama segregationist George Wallace, for instance, might be the aural equivalent of picking at a scab that after all these years is still barely healed.

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The Gloaming Twins, L-R: Hood and Cooley

“Every time you take apart a piece of the culture and you write about it, people are going to take it as making fun of that culture, or they’re going to take it as negative or exploitive,” Cooley says. “And then we get stuff where people say we’re not really from the South and that kind of nonsense, that we’re putting it all on as a gimmick.” At this, Cooley’s baritone drawl, which is as heavy as molasses in summer, seems to grow even thicker. “But all I can say to that is, hang out with me. It’s real. I mean, c’mon – Billy Bob Thornton couldn’t fake this accent.”DBT_Fillmore_Night1_29

Drive-By Truckers

At the Paradise Rock Club, Sept. 14, 2004

By Jonathan Perry/The Boston Globe

Imagine if Molly Hatchet had an acute grasp of Southern socio-economic issues, or if that plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd never went down in the swamps of Mississippi. Envisioning such things, or more specifically encouraging their audience to imagine them, is what the Drive-By Truckers do best. Unlike most Southern Rock stalwarts back in the day who never thought much past their guitars – how big, how loud, how many – this Alabama-bred outfit likes to ponder the themes that have haunted its history as Southerners.

This isn’t to say that the Truckers don’t like big guitars too, and lots of ‘em, turned up real loud. Even the hardcore fans hollering along to every song wisely reached for their earplugs when the DBT’s triple-threat front line of singer-guitarists Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell fired up their amps. It’s just that the group’s ambition as songwriters is as quicksand-deep, wide and massive as their music. This is the same band, after all, that three years ago released a sprawling, double-disc meditation about growing up in Birmingham and called it “Southern Rock Opera”.

During a rousing two-hour set at the Paradise Tuesday night, the DBT’s put both their storytelling smarts and heavy duty guitar firepower on rafter-quaking display. “The Dirty South” is the name of the DBT’s new disc and the band lived up to the album’s title right from the first lines of Cooley’s show-opening “Cottonseed”: “I came here to tell my story to all these young and eager minds / To look in their unspoiled faces and their curious bright eyes / Stories of corruption, crime and killing, yes it’s true / Greed and fixed elections, guns and drugs … and booze.” Unsubtle it may have been, but that proclamation set a blazing tone for what was to follow: cautionary tales and personal laments like “Outfit”, Isbell’s stunning portrait of freedom and compromise, that examined derailed dreams and folks driven to desperation.

A Southern Gothic sensibility resided amid the moonlit swamps, blighted families, and crooked gravestones that dotted “Decoration Day” and “Marry Me.” There were flashes of humor too, in tunes about defecating punk rocker G.G Allin and a ditty called “Dozers and Dirt” delivered with four-part harmony. But mostly, bitter free-falls into drink, divorce, and depression cast a long shadow over these stories. Good thing those guitars were turned up good and loud, or you might’ve heard a tear drop.

 

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