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In 2002, while writing my book Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race, and New Beginnings in a New South, I stumbled upon an album by a band I’d never heard of: Southern Rock Opera by the Drive By Truckers. It blew my mind. The writers of the songs seemed to be simultaneously thinking about the very same issues that I was writing about in my book. It stopped me in my tracks: “I must talk to these guys,” I said to myself. As it turned out, The Drive By Truckers played a central role in the book. The band’s main singer and songwriter, Patterson Hood, and his father, veteran bassist David Hood (who’d played with countless Southern soul singers in the ’60s and ’70s), were perfect bookends for my story. For years, I remained in contact with the band. And then… I wrote this cover story for Relix magazine, and Patterson Hood became the first musician in my 40-year career as a journalist to tell me on the phone, “Do not ever call this number again.” He was angry about this piece — and to this day, I’m not sure why. Maybe because I described their copious weed consumption? (I mean, come on… it was for Relix, which began life as a Grateful Dead fanzine.) Maybe because I mentioned the departure of singer-songwriter Jason Isbell? (Their publicist really didn’t want me to go there, but I’m not one to leave a significant part of a story out of a story.) Anyway, beats me. Whatever the case, it sadly made me much less interested in following the band’s remarkable music. I still very much respect them, but the situation left a bad taste. In the story, I quote Jason Isbell explaining why he left the band: “If it’s a question of why did that happen — you know, just get in a house trailer with your eight closest friends and stay in there about 300 days of the year.” I get it. Hell, I didn’t last 24 hours with them unscathed. But for you, dear reader: If you’ve never listened to the Drive By Truckers, listen now. They truly are one of the greatest rock bands of the 21st Century, and Patterson Hood, my hurt feelings notwithstanding, is one of the great songwriters and thinkers of our times.

With two new albums, a film, and another Grammy nomination, 2010 is shaping up to be the band’s biggest year yet.

By Mark Kemp, Relix, February/March, 2010

ON A COLD AND RAINY NIGHT IN GEORGIA, a tour bus sits parked outside a row of storage units in a warehouse district on the outskirts of Athens, its steady hum portending another journey into the wilds of the Southeast. Inside one of the units—a cavernous space with a handful of chairs, a bench seat from an old van, and drum cases doubling as coffee tables—the members of the Drive-By Truckers stroll in one after the other. Early on, it’s just bassist Shonna Tucker and pedal-steel player John Neff chatting with three roadies over the blare of some old Black Sabbath. Then frontmen Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood arrive, followed by drummer Brad Morgan and new keyboardist Jay Gonzalez.

It’s early December and the Truckers are gathering for a quick trip down to Charleston, South Carolina, to perform a one-off gig the following night for a Jack Daniels event. Everybody seems pumped for the show but some of them are also a bit under the weather. Cooley’s getting over a mild case of pneumonia. Tucker’s feeling self-conscious about an allergic reaction that’s caused her face to puff up a little. And Hood has just recovered from the lingering aftereffects of pleurisy, an extremely painful lung inflammation that led to his collapse onstage the last time they played Charleston back in February.

Their ailments are mitigated by this new storage space, which the band moved into only days ago. At the moment, it’s bare except for stray pieces of equipment the Truckers don’t use on stage. Covering the walls are huge backdrops from earlier tours and the kind of yard-sale art you’d expect: a velvet Elvis, a red-and-white Alabama flag, and the graveyard artwork from Decoration Day. They plan to use the space not just for storage, but also as a meeting lounge, office, and general headquarters. Tonight they’re breaking it in with a discussion of new business. But first things first.

“Let’s smoke some dope!,” Hood announces, tossing a bag of weed on one of the drum cases with a devil-may-care middle finger to his recent malady. He’s wearing the same red plaid button-down shirt, jeans, and faded brown boots he’ll have on for the next 30 hours or so, topped off with a yellow ski cap emblazoned with the Best Western logo.

After a good toke, the band gets down to business. First item up: the artwork for the Truckers’ new album, The Big To-Do. It’s an illustration of a monkey in a circus vest riding the back of the familiar black bird that graces the band’s other covers. The image is a play on “The Flying Wallendas,” Hood’s woozy song about the famous ill-fated trapeze artists. Colorful and active, the painting ranks among the best works yet from the band’s regular album artist, Wes Freed. The members huddle around Hood’s laptop, oohing and aahing over the piece. 

Next up: the DBTs’ annual January homecoming shows in Athens. The event is particularly notable this year for opening act The Decoys, a band of Southern music luminaries featuring Hood’s bass-playing dad, David. He is an original member of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section studio band and has played on countless classic hits by artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Rod Stewart. They’re all excited by the possibility of having the elder Hood join them onstage for a song or two.

“It’d be great if we could do ‘Respect Yourself,’“ offers Tucker, referring to the 1971 Staple Singers hit featuring one of the elder Hood’s famous crawling bass lines. “That would be the most special thing ever.”

“I’ll talk to dad about it,” Hood says.

Tucker leans over and confides: “It’s so great having this new space for us to talk about business. We used to have to do everything in the back lounge of the bus. That was our little pot-smoking hangout room.” She pauses and giggles. “Now, this is our huge pot-smoking hangout room.”

Hood has been sitting on some exciting news. He looks up from the van seat where he’s parked himself, his right eye squinted and the side of his lip curled upward like Elvis. “We’ve been nominated for two Grammys,” he says in the same deep southern drawl he uses to dramatically punctuate the band’s spoken-word narratives like “World of Hurt” and “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” The news sends a jolt through the room. Even Cooley, the more sullen Trucker, cracks a smile. “Man, that’s cool,” he deadpans.

The Grammy nominations are for the Truckers’ work on Potato Hole, the 2009 instrumental album from renowned keyboard player Booker T. Jones of another legendary southern studio band, Booker T. and The MG’s. It’s the second time the Truckers have been part of a Grammy-nominated project by a veteran soul artist. In 2008, singer Bettye LaVette was nominated for her terrific The Scene of the Crime, for which the Truckers, along with the elder Hood and famed keyboardist Spooner Oldham, lent their fuzzy guitars and haunting, swampy soundscapes.

Jones was taken by the band’s familial bond. One track on Potato Head is an instrumental version of the Truckers’ “Space City” in which Booker T.’s organ replaces Cooley’s vocals. It’s an emotional song from the perspective of Cooley’s grandfather about the loss of his wife (“Somewhere beyond that big white light is where my heart has gone”), and Jones instrumentally communicates every teardrop that Cooley put in the lyrics. 

“Somebody’s family member had brought over some barbecue and some pies and we were just sitting around eating and listening to their music,” Jones recalls. “I heard several songs but kept going back to ‘Space City.’ Then I went out in the studio by myself and started playing on it, and they came in and started playing with me.” He ended up using that first take on the album.

IN THE PAST THREE YEARS, the Drive-By Truckers have been busier and more beset by turmoil than at any other time since Alabama natives Hood and Cooley formed the band in 1996. In April 2007, after the DBTs released their only real misstep, A Blessing and a Curse, singer and guitarist Jason Isbell announced he was leaving the band. A key member during the DBTs’ rise to prominence following their ambitious fourth album, the 2001 masterpiece Southern Rock Opera, Isbell was in the process of divorcing Tucker and things had become tense. “We just decided that we didn’t want to play with each other anymore,” Isbell told NPR’s World Cafe in 2007. “If it’s a question of why did that happen—you know, just get in a house trailer with your eight closest friends and stay in there about 300 days of the year.”

Filmmaker Barr Weissman captured the whole saga in his fine new DBTs documentary, The Secret to a Happy Ending, which actually ends with a band in a sort of reflective limbo. “[Weissman] was doing that in real time,” says Tucker. “I mean, it was happening right then.” But after licking their wounds, the Truckers pulled back on to the highway and kept moving on. As it turns out, the split was amicable, and Isbell remains friendly with his former band mates, even his ex-wife.

“It was tough for a while,” says Tucker, who had married Isbell a year and a half before she joined the band for 2004’s The Dirty South. But she doesn’t blame being in the same band with her husband for breaking up their marriage. “It would be easy to do that, but that’s just not the case. We knew what we were getting into. Jason and I had played in bands together through high school. We knew how to play in bands together.” She laughs. “We did not know how to be married.”

When it was time to record Curse, they literally unloaded their gear at the studio door after a tour. “That was a hard album to make,” says Cooley. “I mean, it’s got some great stuff on it. But it wasn’t real comfortable, because there was just this pressure and fatigue. When I go back and listen to it now, a lot of it sounds forced to me. It sounds like it’s coming from a place that wasn’t healthy.”

“When I go back and listen to A Blessing and a Curse now, a lot of it sounds forced to me. It sounds like it’s coming from a place that wasn’t healthy.”

After hitting the road yet again to support Curse, the Truckers returned home and took a much-needed break to be with their families and write new material. When it was time to go back into the studio, they recruited long-time pedal-steel player Neff as their new full-time third guitarist. Teaming with Muscle Shoals keyboard legend Oldham, the band produced another masterwork in 2008, the swampy, country-fied Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. At No. 37, it was the Truckers’ first album to crack the Top 40 on Billboard’s album chart. “We were just really hungry again,” says Cooley. “Hungry to write. And to write differently. At least I was. I had been burned out being on the road. We’d been really hitting it hard, and I finally felt like I had time to breathe a little.”

“The road is hard on you,” says Hood. “Think about it: We’ve worn out four vans, and those are big, steel pieces of machinery. We’re just people. It’s hard on our bodies, hard on our relationships, hard on our kids.” Hood has two, Cooley three. “But in the past couple of years we’ve figured out how to make it work,” offers Hood. “We have a new rule: unless it’s absolutely necessary, we don’t go out on the road for more than three weeks at a time.”

The Truckers intended for 2009 to be their off year, but things didn’t turn out that way. They toured the U.S. and Australia, did some European runs and now they’re headed out again for this one-off gig. In between, Hood recorded a second solo album, Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs), and the band managed to write and record enough material for two full albums, one being The Big To-Do, a set of howling hard rock whose preponderance of power chords harks back to songs like “The Southern Thing” and “Life in the Factory” from Southern Rock Opera.

The album kicks off with a big guitar crunch and squall that recalls Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, but the lyrics to “Daddy Learned to Fly” are prime Hood, coming from the perspective of a child whose daddy has died. “Everyone tries so hard to ease my troubled mind,” he sings in a vulnerable high voice. “I guess he’s doing better than the ones he left behind.” 

From there, the band careens from a mid-tempo tune with Allmans-like slide guitar (“The Fourth Night of My Drinking”), to a characteristically gritty and garage-y Cooley tune, “Birthday Boy,” sung from the perspective of a hooker. It isn’t until “Drag the Lake, Charlie” that Hood breaks out one of his typically twisted narrative songs centering on the underbelly of blue-collar America: “Drag the lake, Charlie. Charlie, drag the lake. /Lester didn’t come home last night and Wanda’s all irate. /Better keep your fingers crossed and hope we find him drowned. /Wanda’s gonna come and kill us all if he shows up in town.”

One of the highlights of The Big To-Do is a gorgeous piano ballad from Tucker, who only began writing and singing with the band on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. “You’ve Got Another” shows off the emotional power of her voice, and adds sonic textures—thanks in part to Gonzalez’ keyboard work and Ness’ ethereal pedal-steel guitar—that the Truckers’ have never revealed on an album. It’s almost country-dreampop with a chaotic, Velvet Underground-ish finale. It also might just be the most beautiful song the Drive-By Truckers have ever recorded.

“Writing is a whole new world for me,” Tucker says in her flat Alabama drawl. “I’ve been writing all along but I never had anything where it even crossed my mind to use it in the band. It took a lot of courage for me to play my songs for these guys, because, yeah, they’re my best friends, but they’re also my favorite songwriters. Of course, they were thrilled that I even had something, and they’ve been so encouraging.”

SHORTLY AFTER MIDNIGHT, Hood makes one more “Let’s smoke some dope” announcement before everybody gets on the bus. In the front lounge area, a half-gallon bottle of Jack Daniels sits on the counter next to a cooler of beer and soft drinks, a box of Ritz crackers and some Duncan Donut holes. Gonzalez grabs a few of the donuts and flops down. As the coach cruises south, the band’s sound engineer and merchandize guy settle in at the kitchen table to watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on a pair of flat TV screens. Hood and the others retire to the back lounge—the area Tucker had referred to as “our little pot-smoking hangout.” By about 3:30 a.m., the band members and crew are asleep in their bunks.

Cooley relaxes on the bus with a copy of Larry Brown’s Father and Son.

Cooley’s the first to rise the following morning in Charleston and he’s relaxing in the front lounge with a copy of Father and Son by the late Mississippi writer Larry Brown. Hood brought along Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The reading habits of the Truckers’ two main songwriters reflect their own storytelling styles and reveal why their songs fit so well together. Take the epic narrative of Southern Rock Opera—it’s not just a story about Lynyrd Skynyrd, it’s also a story about what it meant to grow up in the South of George Wallace and Martin Luther King Jr. Cooley’s songs are the more straightforward and gritty character sketches, like the characters in Larry Brown’s novels. The sometimes recondite details in Hood’s twisted tales shed light on the bigger picture, like the works of McCarthy.

In “Plastic Flowers on the Highway,” for example, Hood sings of an unnamed man who dies in a car accident in which “them M.A.D.D. mothers couldn’t help him. He was sober. It was Sunday. He was full of good home-cookin’ when he crashed the Savior’s door.” In “Shut Up and Get on the Plane,” Cooley gets more personal, crawling inside the head of one Ronnie Van Zant, the Skynyrd frontman and leader who, by all accounts, ran a tight ship with his band. “When it comes your time to go, ain’t no good way to go about it,” Cooley sings. “Ain’t no use in thinking bout it, you’ll just drive yourself insane. There comes a time for everything. And the time has come for you to shut your mouth and get your ass on the plane.”

“I grew up in a blue-collar family and I understood that,” says Cooley. “So when I started writing songs, I paid attention to what other songwriters I liked were writing about. The ones that kind of kicked me were people like James McMurtry—I could see his images. I liked Springsteen for the same reason. He was somebody whose lyrics I didn’t have to decipher. I knew what the fuck he was saying, and that’s how I wanted to write. I didn’t want three or four eggheads trying to figure out what I was saying.” He laughs. “They still do, though, even though it’s in plain fucking English.”

Hood warns that it’s simplistic to generalize too much about the differences between his and Cooley’s writing styles. “I mean, my songs are pretty straightforward, too, and the majority of them are personal narratives,” he says. “But yeah, I guess on the surface it’s kind of like you say. But you know what’s the secret key to this band, what makes us better than just another really good band? It’s the way our songs fit together. There’s absolutely no reason to try and figure out how or why. I think maybe it’s just meant to be.”

David Hood in Muscle Shoals, 2002.

Hood’s dad never understood this side of his son. To David Hood, making music meant going into a studio and playing the parts professionally. Lyrics, theory, personal narratives about strange people—none of that came into play in the Muscle Shoals music scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s. “I didn’t really understand exactly what Pat was trying to do,” he says. “I would say to the guys: you need to tune your instruments, you need to sing in key. I was trying to get them to play songs that were more accessible to people like me. Of course, he knew exactly what he was going for.

“I remember when he’d be writing these stories about the South,” the elder Hood continues. “Some of it was slightly familiar to me, but I’d think, ‘Who wants to hear about that stuff?’ I now realize that a lot of people want to hear about that stuff. I’ve been to see them play many times since then and I’m always impressed with their ability to play and to work a crowd and please people. I look up front and everybody’s mouthing all the words to these songs that I initially thought were weird and obscure.”

OVER DINNER AT BASIL, a Thai restaurant around the corner from the Music Farm, where the band will perform later in the evening, Patterson Hood talks about the possibility of reprising Southern Rock Opera on stage in 2011 for the tenth anniversary of its release. As critically acclaimed as the album was, Hood, a perfectionist, has never been completely satisfied with it. “That record was our attempt at doing something we had in our heads that was quite a bit bigger and grander than we were capable of reaching at the time,” he says. “We got as close as we could, doing it in a warehouse for $5,000. But if we revisit it and play it live, I want to fix some things.”

For one, he’d restructure the two acts in a way that would work better in front of an audience. Some songs, he says, don’t flow together as well live as they do on the album. “There’s a lot that’s really great stuff about that record, and I’m eternally proud of the fact that we were able to actually pull off what we pulled off. We were more naïve at the time. But I mean, ‘Angels and Fuselage’ still holds up as a great finale. If we were to do it again, though, I’d want to step it up a little.”

A half-hour or so later, no one inside the Music Farm gives a shit about how songs are sequenced or even that the 1,000-capacity club is so packed that the city’s fire marshal has dropped in to monitor the situation. Hood and company come out to a roar from the crowd and immediately launch into their set like a rocket, opening with the melodic “Santa Fe” from The Big To-Do, slithering into shit-kickers like “The Company I Keep” (with its sing-along refrain, “Sometimes I feel like shit”) and gliding on through country and twang rockers as “Checkout Time in Vegas” and “Sink Hole.”

The Drive By Truckers onstage in 2010.

The audience watches deliriously as Cooley leans into Keith Richards-like riffs on old-style rock-n-roller “Three Dimes Down” and Hood flails his arms about while telling weird and obscure tales of Southern miscreants and redneck badasses. If any of the band members are feeling under the weather now, nobody’s showing it. When they leave the stage after a smoking show, the crowd stomps on the floor and chants “DBT, DBT, DBT.” Minutes later, the sweat-soaked Truckers roll back out for a few more—highlights from Southern Rock Opera including a crunching “Let There Be Rock” and a sublime “Angels and Fuselage” that culminates in layers of sustained feedback. Just as David Hood said, folks hugging the stage in the front row mouth every word.

While the Trucker’s final song is told from the perspective of a man about to die on a crashing plane, its first lines could just as easily come from any of the band members staring out from the tour bus: “Looking out the window, the trees are getting closer it seems. /Thinking bout you Darling. /Adding up the cost of these dreams.”

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