This article appears on page 14 of the April 7 Ace.
The sound of the Drive-By Truckers, the Georgia-based band playing at Buster’s on April 8th and 9th, is a thundering triple-guitar Southern rock-and-roll attack with dashes of country and soul – the kind of exhilarating music normally associated with good times on Friday nights. But, as that aforementioned couplet suggests, the Truckers don’t much buy into the kind of rose-colored utopian mythmaking that usually accompanies that kind of sound. The band’s lyrics instead focus in on harsh realities from their native South, sometimes bleak or violent, sometimes blackly humorous, but always nuanced and vivid.
That unique melding of rock lightness with dark truth comes from the band’s equally unique composition. The Truckers have three vocalists/songwriters (Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Shonna Tucker), each with their own fiercely individual voice. Hood favors complex narratives with wide-ranging subjects – protagonists of his songs include PTSD-afflicted vets, disillusioned detectives, organized crime bosses, and insurance fraudsters. Hood’s gift isn’t just in his penchant for vivid detail, but in the generous way he extends empathy to the unlikeliest of subjects. For example, “Used to Be a Cop,” the latest single off new album Go-Go Boots, smartly sidesteps the reasons why the song’s subject was thrown off the police force, allowing Hood to explore his character’s psyche non-judgmentally without ruling out the thought that this jumpy guy with the shakes may have done something disgraceful.
Cooley counterpoints Hood’s songs with tales of amiable scoundreldom packed with signature wit. “Getting all excited, finding nothing that was never there before/is like bringing flowers to your mama and tracking dog shit all over the floor,” he sings on “Cartoon Gold.” “Jesus made the flowers, but it took a dog to make the story good.” And Tucker provides radio-ready pipes to balance out the sandpaper twangs of her male counterparts, along with a taste for juicy narrative ellipsis. Her “Dancin’ Ricky” could plausibly be about an overweight drug-dealer or a male stripper, but a strong vibe of desperate sleaze shines through regardless.
“There is very little collaboration in the actual songwriting process,” said Hood in an interview. “Cooley or Shonna or I will come in with a song, more or less completed, and play it through for the band once or twice. Then it’s open season on what happens to it from there.” It’s the rare band that has room for such distinct personalities within one unit, and though the Truckers have weathered inner conflict in the past (including the departure of songwriter Jason Isbell, also Tucker’s ex-husband), their long history together undoubtedly accounts for some of their unlikely cohesiveness.
“Years ago (1985-1991), Cooley and I had a band called Adam’s House Cat and we tended to fight all the time,” said Hood. While the band’s sound was a far cry from their country-inflected current state (“We sounded like a less sloppy Replacements,” said Hood), the arguments they went through greatly influenced their current incarnation, including the unique nature of their live show. “One of the big things we fought about was the set list,” said Hood. “I would make one every night, somewhat meticulously, then be inspired by the crowd to abandon it mid show and that used to really piss off Cooley. Finally when we started this band he suggested that we just not bother with the set list and let it happen as it happens.” Since then, Drive-By Truckers live shows have been winningly chaotic affairs, with an unpredictable flow of songs (and a more predictable on-stage flow from a passed-around bottle of Jack Daniels). “The last thing any of wants is a slow moving show so the goal is to make it snap as fast from song to song as possible without going off the rails. Sometimes it crashes spectacularly, but usually it goes great.”
The latest tour will be the first with songs that emphasize what Hood calls “the R&B rhythm section lurking beneath our wall of guitars.” Go-Go Boots was heavily influenced by the Truckers’ work as a backup band for soul singer Bettye Lavette and the great Memphis keyboard legend Booker T. Jones. “I learned a college course’s worth of music composition from the four days we made that album [with Booker] in,” said Hood, and the influence is clear on the new album, particularly in two covers of songs from Muscle Shoals session musician Eddie Hinton.
But if the guitars are a touch less abrasive this time out, the material is no less dark. Boots devotes two songs to a scandal from Hood’s hometown involving a philandering preacher who hired men to murder his wife. The album’s title track feels like a collection of whispered rumors illustrating the dynamics between the preacher, his wife, his mistress, and his disillusioned son, while “The Fireplace Poker” goes into police-report detail about the crime, right down to the number of whacks from the poker it took to do that innocent wife in. It’s quintessential Hood songwriting, filled with cinematic detail and sharp analysis of the seamy underbelly found beneath loudly-proclaimed pieties. Some critics have questioned the need for two songs on the same subject, but the double-dip reflects one of the greatest qualities of the Drive-By Truckers – their need to go after multiple sides of a story and proclaim the truth as they see it, even when it flies in the face of rock and roll trends. “So much of what we do is to appease our various obsessions,” says Hood. “I think that is our strength and weakness all at once. I can live with that.”
Drive By Truckers will play April 8 and April 9 at Buster’s, with an in-store performance at CD Central on Saturday.