Call it a comeback

The Drive-By Truckers veer from the brink
By FRANKLIN SOULTS  |  November 3, 2008

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REALITY CHECK: Brightness is often preceded by a whole lot of dark.

Alabama offspring Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have been making raucous rock and roll together in one band or another for the past 23 years, about the same time it takes most offspring to grow up and get real jobs. Not that Hood and Cooley have exactly escaped the demands of aging. After about a dozen years of local-punk-band foibles, they got all Southern and rootsy behind a joky name, Drive-By Truckers, but the roots have held for 11-plus years. Now, the old friends are making music with an eye on their own young offspring, not to mention a road crew who, as Hood points out, “all have to eat and pay their bills too.” In January, the two singer-songwriter-guitarists managed to feed all those mouths by releasing Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (New West), Drive-By Truckers’ eighth album and one of their biggest commercial and artistic successes. Speaking over the phone with a heavy drawl and a touch of amazement, Hood says, “This has really been the best year in our band’s history, on so many levels.”

Of course, on so many levels, the band’s history and their latest album attest that brightness is often preceded by a whole lot of dark. Getting a real job is one thing, but the bright and the dark come from striving for a real life. Or, as Hood puts it, striving for “The Righteous Path,” the song that satisfied the Truckers they’d finished the disc. The title might sound stuffy for a rock-and-roll band, but in Hood’s Bible Belt, the phrase rings as grim, salt-of-the-earth spiritualism. It also summarizes the band’s current frayed and yearning country rock. “Eighty miles an hour with a worn-out map,” sings Hood. “No time for self-pity or self-righteous crap.”

Hood admits that a lot of his own story went into that song, and yet “numerous people” have assumed it was about them. That shows how good the Truckers are at separating the “self” from the “righteous.” Hood, Cooley, and company have long specialized in describing their world, not their lives, especially since Southern Rock Opera, a double-CD that told the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd with a Skynyrdish three-guitar attack. Released four albums and seven years ago, Southern Rock Opera consolidated the band’s identity and their national reputation. Yet Hood now says, “That was a horrible time in our lives.” The album resulted in failed marriages, empty bank accounts, and personnel changes that included the arrival of new singer-songwriter-guitarist Jason Isbell and his bass-player wife, Shonna Tucker. By 2006, however, Isbell and Tucker were divorced, and Isbell had left the group. Hood and Cooley spent a dark night drinking a bottle of whiskey and deciding whether the Truckers should go on.

Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is the outcome of that period. Although it sounds very much of a piece with its predecessors, Shonna Tucker steps forward for the first time with three numbers and lots of harmony singing, they’ve integrated long-time pedal-steel contributor John Neff into the band, and the recording sessions included Muscle Shoals keyboard legend Spooner Oldham, who played with Hood’s dad, another Muscle Shoals session player. All of which helps explain how they made this 19-song disc so loose. But the album also shows how Cooley and especially Hood have grown as songwriters who can nail their portraits with a single turn of phrase or guitar riff.

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