“I got a brand new car that drinks a bunch of gas/ House in a neighborhood that’s fading fast…more bills than money/ I can do the math/ Trying to stay focused on the Righteous Path.” - “The Righteous Path,” Drive-By Truckers
Exploring the checkered past of the South, small town corruption and the challenges of the working class in vivid detail, the craftsmanship of songwriting is one of Drive-By Truckers’ calling cards.
But so are the loud guitars.
For every kid who went to a rock show in a dive bar or practiced with a punk band in a barn somewhere, the Truckers paint the picture perfectly. Capturing youthful inspiration and small town frustration with detailed threads of Southern history and folklore woven throughout, the band’s body of work is an artistic graduate level dissertation on the realities of life in small town America.
“Despite all of the changes in the American South (e.g., improved race relations, in-migration of people from outside the region, population growth, and the shift from a rural to a suburban/urban population), southern identity remains a strong force in the region. Studies show that over 70 percent of people living in the South identify as southerners, and that southern identity is similar for both whites and blacks. For nearly two decades, the Drive-By Truckers have grappled with the complexities of the modern South. Rather than glorify the South, they've confronted the region's past head-on and shown how many southerners attempt to make sense of the place they call home,” said Gibbs Knotts, Ph.d., a Professor of Political Science at the College of Charleston and big fan of DBT.
Yes, Drive-By Truckers is a rock ‘n’ roll band from the South, but not a Southern Rock band in the predictable sense. There was a time before the terms indie, alternative or alt-country were used to describe rock bands that didn’t fit into a commercial radio format. It was known as “College Rock,” bands as diverse as The Meat Puppets, R.E.M., and Drivin’ ‘n’ Cryin’ came up through this circuit. This was before YouTube or Pandora, you had only one option - “get in the van!” This is the world the Drive-By Truckers come from, making loud original rock ‘n’ roll that embraces the South, while avoiding the predictable trappings of being a Southern Rock band.
Originally from the Muscle Shoals area in Alabama, steeped in musical history, Drive-By Truckers bring together the vintage sounds of the past with a ragged fearlessness that is distinctly their own. In many ways DBT hardly resembles bands such as The Allman Brothers Band or Lynyrd Skynryd. There are no Saturday night party songs, or sweet southern girl love songs or Confederate flags on the stage. Musically, it’s Southern Rock blended with Punk Rock attitude, historically versed sons of the South chugging through breakneck rock songs that explore the darker side of small town life. It isn’t about the party - it is about the hangover; it isn’t about the romance - it’s about the breakup. Often the songwriting evokes character studies of blue collar Southerners dealing with poverty, discrimination, and corruption at levels of volume and distortion that would make J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. proud.
After nearly 20 years of endless touring, critically acclaimed albums and shifting lineups, Drive-By Truckers come back to the Myrtle Beach area for the first time since 2006. The band returns to the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach on Saturday in support of the band’s 10th studio album, “English Oceans.” The album, recorded last year, features the real life imagery and soulful twang that Patterson Hood and the band deliver so well. Drive-By Truckers has been comprised of songwriter/ guitarists/ vocalists Hood and Mike Cooley along with drummer Brad Morgan since the late ‘90s. Since that time they have changed the remaining band lineup many times yielding a diverse collection of albums with a variety of tones and dynamics.
The Sound Truck
It’s often been difficult to explain this band to people not familiar with its work.
“I'd have to say musically, to me they sound most like the early ‘70s Stones and Neil Young, though they have a side that is more genuinely country than either of those artists quite pulled off,” said Royce Green, local DBT fan and President of M.A.S.H. ( the Myrtle Beach Society of Homebrewers).
Drive-By Truckers’ early work comes off as a darker version of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers backing up Merle Haggard while playing through Crazy Horse’s amps.
That sounds far-fetched and barely scratches the surface of the band’s range, however. “I guess I came onto DBT a little late. The first record I heard was ‘Southern Rock Opera.’ I was hooked from the very first song. I think I listened to the album two or three times in a row. The combination of their clever lyrics (they were so clear and descriptive) and the crunchiness of the guitars was spot on. I have been hooked ever since,” said David Johnson, sound engineer for Conway’s Main Street Theater.
The new album was recorded in Athens, Ga. with producer David Barbe, who has worked with the band since its breakout 2001 classic, “Southern Rock Opera.” Notable is the increased songwriting presence of Mike Cooley, known for his swaggering Ron Wood-esque guitar licks and for penning many fan favorites through the years. On this album the songwriting contribution is equally balanced between Hood and Cooley, both exploring common themes of political influence and family dynamics despite many of the songs being written separately.
We spoke to Hood recently via telephone and he described the serendipity of themes as “transcendental.” Hood and Cooley having both grown up in the Muscle Shoals area of Alabama and having seen much of the country from a tour bus window certainly find inspiration in similar topics even when not consciously trying to do so. The album was recorded totally stripped down in 16 track analog to 2-inch tape with few overdubs. As Patterson said, “We wanted to get these songs down live with minimal overdubs, if you couldn’t get it in 16 tracks, something had to go.”
Why analog? Much like the resurgent popularity of vinyl albums, it’s largely a matter of preference and sound quality. Since the advent of digital recording in the ‘80s, and currently being exploited to the fullest, modern studio technology has moved away from the warmth and human quality of analog. The vast majority of records regarded as classics were recorded this way- The Stones, The Beatles, Motown, etc.- in a studio with live musicians through analog and tube-based equipment. Modern digital and computer-based recording methods, for all their numerous variables and parameters, are generally considered to lack the warmth and live studio feel of the past. Many artists such as Drive-By Truckers, The Black Crowes and the Tedeschi Trucks Band put great effort into recording with vintage microphones and soundboards to achieve the organic tones that come through in their records.
We’ll explore “English Oceans” and some of the tracks in this article, but for now, let’s get to the primer coat.
The Dirty South
Drive-By Truckers was co-founded in 1996 by longtime collaborators Hood and Cooley.
Hood’s father, David Hood was the session bassist for the acclaimed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio band. The studio and band (known as ‘The Swampers’ in that famous Skynryrd song) are the subjects of a great documentary, “Muscle Shoals.” There the band backed up numerous classic R&B artists including Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin and eventually the studio recorded top talents as diverse as Paul Simon and The Rolling Stones, who recorded “Wild Horses” and other tracks from the “Sticky Fingers” album there. Keith Richards laughingly says in the film, “ We probably would have recorded ‘Exile (on Main Street)’ there as well, but I wasn’t allowed into the country at the time.” The area continues to churn out a unique blend of southern soul and rock today as well, notably The Alabama Shakes, who the Truckers helped break a few years ago.
The younger Hood and Cooley played in various bands together in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, including Adam’s House Cat and short-lived acoustic duo Virgil Kane. Adam’s House Cat was a finalist in Musician magazine’s best unsigned band contest, but as with so many bands, the group disbanded. Cooley remained in Alabama, while Hood relocated and became enamored with the eclectic music scene and vibe of Athens, Ga. where he still resides today when not touring. It was here that Hood hatched the concept for Drive-By Truckers eventually luring Cooley to Athens to be part of the band.
While relentlessly touring the South, the band released two noisy country albums full of dark humor and punk rock attitude, “Gangstabilly” (1998) and “Pizza Deliverance” (1999). The results of three years of hard touring yielded not only the recently re-released early era live album, “Alabama Ass Whuppin’,” but evolved the song and concepts that would be their breakthrough record, “Southern Rock Opera.” The ambitious double album explored the mythology of Lynyrd Skynrd, small town politics and the many contrasts of being a rock band in rural America. It was well received and garnered 4 stars from Rolling Stone, among other accolades, leading DBT to stay on the road winning over a fan base one town at a time. It was at this time that Jason Isbell was added to the lineup, ushering in an extremely prolific and creative era including the albums “Decoration Day” (2003), “The Dirty South” (2004) and “A Blessing and a Curse” (2006).
Isbell emerged as a contributing songwriter, dishing out a handful of great tunes on each album. His then-wife, Shonna Tucker, had joined the band on bass in 2003, but the eventual pressures of touring, hard living and maintaining a relationship with both the band and each other proved too much. Isbell and Tucker divorced and he was released from the band. The band’s history and particularly this era of peaks and valleys were captured very well in the Drive-By Truckers documentary, “The Secret to a Happy Ending.”
Meanwhile, Isbell has established success in his own right, most recently with the album “Southeastern,” which was well received by fans and critics alike. Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit, have even graced the Murrells Inlet Marshwalk multiple times playing at The Dead Dog Saloon, an area venue that is supportive of local music as well as numerous national alt-country and Americana acts.
The band moved on into different sonic territory after Isbell’s departure, exploring vintage country sounds reminiscent of Gram Parsons on 2008’s “Brighter Than Creations Dark,” and the swampy Hammond organ of the self-described “R&B Murder album” 2011’s “Go Go Boots.” The Truckers are nothing if not prolific, but to maintain such a pace of recording and touring would surely take a toll. The band scaled back slightly during this time, but never ones to idle, Hood released two excellent solo records and Cooley remained active by releasing vinyl-only singles for Record Store Day and doing short acoustic tours featuring his songs from the Truckers albums stripped down to a solo acoustic guitar and vocal.
Presently, the lineup of Drive-By Truckers is: Hood and Cooley on guitars and vocals, longtime drummer Morgan since 1999, multi instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez since 2008 on guitar and keyboards and the newest addition, Matt Patton on bass, formerly of The Dexateens, who opened for Drive-By Truckers in 2012. In our conversation, Patterson was exuberant discussing the new lineup saying, “The band is at an all-time high, and the energy of the shows is the highest since the Isbell era.” He also noted the contributions of Patton and Gonzalez, who Hood described as, “ just an ass-kicking guitar player and singer.” Patterson has long described Drive-By Truckers in a way that evokes the enthusiasm of a kid at his first rock show or with his first good amplifier banging out power chords. He founded and leads the band but realizes that collectively, DBT is something greater than the sum of its parts.
Working with producer Barbe and visual artist Wes Freed for most of its career, the band’s catalog is permeated with a cohesive vibe both in sonic textures and gripping cover art. Hood and Cooley play Baxendale Custom Guitars from Athens luthier Scott Baxendale and coax juxtaposed raucous and subtle tones from their Fender and Sommatone amps. And nothing like Pro Tools or auto correction is used. This is a rock record made like the great rock records of the past, not a computer-generated cut-and-paste type album of 2014. Coming in at 13 tracks and an hour playing time, the songs are focused and the album is shorter than previous efforts where often the finished projects would run 17-18 songs deep. Of this, Patterson said, “The band often met resistance from critics and record companies. ‘We love the songs, but it’s soooo long’… that was one of the things about having three different songwriters in the band. I would always have a bunch of songs written and then you had Cooley and Jason contributing great stuff as well.”
The new album features songs such as “Primer Coat” and “Hanging On” that deal with changing personal dynamics. Others, including “The Part of Him” and the title track, “English Oceans,” address politics and media manipulation…in short, the game doesn’t change, just the names. Alluding to mass media, pundits and hysteria, Hood and Cooley explore how figures such as Lee Atwater and Karl Rove have deftly manipulated the media and voting habits of blue collar Americans. “English Oceans,” Hood says, “Is probably our best album since ‘Decoration Day’ and we look forward to touring for it and making the most of every show.” The album closes with the heartfelt and sprawling space country ballad, “Grand Canyon,” a tribute to Craig Leske, a dear friend and key member of the Truckers’ grassroots organization.
Why should you care that DBT is coming to town?
A Drive-By Truckers’ live show is a revelatory experience, as the band brings a celebration of modern and retro sounds that is both powerful and moving. Other bands such as My Morning Jacket or Wilco have embraced alternative and vintage Americana sounds, but no one is as distinctly identifiable with the South as Drive-By Truckers.
Hood said, “in our early touring career, ironically Southern and Midwestern college towns were the toughest to break. Most of these kids are from small towns, away for the first time…they wanted to party. We were playing songs about church picnics and The Great Depression. But when we went to New York or Boston we were different, it was something exotic to them.” Now DBT has a dedicated fan base, recently touring the U.S. extensively and returning from a European tour in May, featuring sold-out shows in London, Paris and Dublin among others. Hood said that, “The English and folks from Ireland and Scotland have always been fascinated by American music, whether it was Elvis and Little Richard or the young Stones studying old blues…the exoticness of the South has always been a draw.”
Meanwhile, Isbell has been having a big year supporting his excellent album, “Southeastern.” that came out in 2013. Patterson was nothing but supportive for his former band mate and his success, “it’s one helluva good album and we’re all very happy for him.” When asked if a mini-tour or album collaboration with Isbell would ever be a reality, Hood replied, “logistically we’d have so much to work out, Jason is on fire right now and the Truckers are just kicking ass onstage every night it’d be tough to schedule, etc.” He then replied, “Maybe like a charity event or special thing where we were both already there it could happen.” Surprisingly enough, the week following our interview the Drive-By Truckers’ Web site announced a one night-only theater show at the Shoals Theater in Florence, Ala. featuring Hood, Cooley and Isbell onstage together for the first time in many years at a benefit for one their lifelong friends, Terry Pace.
In a period of musical history where bands are here today and gone tomorrow, Drive-By Truckers is an example of perseverance and artistry. No they’re not easily marketable in the age of ring tones and electronic dance festivals, but by staying the course and being true to their selves, they have built a loyal fan base worldwide. Touring is not easy, but essential in growing your brand. Asked about how to endure the grind of the road, Hood says, “Well that’s always a work in progress and believe me it doesn’t get any easier.”
Seeing the members of the Truckers on stage, you can tell that there is no place they’d rather be. They are very much the embodiment of a rock ‘n’ roll band pouring it all out on stage every night. The gothic Southern backdrop of the House of Blues will make the perfect setting for their songs, loud guitars and the ghosts of the Deep South echoing around the hall.
In the documentary, “Secret to a Happy Ending,” a fan is quoted: “I’ve been listening to the Truckers for a few years, but I feel like I’ve known ‘em my whole life.”
Jeff Thomas, who grew up in Myrtle Beach, is a local guitarist, singer and a diehard fan of Drive-By Truckers.