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Cover Story: Drive-By Truckers

| April 28, 2006

Drive-By Truckers

Bound to the road even though their success would suggest they don’t have to be, Drive-By Truckers make a return to their roots of sorts on A Blessing And A Curse (New West). But those roots aren’t the Southern rock doppelganger DBT have come to signify, they’re the wild days when The Replacements meant as much to them as Skynyrd.

Appearing: 5/19 at the Vic Theatre (3149 N. Sheffield) in Chicago.

When we reach singer/guitarist Mike Cooley in Glasgow, Scotland via phone, he’s an Old World away from The University Of North Alabama where he and frontman Patterson Hood first formed Adam’s Housecat in the ’80s. Housecat, to the many who saw them at bars and frat parties from Tallahassee to Tuscaloosa, were in some ways a Rolling Stones to R.E.M.’s Beatles. The ardent few who did try to come out every time they came to town would probably swear they too deserved to “make it” — that they never did set the story of Drive-By Truckers in motion. After 21 years and two bands — 10 with DBTs — Cooley is finally learning what it means to be comfortable.

“We were still roughing it on this side of the Atlantic up until last year,” he says. “You’ve seen Pulp Fiction?” he cracks, referring to the Royale With Cheese. “We use a bus in the U.K. now. Most of the time in Europe we’re still in a van, or a van and a trailer or two vans. We have drivers from over here that know what the hell they’re doing. I can’t do that left-side-of-the-road shit. I can’t cross the street without almost getting hit by a car because the cars are coming in the opposite direction. I love the way they write on the street, ‘Look left,’ for stupid Americans.”

The idea of “stupid Americans” has been at the core of Drive-By Truckers for years now, steered toward a domestic audience. Hood chased “the duality of the Southern thing” on 2000’s breakthrough Southern Rock Opera, trying to pinpoint what made people hold the American South with such classical reverence and simultaneous disgust. Perhaps it’s premature to bring such a complex issue over to context-free Europe, unresolved?

“No, actually they get it,” he laughs, “it’s amazing. [Europeans] seem to understand it because a lot of our culture is really similar to theirs, they relate to it. They’ve had revolution, and civil wars, and oppression. That’s where we got the idea! They don’t have the same stereotypes the rest of America does. They know our history, they know our news — they keep up with our current events probably better than we do. I don’t think they have the same negative stereotypes about our part of the country that most of the rest of the U.S. [has had] for so long.”

Cooley would be forgiven if he believed national prejudice was also being held against Hood and himself. The Housecat years from ’85 to ’91 — during which they won a Musician‘s “Best Unsigned Band” competition — were lean. Hood, who explained in song years ago how “a guitar was a poor substitute for a football with the girls at my high school,” says he went to college “’til they threw me out. I went for awhile, changed majors a bunch of times, and made a lot of really bad grades and wasted a lot of my own money.”

He continues, “It was about the only time since I’ve been old enough to hold a guitar that I hadn’t been. I actually put the guitar down and made the attempt to try to find something else to do with my life. I’d gotten real discouraged and decided I didn’t have whatever it supposedly would take to do this. So I made an attempt at going straight, ha, and it didn’t work out too well for me. So I ended up quitting college — I’m not quite sure if I quit or was thrown out. I think we pretty much just came to an understanding. I think I quit, but if I had stayed they were definitely about to throw me out.”

He stumbled upon Cooley, who was likewise spinning wheels at the starting line, and almost immediately formed Adam’s Housecat. “We hadn’t quite figured out [what to do], ya know, at the time. I think we were still kind of running from some of the things that we do now [Southern rock], but maybe not fast enough. It was a little confused. When I listen to the stuff that we did back then it sounds like we were looking for love in the wrong places. But there’s aspects of things that I hear like, ‘Aarrgghh, if we’d only just known, we could have run with this right here then it would have been a lot cooler than what we were trying to do.’ But it was definitely, I mean, for lack of a better term, roots rock or roots punk. We were definitely big Replacements fans. We had a good bit of Southern-ness in us, but we weren’t necessarily comfortable with it,” he guffaws. “It’s towards the later days the band got really good. We played together for six years and practiced all the time, something this band never does. Probably as a result of doing it so much then we’ve been able to get away with not practicing so much now. We’ve woodshedded! The last couple years of that band we were a pretty hot band. Should have been better received, probably, than it was. I think we were a little out-of-touch with our times. It was the late ’80s; it wasn’t exactly a fertile period of what we were doing.”

As a pair, Hood and Cooley come off as stock characters in a buddy-cop movie. Hood will talk circles around you examining every step of the way, while Cooley, true to his name, eats less air in summing situations up, all the while denying he has any grasp of the bigger picture. It’s easy to picture Hood’s persistence with Cooley in trying to re-stoke the dying embers of Adam’s Housecat.

“We got frustrated and went separate ways for awhile,” Hood recalls. “During that time I moved to Athens and kind of stumbled in on a lot of the people that were in the original lineup of the band and ended up talking Cooley into giving it another shot. Around ’96 is when we started doing the Drive-By Truckers and wrote all these songs for it. Kind of started it from scratch, as if it was the first thing we had done. That was the attitude we took with it and later went back and picked up a few old songs, one of which, ‘Lookout Mountain,’ is on the [last] record. Overall, mostly we started it from scratch and later on visited a few of the older things we’d done.”

Following two roughshod, borderline hellbilly records, the Truckers — barely stitched together — spit out a live set and then began a series of iconic albums ruminating larger themes. Southern Rock Opera was part Deep South Broadway adaptation of Lynyrd Skynyrd mythology and struggle for Southern identity. Its successor, Decoration Day, introduced third guitarist/songwriter Jason Isbell, and cast a series of vignettes of people dealing with the choices they’d made. The Dirty South, released in 2004, went a step further chronicling people fighting circumstances beyond their control. Each album was an increasingly sober, foreboding, and grave cousin to its predecessor.

Cooley even recalls returning to the studio following a break from Dirty South to lighten its load. “A lot of it was just,” he pauses, “what we recorded was good. We all felt good about it. There were just too many slow, midtempo songs. The pace of the record wasn’t there yet. We felt like we had to come in and speed things up here and there, make the record rock a little bit.”

When it came time to record A Blessing And A Curse (New West), all bets were off. There were no restrictions placed on gloom, even with the reaper slowly gaining in the sideviews. But the wind pours in through the T-top while the shifter rarely moves from fifth.

Steve Forstneger

To learn more about the new album, A Blessing And A Curse, pick up the May issue of Illinois Entertainer.

Category: Features, Monthly

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