|by Jordan Becker |
If you listen to most radio stations, you are unlikely to hear The Drive-By Truckers, despite the fact that they are often cited as one of the best American rock bands of the last couple of decades. But if you come to see what the band calls the “Rock Show” when it returns to the Tarrytown Music Hall on March 11, prepare to experience a powerful performance by a tight, road-tested band featuring songs that will make you want to jump around, scream, and think. That’s because despite their admittedly silly name, their songs are often literate explorations of American society and finely observed stories about people living on the margins, often filtered through the lens of what singer, guitarist and primary songwriter Patterson Hood has referred to as “the duality of the Southern thing.”
Hood is the son of legendary Muscle Shoals studio musician David Hood, who played on many great songs (from Etta James’ “Tell Mama” and many Aretha Franklin songs, to the Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” to songs by Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Carlos Santana, James Brown and more) and grew up in Alabama loving punk rock. In 1985, while attending the University of North Alabama, he met guitarist/singer Mike Cooley. Ultimately, they formed Adam’s House Cat, which was named one of the top ten unsigned bands by Musician magazine. They remained unsigned and broke up. Eventually, the friends reunited in Athens, Georgia, and formed The Drive-By Truckers.
Their early works began the band’s exploration of their Southern roots and music, and while there are a number of serious, poignant songs on their first two albums, Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance, they also included some lightweight, somewhat silly numbers that, nevertheless were fun. Their prowess as a powerful, if sometimes sloppy, live band was demonstrated on a live album, Alabama Ass Whupping, which included Brad Morgan, who has been the band’s drummer ever since. During this period, Hood, Cooley and the other band members worked on songs to create a long-discussed concept album that fused their experiences growing up in the South with the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The album was a critical and popular success. Not only did it include songs that looked at all aspects of Southern culture and life, such as Cooley’s masterpiece “Zip City.” Hood’s song, “Let There Be Rock” is, as he usually says in live introduction, the story of how rock and roll saved his life. The album put the band on the map, and saved them from probable dissolution.
Following the completion of Southern Rock Opera, the band added songwriting and guitar prodigy Jason Isbell and his then-wife, bassist Shonna Tucker, and released two incredibly strong albums, Decoration Day, highlighted by Isbell’s “Outfit” and other tales of murder, incest, divorce, family feuds and domestic abuse, and The Dirty South, another more explicit investigation of things Southern, with standout tracks “The Day John Henry Died” and “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac.” It seemed that the Truckers were poised for more mainstream success.
But, that’s not the way things always go in rock ‘n’ roll. During the time that their next album was being prepared, tensions in the band were high. The constant touring was becoming a grind, Isbell and Tucker’s marriage was having problems and Isbell’s drinking and drug use was angering his bandmates and provoking them to destructive behavior. Although the album, A Blessing and A Curse, was generally well-received and was, to that point, the band’ highest charting disc, it seemed like they were pulling apart. Luckily, a tour opening for The Black Crowes during the summer of 2006 made enough money to allow for a break from the road. Isbell was asked to leave the band while Tucker remained. (Don’t feel bad for Isbell—since leaving the Truckers, he has released a series of excellent solo albums, in 2012 his future wife, singer/violinist Amanda Shires, convinced him to clean up, and his 2013 album, Southeastern, was a tour de force, leading to wins in the Album, Song and Artist of the Year categories at the 2014 Americana Music Awards.)
In 2008, the band regrouped to release Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, a sprawling 19 track opus that stripped their sound down a little and was again a critical and commercial success for the band. It featured three songs written and sung by Tucker, for the first time, and a number of strong songs by both Hood and Cooley. The band decided to take another break, and used the time to work to help resuscitate the career of almost forgotten soul singer Bettye Lavette and to record an album with Hammond organ legend Booker T. Jones before releasing a live album and returning to the studio. These sessions produced enough music for two releases, The Big To Do and Go Go Boots, which included, for the first time, a regular keyboard player, Jay Gonzalez. At this point, the band’s critical acclaim and relentless touring led to increased press coverage and appearances on both Jimmy Fallon’s show and the Late Show with David Letterman, where they were asked to play a rare encore.
Yet another upheaval followed, as Tucker left in late 2011 amid reports of tension, and the following year pedal steel guitarist John Neff, a long-time band associate who had joined as a full member to replace Isbell and was in a relationship with Tucker, also departed. Ultimately, Matt Patton, of the Dexateens, became the new bass player and Gonzalez added guitar to this keyboard responsibilities.
2014 saw the release of English Oceans. Cooley, who usually contributed only a few songs to each album, wrote 6 of the 13 tracks, and, for the first time, sang on one of the songs written by Hood. A mix of character studies, political message songs, straight ahead rockers and, at the end, an elegiac tribute to a friend and longtime member of the band’s “family,” it has been hailed by legendary critic Robert Christgau, as a “true comeback” to the level of Brighter Than Creations Dark. English Oceans appeared on a number of Best of 2014 lists, including Paste, American Songwriter, Twangville, WFUV and even Fox Sports. As Christgau observed in his NPR review, “The Drive-By Truckers could retire tomorrow pretty sure that the South will never spawn a better songwriting band.”
Based on past experience, including their rousing 2010 appearance at the Music Hall, there will not be much sitting down on March 11. Instead, fans will be on their feet, enjoying the Rock Show in their guts and their heads.