As the Wheels Turn: The Drive-By Truckers Will Take You for a Ride

A band built on longevity, sheer stamina, homespun lyrics and double-barreled guitar blasts is a testament to their willpower. Drive-By Truckers get a lot of mileage out of their act, but how far can they go before running out of gas?
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No matter how many roadblocks they face or detours they make, the Drive-By Truckers just keep rolling along.

A band built on longevity, sheer stamina, homespun lyrics and double-barreled guitar blasts is a testament to their willpower, persistence and endurance. They get a lot of mileage out of their act, but how far can they go before running out of gas?

Trapped in midsize-arena hell, they're too popular for most dingy clubs and juke joints but still lack the mass appeal to headline a major festival or fill a colossal stadium.

Led by master showman/entrepreneur/storyteller Patterson Hood (left), the DBTers keep looking for a few stragglers to pick up along the way. A rural upbringing -- combined with media and marketing savvy and a blue-collar, show-must-go-on backbone -- helps these Semi-Sweet Home Alabamans deliver heaping morsels of down-home cooking as delicious as the Allman Brothers and Capricorn Records. Just like when devouring Southern Comfort meals served up in that neck of the woods, customers will gladly ask for seconds ... and deal with the pain later.

Hood and Mike Cooley, group co-founders and longtime partners in grime, grease and true grit, just wrapped up the first leg of their 2011 tour at the Ogden Theatre in Denver with four other supporting members from this latest lineup shift. They'll be back before you know it. After all, there's another album to sell. Go-Go Boots, released by ATO Records on February 15, is the 11th of a prolific career that goes back beyond this group's inception.

Their themes are identifiably universal, and it's no wonder they've captured the hearts of the heartland while singing about Jesus and the Devil, women and whiskey, murder and mayhem, guns and the po-lice.

The Truckers have been on the road so long, it's practically inconceivable to think anyone with a hankering to hear good-ole-boy alt-country rock 'n' soul (albeit with a decidedly dark side) could have missed them.

If this sounds a bit like preaching to the choir, forgive me. But for the Drive-By curious who finally want to stop, look and listen, take some time getting to know the Truckers. You may be arriving late for the party, but the booze will keep flowing. Just realize that the hangover might last awhile.

So based on a few first impressions from a first-time listener, consider this your brief introduction to the band and their music.

First gear: Watch the DVD
Barr Weissman's touching documentary, The Secret to a Happy Ending, is a fascinating look at a band that, after all this time, still doesn't seem sure where it's going.

Hood dominates the action as the film explores the group's popularity through tour and studio footage, behind-the-scenes slices of life and candid interviews with friends and family, past and present band members and others in the know, putting the Truckers in proper perspective. Watch a personal/professional relationship dissolve right in front of your eyes.

While Hood, the son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section session player David Hood, fills his musical landscape with colorful characters that could have been torn straight out of Jim Thompson's pulp fiction, his stories behind the songs are often just as intriguing. "The Living Bubba," "The Sands of Iowa Jima" and the duality of "The Southern Thing" are among several that are covered well here, along with Cooley's "Space City."

Unfortunately, the rock doc fails to dig deep enough into the complex dynamics that must exist between Hood and Cooley. Acting like estranged brothers who reunite for the good of the family, they rarely interact onstage or onscreen.

During the filming of the movie, most of which was done in 2005, Hood touches briefly on how he and Cooley have stayed together through thick and thin, beginning with Adam's Housecat in the 1980s. After finishing a record that was never released, Hood reveals that the band broke up but he and Cooley "didn't get the memo."

"It was a good chemistry; it just works, I guess," Hood said while taking his viewers and interviewers for a ride on a country road. "It wasn't based on us getting along because we didn't get along worth a shit until the last few years."

That's as revealing as it gets. Hood breaks the train of thought by directing the driver, steering us away from the righteous path we surely wanted him to take. Maybe that'll be in the sequel.

Second Gear: Listen to the Music

The catalog is immense and Hood even says on the band's incredibly informative website (including liner notes, lyrics and expressive commentary) that others have lost count along the way.

A year hardly goes by without a new DBT album (most available in vinyl), and the weight of their work is enormous. Go-Go Boots, with 15 songs and a running time of nearly an hour, is more the norm than the exception. While Hood and Cooley supply most of the songs, writing lyrics separately from each other (the other band members, including longtime drummer Brad Morgan, also receive music writing credits), there is a slight variation on this latest record.

Two songs were written by the "late, great Eddie Hinton," Hood said during a 30-minute in-store performance with bandmate Jay Gonzalez (accordion/keyboards) March 18 at Twist & Shout in Denver. He went on to describe the formidable session player as "real trouble" who sadly spent time in mental institutions in the late '70s and early '80s before winding up in a trailer park in Decatur, Ala.

Hinton's "Everybody Needs Love"" is "one of the most beautiful songs I ever heard," Hood said. "It should've been like a million-selling, classic soul hit." Another Hinton tune, "Where's Eddie," written by for '60s British pop songbird Lulu, is covered on the album by Shonna Tucker. The band's female bassist, divorced from ex-member Jason Isbell, probably feels like Ringo competing against Lennon-McCartney.

Maybe this departure from horsepower-house rock is a sign that the Drive-By Truckers are slowing down. Then again ...

From left, Jay Gonzalez, John Neff, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood,
Mike Cooley and Shonna Tucker.

Third gear: Go to the Rock Show
The best way to witness this group is with a few hundred of their most fervent followers. While the crowds might try their best to drown out the real players, they'll ultimately fail when a three-pronged guitar attack ably assisted by multi-talented (and original DBT pedal steel player) John Neff cranks it past 11.

They say there's no predetermined set list, so who knows how they decide which tunes to pick? Who cares? With such a voluminous songbook from which to choose, the Truckers find a way to keep their legions guessing. The only sure thing is Hood and Cooley will alternate on lead vocals. It must be in their contract.

Ending this leg of the tour March 18-19 in Denver, the Truckers mixed it up enough so only 10 of the 60 songs over the course of two nights were repeated. While material from Go-Go Boots predictably got preferential treatment, they made sure to generously dip into their past, with selections from some albums (2004's The Dirty South, 2001's Southern Rock Opera) making a bigger splash than others.

On the first night, there were only two from 2010's excellent The Big To-Do while the double dose of "That Man I Shot and "Three Dimes Down" (from 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark) midway through the set might have been the peak moment. (Go to a fabulous fan database site, One of These Days, for information such as set lists, group lineup changes and other worthwhile minutiae.)

Like the favorite teddy bear you want to cuddle (only he's much taller), the bearded, curly-haired Hood is the endearing figure, arms flailing wildly like a preacher to his flock, sweat pouring, guitar roaring. He'll even fall to his knees to please you. His 3-minute ranting soliloquy leading into "18 Wheels of Love" from DBT's debut, 1998's Gangstabilly ("It's a mean, fuckin' cruel world out there") was reminiscent of Steve Earle at his Working Class Hero best.

Cooley, the scowling Keith Richards to Hood's Jagger swagger, looks and acts like a backwoods badass, a lean, mean fighting machine, glaring and daring you to mess with him. His voice is rough around the edges, but his guitar smokes as much as he does, and his straight-ahead rock 'n' rollers would make Sam Phillips and the Million Dollar Quartet proud.

Yet, despite a powerful Friday performance that lasted 2 hours, 45 minutes (including the excessive 8-minute break they took before a nine-song, 45-minute encore), something was lacking.

Understandably, there's no time for idle chit-chat when presenting a concert of epic proportions. But Neff, Morgan, Tucker and Gonzalez are rarely featured, if mentioned at all. And that magical Hood-Cooley chemistry seems to be dissipating. Without making any eye contact, the two must communicate by sign language or shorthand. Other than a thank-you or two, Cooley said nary a word to the audience until the riveting final act.

As Hood introduced his lovely "Mercy Buckets" from Go-Go Boots, he pointed out that the pair had recently spent some time in London promoting the new release at record stores and radio stations.

"It was so romantic," said Cooley with a smirk, leaving no doubt it was anything but that. He comes off much more personable and contemplative in the film, talking about his teen years in Tuscumbia, Ala., a "river rat" who thought "there's something on the other side of the mountain" before realizing he didn't "appreciate what's on this side."

As far as shows go, he said, "People have always connected to us, y'know, the live act, because we're having fun. And we can be singing the most painful song in the world and we'll do it with a smile on our face and everybody else relates. It's just finding redemption, I guess."

If that was true then, his subsequent comments about the rigors of the road -- particularly when the wheels start grinding to a halt -- seem more prescient now.

"The traveling gets old; it loses its romantic attraction. It's no longer an adventure. After a while, you just feel like you're going through the motions; and that's the worst part of any job is, y'know, trying to find something else about it to be passionate about."

Yet, in less than two weeks, the band will play on and the packed houses throughout the South and across the pond will love them for it. While Hood puts on a good front and even a better show, it's hard to ignore his haunting lyrics from "A World of Hurt," which failed to make the cut on either night in Denver.

"The secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits."

Concert photos by Michael Bialas.

See a slideshow from Patterson Hood's in-store appearance at Twist and Shout and the Drive-By Truckers concert on March 18, 2011 at the Ogden Theatre in Denver:

For a limited time, get an MP3 download of "Used To Be a Cop" from
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