With the release of possibly their best record yet, Brighter Than Creation's Dark, plus several key lineup changes, the Drive-By Truckers keep chugging past career crises and crossroads with plenty of juice left in the proverbial tank.
This Southern Rock band with Alabama roots has made a career out of defying expectations. For instance, losing one of your best songwriters might stop another band. But with their wealth of talent, this crew just regrouped and wrote more than 50 songs for their latest project.
Creation's Dark touches all of the band's familiar themes, from subverting Southern stereotypes and exploring blue-collar, character-driven song-stories to juggling their three-guitar attack. The 19 songs that make up this sprawling epic range between rave-up boogies, Country Soul numbers and gutbucket balladry.
I recently spoke with Patterson Hood, the group's spokesman/singer/guitarist from a tour stop in Illinois.
"We kind of hit a wall in '06 -- we'd been on the road so long without a real break," he says. "That took its toll. There were some personal problems going on in the band, too, some musical differences. But more than anything the band was just exhausted. We finally came to the point where we had to take some time off or we were going to break up."
Without dwelling on it too much, Hood alludes to their recent troubles. Jason Isbell, one of their key songwriters besides co-founders Hood and Mike Cooley, quit the band to start his solo career.
"I think Jason joining our band was a monumentally great thing," Hood says. "Our five years and three records together were great. But it had run its course -- he was pushing in a different direction. And him moving on kind of freed him to do what he wanted and it freed us as well. This record is what resulted from that. This is just a really good time now for the band."
Shonna stepped up to help fill Isbell's formidable absence and wrote and sang three songs for the record for the first time. John Neff, their part-time pedal steel player, was made a full member as well. So the Truckers are a different configuration now and their confidence swells on the ambitious Creation's Dark. With the recent internal issues, it must be a relief to come out intact on the other side.
In the middle of this drama, the always-prolific Hood struggled with writer's block due to exhaustion.
"I've always written a lot -- my way of dealing with what's pissing me off is to write," he says. "But I wasn't hearing songs in my head, it was all static. Kind of scary, because that's all I've done since I was 8 years old."
The relationship between Patterson and Mike Cooley goes back 22 years. As in any creative partnership, there have been many ups and downs along the way. But the Truckers' refreshing lack of ego helps quell some of the band's natural tension.
"I love the band being a democracy, because the song is king," Hood says. "If you write a good song, I don't care who wrote it, whether it's me, Cooley, Shonna, or John. We're pretty tough on our songs, so they have to be good."
As if the Truckers didn't have enough turmoil going on last year, they also got involved in supporting veteran Soul singer Bettye Lavette on her comeback record, The Scene of the Crime. At first, it's hard to reconcile these Dixie-fried guys backing up Lavette, but their Soul roots run deep. Patterson's father was actually a member of the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and Spooner Oldham, the celebrated songwriter/piano player, was a family friend. Oldham plays on Creation's Dark as well as the Lavette release.
"Working with Bettye was like a lifelong dream come true," Patterson says. "It was Andy Caulkin's from Anti- Records idea to get us together. For him to get past our guitars, and to hear in us something that would be sympathetic and correct in backing up Bettye is really amazing. He very much made that record happen. We had 10 days to make it, and it was 10 of the toughest days of my life. I couldn't be prouder of the results, though."
Not only does Hood recognize the new possibilities for the latest incarnation of the Drive-By Truckers, but he sees a parallel with our country's prospects as well.
"I'm terrified but optimistic," he says of the current political climate. "We've learned in the last seven years just how bad it could be. If I'd known that back in 2000, I probably would have been out marching in the streets."
Whether through the dynamics of violence and fear depicted in "The Man I Shot" or the way conservative stereotypes are tweaked in the satirical "Bob," Brighter than Creation's Dark runs the gamut in examining America's conscience as well as the characters who make up our land of paradox. For the Truckers, personal politics trump national policies every time. This material should be fertile enough to till for years to come.
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS play the Southgate House on Sunday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.