All the tell tale signs were there: Members divorced one another and left the band. Writer’s block afflicted one of the two remaining songwriters. Solo albums were launched. The longest silence of the group’s career followed.
After nine albums and 18 years, the Drive-By Truckers would have been excused for succumbing to the drama, the road, their age, and packing it in. Instead, they have returned with English Oceans, one of the best albums of their career and the best album of 2014 so far.
“You know, we had to make a decision. Are we going to keep doing this? Is this worth it?” says band co-founder Patterson Hood, who spoke to The Daily Beast this week at a hotel bar in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “Is it just getting ridiculous? Has it become a soap opera for too long, or are we going to fix this shit and go out and do it?”
“A band is tough,” Hood continues. “I mean, there is a reason why it’s a dying art. There’s less and less bands now, or at least that go at it like this.”
By “like this” he means full-out, myth-making on the road Southern rock; short stories about men and women who struggle against history’s grasp to make a living and find love. Hood and his longtime musical partner Mike Cooley have sung about George Wallace and Bear Bryant and the “duality of the Southern thing”—of “being fiercely proud of the good parts of my heritage and mortified and ashamed of the bad parts,” as Hood put it in an essay he wrote for The Bitter Southerner.
They have made some of the best albums of the last two decades, and Hood says the decision to remain a band was made with that in mind. “If we’re going to make another record, we need to make—we’re better off not making another record unless we can just make one-of-the-best-records-we’ve-ever-made-records.”
And they have.
After all the drama and the departures, the deep friendship between Hood and Cooley remains the band’s core and driving force. “This will be our 29th year as partners,” Hood says. “At the end of the day I want to hear what Cooley does to whatever song I write. I love what he does to my songs.”
“There’s no shortage of racist assholes and there always will be, but they’re getting less and less empowered, and the people they’ve been trying to oppress are getting more and more empowered.” —Patterson Hood
Cooley is more of an equal songwriting partner on this record than on recent efforts, and, in fact, some of his songs are some of the album’s strongest.
The album is bookended by two of the most top-notch songs in the Truckers’ long catalogue: “Shit Shots Count” is a cracking “Exile on Main Street” like rave-up, all snarling guitars and punchy horns. Cooley sings, “If the table’s tilted, just pay the man who levels the floor,” which is a pretty decent summary of how the characters in the Truckers’ world get by.
The last song, “Grand Canyon,” is a beautiful homage to the Truckers’ longtime tour mate, Craig Lieske, who suffered a fatal heart attack after opening for the band in Athens. This past week at City Winery in New York City, Hood sang the song like a man possessed, eyes closed, head titled back in tribute to a lost friend and their time on the road. “If the recently departed make the sunsets to say farewell to the ones they leave behind there were Technicolor hues to see our sadness through as the sun over Athens said goodbye.
“You always have those friends that you kind of deep down know you’re going to lose, and we end up losing a lot of them. If you live long enough, you lose most of them,” Hood laments. “Lieske was not one of those guys. He was probably the last one on the road crew that I would expect to just die. So it was just such a shock.”
English Oceans is also an album written by men beginning to confront impending middle age. (Hood will turn 50 this year, while Cooley is 47.) Cooley’s “Primer Coat” is about creaking knees and children growing up and marrying out: “Mama’s planning the wedding, daddy’s planning on crying. She’s slipping out of her apron strings. You best leave him be. He’s staring through his own taillights and gathering speed.”
Politics also continues to be a focus on the new album. Hood talked up the chances of Democrats Jason Carter and Michelle Nunn to be elected statewide this November in his state of Georgia, and brags that Carter had put one of the Truckers’ songs on his grandfather Jimmy Carter’s iPod. “I’ll do anything I can to try to help them,” he says.
Two of the album’s songs—“Made up English Oceans” and “The Part of Him”—are about a Lee Atwater-type political operative who “did what he had to do to get southern boys to vote.” That kind of manipulation is a theme throughout the Truckers’ catalogue: “I can make them believe anything. The whole notion is so cynical and ugly and true, but it’s true,” Hood says.
Despite this cynicism, Hood says he is hopeful about the future. “As a culture and a country, we are hitting a tipping point. There’s no shortage of racist assholes and there always will be, but they’re getting less and less empowered, and the people they’ve been trying to oppress are getting more and more empowered.”
Hood is similarly optimistic about the band and the album: “We worked really hard and went through so much. I feel like we got it right this time.”