THE DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS, VICKI AND ME Drive-By Truckers

It’s their damn silver
jubilee: After 25 years, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are finally respectable.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

“Here.”

 

Vicki Knopfler reached into her purse, grabbed two jewel
cases out and handed them over the cubicle wall that divided our desks in the
decrepitly depressing newsroom of the High Point Enterprise.

 

Vicki was more than twice my twenty-three years of age and
although she was the paper’s long-time arts & entertainment editor, I was
admittedly a little wary of taking music recommendations from someone old
enough to have lived through disco.

 

“I don’t care if you burn them, but just get them back to
me,” she said as I checked out the cover art of Pizza Deliverance and Gangstabilly.
“And play them loud.”

 

In an era when so much of our musical consumption is done
electronically, it’s rare that we can pinpoint the exact moment when we were
introduced to a band. Songs pop up arbitrarily on an iPod on Shuffle or we hear
something in passing on Pandora, but I can say definitively that the day I was
introduced to the Drive-By Truckers was Day 2 of my first job out of college as
a cub reporter at a small-town North Carolina newspaper in January 2001.

 

Vicki brought the discs after we’d sufficiently sniffed
musical butts the day before over lunch. After determining my tastes were up to
snuff (Whiskeytown > Ryan Adams), Vicki regaled me with tales of these guys named
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley from north Alabama living in Athens, Georgia,
who were writing a rock opera about growing up in the South. When the band came
to town a few weeks later, Vicki asked if I wanted to go.

 

“Sounds like some kinda weird Skynyrd thing,” I said
dismissively.

 

“It’s gonna be great,” Vicki promised.

 

The band that walked onstage that night at The Garage looked
like they could’ve robbed banks. This was the pre-Jason Isbell Truckers, with Brad
Morgan on drums, Rob Malone on bass and Cooley on a perpetually out-of-tune
Flying V. Earl Hicks – still a few years away from joining the band on bass –
ran sound. Patterson Hood was as charismatic as ever, the wide-smiling Cheshire
cat with a Pabst Blue Ribbon hat. Though they weren’t the well-oiled musicians
they are today, there was something about the way these bizarre redneck rock
savants told stories about George Wallace, Molly Hatchet and eighteen-wheelers
that made them totally captivating. I was hooked.

 

Nearly 10 years and countless interviews with the band
later, and I’ll still willingly cram into a crowded, sweaty, beer-soaked bar
for the Rock Show, just as I did on a recent wintery night in Raleigh. The
Lincoln Theatre was packed when we got there as the lights dimmed and the hoots
and howls began. It’d been a few years since Vicki’s last show. Glancing out into
the audience after a few songs, Patterson found her in the crowd and a sly grin
crept across his bearded face.

 

“This one’s for Vicki,” he said with a smile as the band
launched into a note-perfect version of “Bulldozers and Dirt.” Musically, they
may be as savvy as ever, but like all true Southern gentlemen, the Truckers
have never forgotten the friends they met along the way.

 

The Big To-Do, the
band’s eighth studio album (issued this week on ATO Records), is aptly named,
for whenever the Truckers pop the tent, the circus has surely come to town.

 

 

***

 

 

BLURT: Where’s the
Grammy? (Ed. Note: The Truckers took home
a Grammy for their work on 2009’s
Potato Hole with Booker T. Jones)

 

Patterson Hood: Booker’s got it.

 

Mike Cooley: Yeah, Booker took it.

 

PH: Booker gets the Grammy. We can buy a plaque.

 

 

Really? You have to
buy your Grammy.

 

PH: Fifty bucks.

 

MC: Yeah, I got an email about that. I am not paying for an
award. Fifty bucks isn’t a lot of money, but it’s the principle of the whole
thing.

 

 

Did anyone go to the
awards show?

 

MC: Nah.

 

PH: I went a few years ago when we were nominated with Betty
(LaVette) ‘cause [David] Barbe and I co-produced it. It was awful. It might
have been one of the worst days of that year.

 

MC: It’s painful to watch on TV and at least then I can get
up and walk out of the room.

 

PH: They don’t sell beer. They do not sell beer. It lasts
all day and all night, and they do not sell beer. They completely shut down the
bars in the venue. It was awful. If ever I needed a beer, it was sitting
through Taylor Swift. (Laughs)

 

 

Y’all said something
from the stage last night that surprised me. “Girls Who Smoke” was co-written
by both of you?

 

MC: Well, sort of. We were all kinda throwing out random
bullshit.

 

PH: We were talking shit, so I started writing it down.
Cooley said something, and I was like, “There’s a first verse.”

 

MC: We were in England, so of course, you’ve got hours to
kill at these festivals. You’re sitting there lookin’ out the window, and you
people watch and make up stories about them. “Looka here, check out this chick
with some fucked-up British teeth.” Stuff like that.

 

 

Is this the first
step towards doing some co-songwriting? I remember in the first interview I
ever did with you guys that you said there’d be blood on the floor if y’all
ever wrote a song together. Might we see more songs like “Girls Who Smoke?”

 

PH: It was fun. I like the song. When you play together this
long, you try all kinds of stuff, but generally, writing is a solitary thing
for me.

 

MC: Yeah, it’s something I do by myself. That’s one of the
things I like about it. I get to bounce ideas off my multiple personalities. (Laughs) I get to work with the person I
love the most. (Laughs)

 

PH: You don’t love that asshole. (Laughs)

 

 

The new one – The Big To-Do – is a big rock record. Is
that in reaction to the music on Brighter
Than Creation’s Dark
?

 

PH: I think we were just ready. I’ve wanted to do another
big rock record for a while, but sometimes those songs don’t come. I’d really
gotten into the idea of seeing how far I could go with the narrative writing we
were doing. I guess I finally got good enough at it where I felt comfortable
trying to apply it to a bigger rock sound. I don’t know, I don’t know…

 

MC: It’s hard to put your finger on that. When you’re
sitting down to write, you’re normally by yourself with a guitar on your couch
or something and you naturally gravitate to mellower stuff. So it’s kinda hard
to say we were trying for big rock songs when they start like that.

 

PH: A lot of Brighter
Than Creation’s Dark
was written at home with small children asleep in the
next room, so the songs had to be written quietly. That’s the reality in which
they were created. Sometimes stuff like that has as much influence on how a
record comes out than anything. The kids are a little older now, so they’re a
little more ready for the rock. (Laughs)
Also, I think if you look at our catalogue, there’s always been that
trajectory. 

 

The first two records were essentially one big record’s
worth of writing that got split into two records. Then we did the punk rock
live record and next came Southern Rock
Opera
. Decoration Day was sort of
a return to the kind of songs on Pizza
Deliverance
, except it’s probably a more mature version. We were a little
older and had been through a lot of hell. Dirty
South
was almost like a sequel to Southern
Rock Opera
, not literally, but musically. A Blessing And A Curse was us trying to make a different type of
record that we wanted to be able to make. I don’t think we nailed it, but it
was an attempt at something. The reaction to that was Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which was this sprawling,
all-over-the-map double album. I will always have a soft spot for that record.
To me, that record was like our rebirth as a band. It’s a real important one to
me. I think all of us would agree on that. Turning that record into a live show
was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done in this band. It was such an
introverted album. A lot of our ability to earn a living is made by playing
rock shows, so figuring out how to tour that record and play big shows was
really hard.

 

Having toured behind that record for two years, all of us
were ready to make a rock record. I remember thinking I wanted the next one to
just gallop out of the gate. I think we got it.

 

 

Talk to me about this
group of songs. When were they written?

 

PH: A lot of my songs were written on the road, which is the
first time I’ve really done that. I’ve attempted before, and in a lot of cases,
I might not have finished them ‘cause there’s just too much going on when we’re
on tour. But I had solid enough ideas this time that I could go back and finish
them later. We kinda knew pretty early on. We had the title way before we had
most of the songs. Shonna came up with the title while we were looking for a
title for the last one, but it didn’t fit that record. So I told her to save it
for the next one, when we do the big rock record.

 

 

Cooley, how about
you? When did you write your songs for the record?

 

MC: All of that was written right before we went into to
make the record. I’d been dry for a while and had nothing in the tank. It’d
gotten a little stressful, ‘cause as the time crept up to when we were gonna go
on, I had nothing. I wasn’t worried about the band having enough material for
the album, but everyone wants to bring in something new. That’s part of our
deal as a band – everyone’s got a voice. All those songs were written right
down to the wire.

 

 

Are you a streaky
songwriter? Do they come in bunches for you?

 

MC: Kind of, but a bunch for me is like five.

 

 

Do you have to have a
deadline?

 

MC: Not necessarily. When there is one, I kinda get off on
that, ‘cause it challenges me and makes me jump into it. Right now would be a
good time for me to be writing. I kind of feel like it, ‘cause the record’s
done and I’m not trying to think about how it’s gonna fit into anything else. I
can just let whatever happens happen.

 

PH: That said, my favorite song on the album is “Birthday
Boy.” It’s my favorite song on the record. The album was already mastered when
he wrote that.

 

 

How’d that happen?

 

MC: I finished it and recorded a demo of it at home. We were
planning on going back in later that year to record some stuff for the next
record, so I was happy to have that one for those sessions. I’d had only one or
two songs on The Big To-Do before
that, and then I get this call from Barbe, and he says that everyone in the
band and at the label wanted to have at least one more of my songs on the
album. I’d just gotten my mastered copy and thought it would be the perfect
thirteenth song for this album. I mailed him a copy of the demo and we went in
and cut it.

 

PH: When I got the copy of the demo, I knew it was the
missing piece. It felt like a puzzle with the missing piece.

 

 

Why?

 

PH: We needed a third song on the album that kicked ass in a
certain way and was a Cooley song. I’m obsessed with sequencing. That’s one of
my roles in the band. I love doing it and kind of obsess over it during the
process of making a record. I love seeing how things will fit together. The
third song on a record is such a key thing, and there was a gaping hole there.
It’s like what happened with “Righteous Path” on the last record. That was the
third song on that record, and I wrote it during the very last minutes of
making that album. There’s something about that spot.

 

 

Tell me about
“Birthday Boy.” Where did that song come from?

 

MC: It was two different parts. I’ve had the music and
lyrics on the last half of it – what sounds like a bridge – for a long time, maybe
a year or more. I kept coming back to them ‘cause I thought it was cool. I’d
written the first two verses later on and didn’t really know where to go. I
knew I was onto something, but it wasn’t until I realized I could take that
stuff I’d been playing with for a year and put it with this other stuff. Shit,
it worked.

 

PH: That bridge is the best bridge in our 25-year existence.

 

 

You mentioned that
some of your songs were written while out on the road. “The Wig He Made Her
Wear” sounds like something you saw on the local news somewhere. Where did that
one come from?

 

PH: It was a news story, a big international news story. We
were in Norway when that story broke on BBC or whatever. I was watching the
story on this TV in a hotel room and kept thinking that it sounded like some
crazy shit from home. Turns out it happened in Selmer, TN, which is like 35
miles from our hometown. It’s the same town that Buford Pusser came from. When
I realized that, I didn’t want to write another song about that poor town ‘cause
I got all kinds of hate mail from Dawn Pusser. So I didn’t write anything. A
year passes, and I’m in a motel room in northern Mississippi with Rebecca and Ava
(wife and daughter) and Court TV is
on the television. And it’s that trial. I couldn’t believe it. I was literally
watching it on Court TV when they pulled out Exhibit A: the go-go boots and the
wig and the little slutty outfit that he made her dress up in to get his rocks
off. It was like seeing an old episode of Perry Mason when they hold up the
exhibit and the whole courtroom goes, “aaah” – you could literally hear the
audible gasp. I knew right then that I was gonna write the song. I was gonna
call it “The Audible Gasp.” That’s what the song was gonna be about. It took
another year or two to write it, and when it was done, it morphed into “The Wig
He Made Her Wear.” I’m real proud of it. It was so strange because here’s this
thing that happened 35 miles from home, and I’m all the way on the other side
of the world hearing about it, and they’re making a huge deal out of it. They
were treating this crazy thing that happens all the time in my hometown like an
international news story. There’s always a preacher killing his wife, or a
woman killing her preacher husband.

 

MC: That kind of stuff don’t happen over in Norway, you
know? (Laughs) They don’t have Church
of Christ preachers.

 

 

“Drag the Lake,
Charlie” has a similar feel to it. Was it also inspired by something you read
or saw?

 

PH: I have no idea where that one came from. It just kinda
appeared in my head. I wrote it before “The Wig He Made Her Wear,” but the way
those two songs connect with “Birthday Boy,” which is about something totally
different and came from an entirely separate sick mind, is really my favorite
thing about the band. Album after album, we’ve managed to have that happen.
It’s one of those things where I don’t understand it, I don’t question it, I’m
glad it happens and I hope it continues to.

 

 

It’s funny – a few
years ago, my wife gave me this poster
of all the characters that have appeared on The
Simpsons
over the years
. I think you guys could do that with all the
characters you’ve created in your songs for the last 25 years.

 

MC: We could do that with bass players and managers, too. (Laughs) It’d be like a mural. You could
paint that on the side of a subway station. (Laughs)

 

PH: He speaks the truth. (Laughs)

 

 

You guys have both
shown great skill at writing from the third perspective in your songs.

 

PH: And we do it very differently. My day-to-day life is
pretty mundane. I could write “Daddy Needs a Drink,” but overall, I’m not
really out searching for adventure when I’m at home. I have enough when we’re
out on tour. But I’ve got plenty of imagination and plenty of baggage from back
in the old days when life wasn’t so mundane to tap into. The important thing to
do is to be able to at least empathize with the character I’m writing about or
writing from. I don’t have to agree with them, ‘cause I usually don’t, but I
have to at least understand the motivation of the characters. I don’t ever want
to be perceived as talking down to the characters I’m writing about. I’ve
always been real conscious of that. I probably came close to crossing that line
on “The Wig He Made Her Wear,’ but goddamn, it was just so ripe for the
picking. It was like that song was following me around just asking me to write
about it. I mean, shit, I don’t watch Court TV! The only time I’ve ever watched
Court TV in my entire life happened to be that trial. It was obvious I was
supposed to write about it.

 

 

You used to always
talk about writing more prose. What kind of stuff do you want to write?

 

PH: Well, I’ve got a book I’ve been working on for a few
years. I don’t know if I’ll get lucky and finish it or not. Maybe I won’t, but
I’ll write another one. I love writing. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I
can write the non-musical stuff on the bus because all the activity doesn’t
bother me. Whereas if I’m trying to write a song, I probably need the iPod to
be off, which would mean that a whole section of the bus wouldn’t have music.

 

 

Let’s talk about
“Eyes Like Glue.” That song feels like this album’s “World of Hurt.” How did
that turn out to be the last song?

 

MC: It just depends on who writes it. More often than not,
the last song is obvious. I’ve seen several times when we were listening to a
playback of a song, and everyone in the room goes, “That’s the last song.” That
was how that one went.

 

That song is pretty much exactly what it is. I wanted to
write that song for this record. I didn’t know exactly what it would be, but I
wanted to get into how the role of fatherhood was fitting into this whole rock
‘n roll thing and how I fit into it, too. It sounds like I’m talking directly to
a kid, but I openly acknowledge that I’m not paying any attention to them. So
I’m really just talking to myself and other dads.

 

 

So After the Scene Dies finally made a
record. I hoped to see it on the last one.

 

PH: (Laughs) Yeah,
and it made the right record, too. We cut a version for Brighter Than Creation’s Dark and then erased it. It wasn’t the
right version. It wasn’t the record for it. It didn’t fit. The last thing that
album needed was another song. It was fun to go in this time with a different
outlook and cut it from scratch. Whereas the first time we cut it, we worked on
it all day and it didn’t really happen and we got frustrated with it, this time
around we pulled it out and cut it in one take. It was obviously meant to be.

 

 

I love the circus
organ intro to “Flying Wallendas” last night. I guess it allows you to get a
quick piss break in. (Laughs)

 

PH: Yeah, I had to hurry. I’m getting too old to pee that
quick I’m afraid. (Laugh) I told Jay
last night, “Can you make that a little longer?” (Laughs)

 

 

Was that conceived
when recording the song or was it something that just popped up one day?

 

PH: That’s straight from [keyboardist] Jay Gonzalez’s head.
He’s great, man. I wanted there to be an intro to that song, so it made sense
to do the circus thing. It gives him a chance to show off some, too. We’ve got
all these guitars going, and Jay’s kinda stuck back in that corner. Everyone
thinks he’s sleeping ‘cause he looks so narcoleptic. When he first started
playing with us, we were touring Europe. It was the same tour we wrote “Girls
Who Smoke.” We’d played earlier in the day, and he and I were walking around
this festival together afterwards and this Scottish guy comes up and goes,
“You’re fucking great! You guys are fucking great!” Then he turns to Jay and
goes, “Man, you need to slow down with whatever you’re doing, man. You were
falling asleep up there.” This guy just gave him hell for being all fucked up
until I finally had to tell him that’s just how Jay is.

 

MC: I’m the one who’s fucked up, man. (Laughs)

 

 

You’ve said the
Truckers are in the best place as a band that they’ve ever been, and that this
lineup has a lot to do with it. What does this lineup do musically that perhaps
some of the earlier incarnations of the band didn’t do?

 

PH: Everybody really listens to each other. There’s no one
with their own agenda trying to prove that they’re the best player. There’s no
showboating or anything like that. It’s all about the song. This band can do
anything. I can’t imagine anything that I could dream up that this band
couldn’t play. That’s really cool as a songwriter ‘cause it gives me so much to
work with. If the song calls for it, we’ve got it. Jay’s been a great addition.
He’s like the final piece of the puzzle. He’s been a lot of fun to work with.

 

 

Seems like Jay helps
you out a lot with vocals.

 

PH: A lot. He’s got a limitless range in what he can do. His
sense of melody is very much like mine but even better. We’re very compatible.
If I hear a harmony in my head, it’s usually the same one he’s going to come up
with on his own, or he’ll have something that works even better.

 

 

How has John Neff’s
role evolved since coming back to the band after Jason’s departure? It seems
like at first he played a lot of electric guitar, but he played a lot of pedal
steel last night…

 

PH: More than usual.

 

MC: We played a lot more of the songs where he plays the
pedal steel on. When we got him back, it was great having him play electric
guitar, but it’s been really nice to see him play more steel and acoustic. It
makes writing set lists challenging, because we have to remember what
instrument he’s gonna play and don’t want to make him switch every song.

 

PH: Johnny’s great. He just keeps getting better and better.
His style of guitar playing is very different than his style of pedal steel
playing, and he does them both really well.

 

 

Let’s talk about your
producer David Barbe. In our chat about the last record, I asked you guys if
you could ever envision doing a record without Barbe, and you said you couldn’t.
Is that still the case?

 

MC: I’d still want him involved in some way. If he wanted to
play on a record and not really sit behind a console all day, ok, yeah, I’d be
fine with that. I want him around even if someone else were manning the helm.

 

PH: His presence is a very important thing to this band. For
us to work with someone else at this point, it would have to be a situation
where whoever we worked with brought something to the table that we want that
Barbe couldn’t give us. If Booker (T. Jones) asked to produce us, or something
like that where the person brought something totally unique to us, that might
be cool, but I’d still want David involved. We’re not the kind of band that
goes looking for the most modern recording techniques. Most of the records made
today that I love generally sound like they were made 40 years ago. Those are
the sounds that I like. I don’t like the modern shit. With Barbe, it’s all tube
preamps and tube compressors and reel-to-reel tape, and that’s what we like.
The challenge in the studio then becomes all about how the band plays, not some
studio trick or technique.

 

 

What’s the thing
you’re most proud of about this record?

 

MC: That’s a good question. I don’t know.

 

PH: I’m proud about everything on this record. It was a fun
experience to make. We had a good time making this record, and we cut 32 or 33
songs as a part of these sessions. The other songs will go on the next record,
which is radically different than this one.

 

 

How?

 

PH: It’s the polar opposite of what we do. All of the things
we’d say to describe The Big To-Do,
none of them would apply to Go Go Boots.
It’s all over the place. It’s got some country-sounding stuff and some R&B
songs. It’s got an R&B murder ballad. Instead of releasing another behemoth
album, we split the songs in two. I think it worked out better, and it stays
true to how we work and operate. I gotta also say that I was pleasantly
surprised that the label (ATO Records) didn’t freak out. They didn’t take it as
us wronging them in some way, which was great. They actually took it as a good
thing.

 

MC: We went in for those first sessions and cut a bunch of
songs, even more than we anticipated. When they heard about it, they were like,
“Dang, they’ve done how many songs? Well, let ‘em keep running with it. If they
want to do two records, we’d be into that.” I was blown away. It was like,
“Really?” That’s the first time I’ve heard something sensible come from a
record label (Laughs).

 

 

Yeah, you guys could
add record labels to that poster of bass players and managers. The two of you
have been playing music together now for 25 years…

 

MC: 25 fucking years, man. Jesus Christ.

 

PH: It’s our damn silver jubilee. (Laughs) We’re respectable. It’s like the scene from Chinatown where John Huston’s character
says. “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last
long enough.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Danny Clinch]

 

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