Drive-By Truckers - Holding on loosely
"If we took a year off, a real honest to God year off, it'd drive us all insane. We'd all be dead by the end of it. The five of us have done this because it's cathartic, and it's a release for us to work on these things. It's very, very good for our well-being. It works better than anti-depressants." --Jason Isbell For almost a decade now, the Drive-By Truckers have written their songs anywhere and everywhere, mostly because that's what their schedule has commanded. Songs are born aboard vans, at soundchecks, in darkened studios after everyone's locked up for the night. Last summer, during sessions for the Truckers' seventh album, Mike Cooley even wrote one while strolling through a field somewhere in North Carolina. Sure, that's a romanticized notion -- songwriter communes with nature, finds muse -- but there's testimony from credible sources. "I'm just out having a cigarette," recalls drummer Brad Morgan, "and I look and there's Cooley out there in the field, walking around with an acoustic guitar. I thought, 'Wish I had a camera for that.'" Bassist Shonna Tucker saw it too, wondering all the while what the hell was going on. "But he came back [to the studio], grabbed a guitar and started playing 'Gravity's Gone,'" she relates. "We were like, 'All right,' and recorded it that day." And so it goes, another song in the life of one of the best bands in America. "Gravity's Gone" ended up as the second track on A Blessing And A Curse, released April 18 on New West Records. The Truckers' seventh album is leaner and meaner than its predecessors but hasn't suffered any corresponding loss of muscle mass. As usual, its songs were contributed by the band's three writers, singers and guitarists: Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell, and Cooley -- who, incidentally, wants absolutely nothing to do with any of this roving-the-wilderness stuff. "Well, I was probably wandering around the field," he admits, in a speaking voice not far from what Darth Vader might have sounded like if the Galactic Empire were based in northwestern Georgia. "But I don't know what I was thinking about." Which is true enough to form. Ask about the creation of the new record, the secluded North Carolina studio where it was recorded, the effect of a small army of babies on the songwriting, or the fundamental differences between laying down an album in Carolina vs. their Athens, Georgia, base or their spiritual home of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the answers all seem to be that no one really beats themselves up thinking about it all that much. "As far as the band and the development of it, I've always left it alone," said Cooley. "I'm not gonna change that now." But a number of changes did happen during the year or so that produced A Blessing And A Curse, including a few of the big, life-changing and frequently drooling variety. To borrow a line from Cooley, he and Hood both "multiplied" -- Cooley had a son, his second, and Hood had his first daughter. "She sings along to records all the time," Hood says, adopting a sweet, fatherly tone. "If the music stops, she wants to know why." "Seeing those guys really getting into the family mode is great," adds Morgan. "You can hear it in the writing." There's more. Isbell and Tucker, who married in 2003, bought their first house together in Alabama. Hood and Isbell stayed busy with solo tours and side projects. Last August, Cooley and Hood marked twenty years of playing together -- in true Trucker fashion, on the clock. "All we did was acknowledge it for out homecoming shows, and that was pretty much the extent of it," said Hood. The band initially planned to take 2005 off, as their professional world had finally stopped spinning enough to allow for such a thing. "There was some road burnout in there," Cooley admitted. But it didn't take long for the wheels to roll again. As gifted as they are when it comes to songwriting and performing, the Drive-By Truckers are spectacularly lousy vacationers. "It didn't work at all," Isbell confessed. "We discovered that we're not rich enough to just take a year off." Hood cops to the fact that most people wouldn't consider their hiatus to be down time. "I made a solo record, and Jason toured extensively solo and I had to learn how to be a daddy," he said. "And when we did hit the road, we ended up going out for way longer than we'd initially planned. So we were gone for three months straight while I had a new baby at home, and just about drove me crazy, and took its toll on Cooley and I as individuals, and it didn't really stop until in December." So the Truckers are now in a place where family obligations weave into a lively pace of touring and recording. "If we took a year off, a real honest to God year off, it'd drive us all insane. We'd all be dead by the end of it," says Isbell. "The five of us have done this because it's cathartic, and it's a release for us to work on these things. It's very, very good for our well-being. It works better than anti-depressants." Given that context, Blessing was never destined to be approached in the same manner as its predecessors. Changes were made to the writing process; the first was that they were steering clear of the concept-album thing. "Blessing is not conceptualized at all; we were definitely all about not having a plan," Isbell acknowledges. The album's title, Hood says, was furnished by photographer Danny Clinch last fall. Hood was killing an afternoon with Clinch in New York City following a photo shoot. "He pretty much took me around on his errands, because I didn't have anything to do," Hood laughs. "And in the course of our talking, about where the band's at, about how much I'd loved being a dad but also the down side of missing [my family] and worrying about them, he was like, 'Yeah, it seems everything y'all do right now is like a blessing and a curse. Hey, you oughta write a song called that!' And I said, 'Actually, that'd be a pretty good title for the record we're about to make.'" Last August, with just a handful of new tracks written, they hooked up with longtime producer David Barbe ("Kind of the sixth member of the band," says Tucker) to cut tracks at Mitch Easter's studio, the Fidelitorium, a reclusive compound in Kernersville, North Carolina. "You could pretty much live there," says Morgan. "It was very secluded. Our guitar tech, Tim Facok, he'd just cook all day. He'd have two or three grills going outside all the time." Isbell liked the idea of shaking the band out of its geographical comfort zone. "I was really into making a record that wasn't in Athens or Muscle Shoals," he says. "Something that put everybody a little off-kilter, which I sometimes think makes you a little more creative. And I wanted a lot of live recording, and reactionary recording, where everyone in the band is in front of you." Tucker says the band has always loved recording in Barbe's place, "but Athens is home to a lot of the guys, and you don't get to completely break the home routine when you live a mile from the studio." To make the break a little cleaner, the Truckers decided early on to ignore the considerable backlog of material left over from the sessions that produced 2004's The Dirty South and 2003's Decoration Day. "The last three records, especially Southern Rock Opera and Dirty South, were tied to each other, really narrative-driven," Hood observed. "We wanted to do something that was just immediate, to catch what was on our minds right now and to make a record set in the now." Adds Tucker, "The songwriters would just come in with something they wrote that night or something they'd been in the bathroom writing." About half the songs were recorded within hours of being written. And for the first half of the record, at least, what was on their minds was rock 'n' roll. The band's three songwriters step up to the plate in order of tenure to kick things off. Hood goes full-throttle on the opener, "Feb. 14", a broiling anti-Valentine. Cooley's wandering-the-fields song, "Gravity's Gone", finds him flinging stones at the plights of various high-society posers while gleefully copping to his own: "I've been falling so long it's like gravity's gone and I'm just floating." Isbell's "Easy On Yourself" digs into the sticky dark part of human behavior that seems to creep up in a lot of Truckers songs. "That song came from me seeing how it's very easy to not hold yourself to the highest standards," Isbell says. "A lot of the songs we do are about not censoring yourself, and about living every day as if it were your last -- and that is a good idea. But there's a line. Most of the time every day isn't your last, and the condition you wake up in is something you're gonna have to deal with, and I know a lot of people who've ignored that at some point. But every once in a while you need to step back and realize what you're working toward and what you have in front of you." More than its predecessors, A Blessing And A Curse steps well outside the Truckers' geography. Unlike The Dirty South, which threw a hard light on the constituents of the same unromantic poverty bracket that Katrina brought into the national consciousness, the characters in Blessing are more broadly drawn and could hail from anywhere. "Goodbye" is a somber send-off to a long-lost friend; "Space City" is Cooley's tribute to a late grandmother. There's dark comedy, too: Hood's "Aftermath USA" is a stomper about blearily waking up to a house full of morning-after carnage, but its title suggests Hood may be hinting around about politics. "Crystal meth in the bathtub, blood splattered in my sink," Hood howls, "Laying around in the aftermath, it's all worse than you think." The album closes with "A World Of Hurt", in which Hood speaks the conversational verses and sings the simple title-line chorus. The song came to him on the fly late at night after everyone had gone home; he convinced the assistant engineer to stick around to help demo it. Turning off his mesquite-grilled howl, Hood delivers a sober monologue in which he talks a friend down off the ledge: "Once upon a time my advice to you would have been go out and find yourself a whore, but I guess I've grown up, because I don't give that kind of advice anymore." One of several Hood contributions that deal with the specter of suicide, it's a surprisingly intimate coda that's thick with the late-night feel, particularly when Hood drops the bluntly optimistic capper: "It's great to be alive." Hood says the song "just hit like the better ones do for me, like somebody in outer space plays a record and my antenna hears it," Hood said. "I heard it in my head played through, and tried to write it as fast as I could, so I could catch it before it was gone. I was afraid if I went home, I'd wake up and it'd be just a bunch of words on a page." Last year may have begun with at least the prospect of a vacation, but there's no such hope for that in 2006. The Truckers did their usual workaholic thing in mid-March at South By Southwest -- on Thursday they did four sets, including a crack acoustic one at the New West party in the late afternoon. Next up is an extensive nationwide tour that will include a string of dates with Son Volt. After that, things get a little cloudier. Hood is waiting to release his second solo album, Murdering Oscar And Other Love Songs, until early next year; currently he's co-producing the fourth record by Alabama band Dexateens at Barbe's studio in Athens. He also co-produced Isbell's solo record, which is finished but needs a label. Hood also hints at one day returning to "other projects I've had to put on hold for a long time," and claims he'll take an "extended leave" from the band next year. In addition, he and Cooley have discussed doing something together: "We have a record in mind," Hood says; "not a Trucker record, but the two of us and whoever we get to back us up." (When asked what makes those songs different from Truckers songs, Cooley responds: "They're just too damn old.") But this year is all about the Truckers. If they were a band that spent a lot of time assessing itself, this would be a good time to do it, but their plans, Isbell says, are simple as ever. "You can pretty much look back at all of your favorite bands and find the point in their careers where they made their biggest mistakes. [We'll] just not do that," Isbell said, with a mighty laugh. "We don't want to make Bridges To Babylon." Hood thinks in perhaps slightly broader terms, yet never strays far from his perspective. "The bigger rooms we're playing are cool, but I'd like to see the record sales go up a little bit more," he says. "But we're in a pretty good way. The shows are reaping the benefits from taking some time off. The energy level is so much higher now. Things are pretty good right now." And it's great to be alive. Jeff Vrabel is a Florida-based writer who's currently running an accidental experiment to see what happens when you make your two-year-old son listen relatively constantly to the Drive-By Truckers. His work has appeared in Playboy, Billboard, the Chicago Sun-Times, PopMatters, Modern Bride (long story), and Indy Men's Magazine.