Complete Guide to the Drive by Truckers

How about a band with not one, but three verified songwriting aces’s? Sounds good to me. And no, they're not the Beatles.


Who are the Truckers? They hail from the music hotbed of  Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and are known to generally play alt-country, rock, folk, and blues. Their de facto leader is Patterson Hood, but the band has been strongly influenced by two other songwriters: Jason Isbell and Mike Cooley. Isbell, who is much younger than Hood and Cooley, was separated from the band sometime around 2007. You can read about Jason's best work here.

Just like the Beatles, the band seems to follow the rule "if you write the song, you sing it". Despite the different songwriting voices that populate the Truckers albums, all three songwriters are deeply rooted in, yet critical of, southern culture. In fact, they coined  “the duality of the southern thing" phrase, which spoke to the contradictions and complexity of southern culture. The band works hard, aren't afraid to play guitar solos, and do not shy away from the politics of the working class. A little bit more about the lineup:


Patterson Hood: Patterson has a lovable persona: the comic book nerd from the south that feels he needs to constantly prove he's the smartest person in the room. He's outgoing, ambitious, and talkative.




Mike Cooley: Cooley is the mysterious outsider, writing slick songs and exploring the wicked side of human nature. He’s down to earth and prefers to stay out of the spotlight. Some argue he’s perhaps the sharpest songwriter in the group. Hard to say.




Jason Isbell: Isbell is a natural. He studied literature and poetry, is not the least bit cocky or arrogant, and has a sweet as molasses southern drawl. Though he is no longer in the band, he has continued to churn out stellar songs on a regular basis. He very publicly recovered from alcoholism sometime around 2011, and one can definitely tell from his songwriting: he went from flying high to shooting through the stratosphere.




The Best Truckers Songs:

Note: Spotify Playlist Embedded at the end of the post


1. "Heathens"
Decoration Day, 2003
"Heathens" is everything Patterson Hood represents as a musician, and serves as the perfect introduction to the Drive By Truckers. If I were putting together a DBT album, this track would undoubtedly be first. Hearing it first is like opening a can of sunshine on a humid day as the clouds roll over the green hills. "Heathens" is warm, bittersweet, full of compassion, and rewards repeat listens. Hood recounts a story about him and his ol' neighborhood buddies drinking, getting a car stuck in ditch, and generally raising hell. Hood uses these events as a means to explore relationships, compassion, and life over the years. There seems to be some sort of theme throughout the song that suggests Hood has been hanging with some people in low places for quite some time. He's comfortable there, but admits that "these times can take their toll sometimes/ And I know you feel the same way too/ It just gets so hard to keep between the ditches/ When the roads run the way they do". Aha, Hood's thesis-he's incredibly compassionate to the point of validating and understanding mistakes. It's hard to avoid those pitfalls when life leads you down certain paths based on circumstances, chance, whatever it may be. A repetitive, sunny and  warm guitar riff repeats as Mike Cooley's lead guitar darts around melodically like a butterfly. The music is simple and beautiful. As the repetitive, sunny riff continues at the end of the song, a wistful, slightly mournful violin is introduced along with a slide guitar as the song fades into the sunset.



2. "Ghost to Most"


Brighter Than Creations Dark, 2008
Every time I feel like I'm on the verge of figuring out what Mike Cooley's excellent song, "Ghost to Most" means, it slips out of my fingers again. The mysterious, wisecracking Cooley is indeed the escape artist here, as he sings about human identity (I guess), attempts to squash it (maybe), how the search for the truth underneath that may be more obvious than we think (possibly), and that we should probably figure all this out before we turn into skeletons (sorta).
 
The song starts with a delicious 4 chord guitar sequence for Cooley, who's playing the electric here. Shortly after we're introduced to these 4 chords, a lead guitar kicks in that is downright lovely, as it serves to float and propel the song along the escalator of time. From there, the tapestry is laid for Cooley to paint over, as his ever witty lyrics and dynamic, steady singing take over.



3. "Outfit"
Decoration Day,  2003
It's astounding that DBT's resident youngster Jason Isbell had the capacity to write a song like "Outfit" while in his early 20s. The song, which takes the form of an advice letter from father to son, is littered with references to working as a painter, the Beatles, family, air conditioning repair, tech school, mustangs, and heroin-all delivered through Isbell's rolling vocals and melodic guitar work. Moral territory is firmly established, defended, and canonized in this fine song.

4. "First Air of Autumn"
English Oceans, 2014
"First Air of Autumn" hits a melancholy fall day right on the head, featuring a sharp and rhythmic acoustic guitar, shuffling drums, and Cooley's muttering country vocals. He'll surprise you, as he sings like a man who has hidden talent and is coyly playing his cards. I almost image him as an uncle who one day picks up a guitar and sings a song that no one thought he was capable of.

This song is pure emotion and nature, as Cooley uses his observations of the countryside to paint a picture and explore life's challenges  and cherished memories soaked in regret. After all, it is autumn. The world is beautiful but it's dying.

5. "Used to Be a Cop"
Go Go Boots, 2011
Here, Patterson Hood sings, convincingly, a character sketch of an ex-cop who's family has left him, has been shot, was beat by his daddy, and has a tendency to be violent. You can almost picture Hood's character pacing around the house late at night, mulling it all over, looking through the rain in true southern Gothic style.

The song it lit by a moving, fluid baseline and streaks of dark guitar. There is the occasional major chord triumph during the bridge, but only briefly, as it serves to celebrate past experiences of the character, not the present, nor future prospects. This is when we learn he used to play football, and that the police academy "was the only thing" he was good at. In contrast, the dark verses are filled with foreboding, twisted tales of a life that's disintegrated. Classic tune from the Truckers, indeed. Almost feels like it could've been featured in the movie "Taxi Driver".

6.  "Danko/Manuel"
The Dirty South, 2004
This is perhaps Jason Isbell's most cinematic song. The opening scene is set by song minor chords and slow-heartbeat drums as he sings "let the night air cool you off/ lean your head back and try to cough". Here, the young songwriter uses the tragic stories of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of the Band to reflect on anxieties regarding his own hard living and alcoholism.

7. "Baggage"
American Band, 2016
"Baggage", the last song of DBT's most recent release American Band, is Patterson Hood's tribute to the late Robin Williams. Per usual, Hood is able to use an event, character, or person as a highway to open up the land and explore additional themes. Here, Hood relates William's tragic suicide to his own struggles with depression. A stark electric guitar riff opens the song and seems to almost stand there as a monument in the desert. It's a powerfully sad riff, and is eventually accompanied by Cooley's desert flare of a lead guitar. The band fills in with a slight key change during the chorus.

Hood starts the song by singing "I was listening to the radio/ When they said that you were gone/ Already feeling more than a little down/ Mood swings run rampant/ On both sides of my family/ Like an albatross I carry around". Again, Hood is able to weave together diverging narratives to paint a masterpiece. Great song, indeed.

8. “Primer Coat”
English Oceans, 2014
Cooley doesn’t risk any danger here-wouldn’t suit the song. "Primer Coat" is mid-tempo rocker, just the kinda thing the Truckers do best. Over a cascading guitar riff, picked like a waterfall in slow motion, Cooley presents one of his masterful character sketches. Meet the man who has quit drinking, misses his ex-wife, feels that his new girlfriend is too upfront, and whose sister is marrying in the fall. The thesis statement comes at the end, as we see a man traveling the roads at night, with his melancholy eyes glued towards road signs that will direct his restlessness somewhere else.

9. "Righteous Path"
Brighter Than Creations Dark, 2008
Here, Patterson Hood weaves together the fuzzed out hard rock of Neil Young's Crazy Horse, the working class ethos of Bruce Springsteen, and the heart of the south into a distinct Truckers tune. A full frontal assault is staged with the guitars as Hood goes into overdrive painting a character sketch of a stressed out, middle aged dude with a family and dwindling monetary supplies. He's got a whole lot of debt and a boat sitting in the backyard that "hasn't seen the water in years".

Towards the end of the song, lead guitarist Mike Cooley lays down some atmosphere as Hood goes from descriptive to sensitive, singing "we're hanging out/ and we're hanging on/we try our best/to keep on moving on". Earlier in the song, Hood continues to use the road and "the ditches" as a metaphor for life, much like he did in "Heathens".

It all works together quite nicely as the Truckers channel their inner Crazy Horse and tell the tales of the desperate over aggressive 12 bar riffs with just enough sensitivity to expose the heart underneath.

10. “Perfect Timing”
Brighter Than Creations Dark, 2004
Mike Cooley will never be caught showing off. Never strutting musically, he plays his cards close to his hand, and whips out a few tricks only when he needs 'em. The same rule applies to "Perfect Timing", as we're introduced to a simple acoustic guitar chord sequence with the band steadily following Cooley every step of the way, complete with a bass line that almost seems to hug the song in it's warm embrace. Cooley shows his cards in brief spots, tastefully shredding on the acoustic only when the song calls for it.  Here, Cooley's lyrics are sarcastic, funny, and dark, as he exclaims "perfect timing!" after getting up from another night of playing a show and drinking down a few with the night crowd. Cooley's a bit hungover, and wonders where his life is headed. There's a movie playing in your head on this one, as the countryside rolls by and Cooley gazes out the window somewhere between thoughtfulness and indifference. It's all done with precise and artful execution, as always expected from Mike Cooley. The best line? "I used to hate the fool in me/ but only in the morning/ now I tolerate him all day long".

11. “Bob”
Brighter Than Creations Dark, 2008
It's been well established that Mike Cooley is as enigmatic of a musician as they come. One day he's weaving a crooked tale over ancient blues guitar riffs, the next he emerges from the dark, turns on the bright stage lights, and delivers a classic, straightforward country song perfectly. "Bob" tells the story a man with a lot of dogs who mows his mother's lawn and is probably gay. It is genuinely hard to tell if Cooley is mocking the country genre's simplicity or is proving that he can deliver a solid, perfectly served country tune clever lyrics to match. Here, Cooley plays with cliches and then tosses them out the window: we have beer and fishing, but we also have a potentially lonely dude, an aging mother, and a certain sense of frustration with the modern world.

12. "The Sands of Iwo Jima"

The Dirty South, 2004
Patterson Hood's long obsession with history is showcased in the excellent tune "Sands of Iwo Jima". In many ways, the song "Three Great Alabama Icons" is kin to this song as Hood skillfully weaves together familial history with that of the United States. This knitting is done purposefully by Hood, and serves as a prelude to a larger point he makes about war, the media, and patriotism.

Here, Hood's acoustic guitar is accompanied by a sensible, melodic touch from the band, complete with swirling keys, tasteful lead guitar licks, and steady bass n' drums. Hood's awkward falsetto explores the story of his grandfather, George A, and his commitment to both family and his misfortune of getting drafted into World War II. In a subtle way, "Sands of Iwo Jima" is an anti-war song, shaking a fist at Hollywood for presenting images of war and false glory by the likes of John Wayne, sanitizing the savagery for the American public post-fact.  As Hood states himself, George A. "never saw John Wayne on the sands of Iwo Jima". It's served over a delicious mix of acoustic southern rock-lite. . .

13. "Never Gonna Change"
The Dirty South, 2004
This song is pure grit, as Jason Isbell documents the sentiments of hard livin' southerners. This sense of muscle and menacing toughness is emphasized by the loudness of the song, as the pull of the lead chords let the band rev its engines. Beneath this tough veneer, however, is a kid who was abused by his dad and whose brother is wrapped up in a life of crime.

14. The Living Bubba (Live)

It's Great To Be Alive, 2015 (song from 1998)
An early Truckers song best heard live, "The Living Bubba" is a touching tribute to an Athens, GA musician who kept playing live shows until a fatal illness took his life. The chords are simple and emotional, and the tune itself demonstrates the commitment and meaning the band takes from going out and playing music live-from them, it's a lifestyle, a life worth living for.


PLAYLIST:


ALBUM GUIDE:





Album
Description
Year
Grade
Gangstabilly
Punk Rock country with a working class attitude.
1998
C+
Pizza Deliverance
Slacking off late 90’s youth culture meets country and earnest rebellion.
1999
B-
Southern Rock Opera
Concept album that wrestles with the south’s place in American culture via the lens of Lynyrd Skynyrd.
2001
B+
Decoration Day*
Folk and country tales from the south, featuring three sharp songwriters at the top of their game.
2003
A
The Dirty South*
The sound of storytellers who’ve honed their musical chops on the road.
2004
A
A Blessing and a Curse
The Truckers run out of steam a bit here, there’s a little more misplaced anger on the edges.
2006
B
Brighter Than Creation's Dark*
With Jason Isbell gone, Cooley and Hood swap songwriting duties, trading ace song for ace song, over and over again.
2008
A+
The Big To-Do
The Truckers do their job here, and recorded a big batch of songs that would be split with the next album.
2010
B-
Go-Go Boots
This album signifies a holding pattern, but it is not without gems like “Used to be a Cop”.
2011
B
English Oceans
An incredibly strong album-their best since Brighter Than Creations Dark and a cousin to it in many ways.
2014
A-
American Band
These cuts are very 2016, poltical, on top of things, and Hood and Cooley hear the streets and reflect on the violence and upheaval around them.
2016
A-

*=One of the best.


Recent DBT



this post was a conglomeration of many previous posts 



Comments