Drive-By Truckers - Evolution rock
This article is from 2008.
Drive-By Truckers may hail from America’s south but they do way more than your average redneck stomp. Doug Johnstone meets an ambitious rock band unafraid to take themselves and their audience to new highs
The phrase ‘Southern rock’ has connotations. You might imagine fat men with beards and baseball caps, swigging on Jack Daniels and toting shotguns as the tenth guitar solo from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Freebird’ blasts from their pickup truck.
Drive-By Truckers are often referred to as a Southern rock band, but while there are superficial similarities – they have three guitarists, they’re not shy of a bourbon bottle and some of them hail from Alabama – the band, now based in Athens, Georgia create an expansive, ambitious and eclectic sound a million miles away from the bozo boogie of Skynyrd.
‘There’s a certain prejudice comes with that “Southern rock” term,’ laughs singer and guitarist Patterson Hood. ‘People hear that and picture having to sit through ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ for the millionth time or something. We’re nothing like that. I think this new record has helped, it’s definitely pushed us even further in other directions.’
The record in question is Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the band’s seventh studio effort in ten years, and their finest to boot. A huge, sprawling album, it takes in everything from plaintive country (‘Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife’) to post-grunge meltdown (‘That Man I Shot’) and all things rock in between.
The album was made after a transitional period. Long-time guitarist Jason Isbell quit two years ago, while the ex-wife he recently divorced, Shonna Tucker, remains on bass.
‘Obviously we’d gone through a pretty traumatic change, but it was time for that to happen,’ says Hood. ‘We all knew it was the right thing, for the good of everyone involved. Leading up to that there was a lot of dread, but once it actually happened it was a relief, and we felt revitalised.’
With pedal steel player John Neff taking over guitar duties the band also recruited session musician and songwriting legend Spooner Oldham and began rebuilding the band.
‘We wanted to reinvent ourselves, and it seemed like the way to do it was from the ground up, to strip it down to the essentials of the songs and rebuild it from scratch,’ admits Hood. ‘We did an acoustic tour of the States and worked a lot of the album out live in front of audiences. By the time we went into the studio we were really confident and had a sense of united purpose.’
The band have never been shy of big ideas, having released three records which could be called concept albums, exploring the musical mythology of the South. Hood himself is related to music legend; his father Dave Hood was bassist in The Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who played for the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin.
Last year, Drive-By Truckers took part in a project that emulated those days when they were asked to be the backing band for soul icon Bettye LaVette. To outsiders, they might not have been obvious choice, but the band were thrilled. ‘Her record company approached us and we said yes straight away, cos we’re all big fans,’ says Hood. ‘All of us are huge R&B and soul fanatics. A lot of people don’t notice that because of all the guitars, but if you can see past that, we’re a pretty soulful rhythm section.’
There was one problem – the label hadn’t convinced LaVette about the project. ‘Bettye wasn’t so sure,’ recalls Hood with a laugh. ‘She thought we’d bury her beautiful voice under walls of guitar. At every turn we had to convince her we weren’t trying to sabotage her. She kept saying, “It’s gonna sound like the fucking Rolling Stones!” In the end she really loved it. It’s been her biggest record to date and got nominated for a Grammy, so it all had a happy ending.’
The same goes for Drive-By Truckers who, after their recent upheavals, find themselves bringing their high-octane live show to Europe and keen to get back into the studio next year. ‘Next up, I’d like to make a driving rock, summertime, fun record,’ says Hood. ‘This album is my favourite thing we’ve done, and I couldn’t be prouder of it, but it is dark and sometimes sad. I’d like to make the polar opposite, one for putting the top down to, definitely.’
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