With a style that balances the grittiest side of Americana, the Southern corners of classic rock, the melancholic lilt of classic guitar-pop and a progressive approach to Southern culture within the modern world, Drive-By Truckers carry much more than most rock bands on the circuit.
There’s an enthusiastic and enduring artistry within the music and lyrics of the band’s singer-songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. As they roll forward, Hood, Cooley and their colleagues seem determined to explore, readjust and fine-tune their stripped-down rock stylings like eager youngsters.
Kicking off their Southeastern winter tour this week in the Carolinas with shows at the Uptown Ballroom at the Florence Civic Center and the Charleston Music Hall, Drive-By Truckers are ready to reconnect with fans and friends across the region with a full set of classics and new tunes from the latest studio album, “English Oceans.”
In a recent press release, the band’s management describes the collection as “an elegantly balanced and deeply engaged new effort that finds the group refreshed and firing on all cylinders.”
Recorded during the summer of 2013 in their hometown of Athens, with longtime studio man David Barbe at the helm, the 13-song “English Oceans” is the band’s 12th official release in 18 years. With Hood and Cooley splitting songwriting and lead vocal duties down the middle, the album is one of the more solidly balanced collaborations of the band’s career thus far.
“It’s one of the records I’m most proud of,” says Hood, speaking to Charleston Scene last week from the southern tip of Baja California, Mexico, where he and the band performed at the Todos Santos Music Festival.
“Usually, a year later, I hear one playing and cringe at all the things I would do differently,” he says. “This one I’m still very happy with. It was a special record to make, and it has really been fun to expand and grow with on tour.”
As one of the band’s founding members and main songwriters and arrangers, Cooley has always had a hand in the overall sound and musical direction of the band, but he stepped up impressively with six of the 13 songs on “English Oceans.”
“I had time to write,” Cooley says. “After we came off the road last time (in 2012), we decided we were going to let it rest for a while. So, I had time to really focus. I kind of had to relearn how to write, because I didn’t write as many songs as I’d wanted on the last couple of records. I was happy with these songs and thrilled to go in and record so many that I felt real strongly about.”
The Drive-By Truckers story begins in 1994 with Hood, a budding country/rock songwriter who relocated from the rustic music scene of the Muscle Shoals area in North Alabama to the bustling college-town music scene of Athens.
Working as a sound guy at a small music venue called the High Hat, Hood quickly acquainted himself with the musicians and songwriters of Athens, and it didn’t take him long to form the initial versions of the Drive-By Truckers with Cooley. The two were old college pals in Alabama, and they’d played together previously in a rock band called Adam’s House Cat.
The Truckers started out as an acoustic-based combo with a handful of friends, including Cooley on guitar and banjo alongside drummer Matt Lane, pedal steel player John Neff, mandolinist Barry Sell, harpist Jim Stacy and a rotation of guests.
Heading into the late 1990s, Hood excelled as a thoughtful and prolific songwriter with a raspy style and twangy sound, and as a cheerful and confident bandleader.
In 1998, the Truckers released their official debut, a rowdy and lo-fi independent effort titled “Gangstabilly.” College radio loved the redneck aesthetics. Critics and fans in and around the national alt-country/Americana scene took notice of Hood’s storytelling lyrical style and earnestness.
The band’s 1999 follow-up, “Pizza Deliverance,” perpetuated the deeply Southern twang and attitude. The self-released 1999 live album “Alabama Ass Whuppin’ ” emphasized the more raucous rockin’ side of the band’s personality.
The Truckers took a major step ahead with 2001’s conceptual double-album “Southern Rock Opera,” an ambitious project divided into two acts, both delving into the story of a Southern kid who goes for fame and glory in a Lynyrd Skynyrd-styled rock group but endures more than a few misadventures along the way. The album featured Brad Morgan on drums, Rob Malone on guitar and vocals, and Earl Hicks on bass.
In 2002, the Truckers signed with the Lost Highway label, which re-released “Southern Rock Opera.” They jumped over to the Los Angeles/Austin-based label New West shortly after.
Young singer/guitarist Jason Isbell, currently a solo performer and bandleader in his own right who’s earned accolades as a top-notch songwriter, joined the band in 2002, replacing Malone. Isbell contributed two stand-out songs, including the title cut, to the 2003 album “Decoration Day.”
Stepping away from their hard and heavy Southern rock roots, “Decoration Day” was a turning point for the band, the beginning of a new era with New West involving an expanded musical approach and more collaboration and complementary song craft.
Hood’s overall songwriting process in particular seemed to be evolving. He’d always had a knack for being able to come up with a cool song instantaneously — early-era fans used to witness Hood make up tunes on the spot at the old High Hat club during his low-key solo shows — but it seemed like many of the compositions were the result of more long-term efforts.
“I started writing really young, around 8 or so, and I spent my early years learning craft and structure and all of that,” Hood says. “Then around the time I moved to Athens (when he was 30), I kind of consciously threw it all away and went for a very primal approach with a perhaps unhealthy aversion to editing. In recent years, I’ve tried to strike a balance and give a little more thought to the execution, especially melodically.”
Through the mid-2000s, with Shonna Tucker on board as bassist, the band recorded and toured regularly, cranking out one solid effort after another, including 2004’s “The Dirty South,” 2006’s “A Blessing and a Curse” and 2008’s double-length “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.”
By 2010, Isbell had exited the band to pursue a solo career. Longtime Athens musician Jay Gonzalez, formerly of Athens groups the Possibilities and Nutria, was solidly in the band as keyboardist and rhythm guitarist. The band churned out two steady, mildly irascible studio albums for the ATO label — “The Big To-Do” and “Go-Go Boots” — before Tucker took leave in late 2011 to veer into other musical projects.
While Hood and Cooley kept themselves busy with songwriting for the band and their own solo projects, the last three years for Drive-By Truckers involved a healthy break from the road trips and studio sessions and a low-pressure approach to making the latest album.
“This lineup really listens to each other and plays off of the other’s contributions,” Hood says. “Plus, we have a lot of fun just hanging out. I knew we had some special songs and a great chemistry, so, on stage, I just wanted to capture that in as honest and true a fashion as possible.”
With bassist Matt Patton, a skillful player from the Tuscaloosa, Ala.-based rock group the Dexateens, on board, Hood, Cooley, Morgan and Gonzalez reconvened in 2013 to polish their strongest new material for “English Oceans.” To everyone’s delight, many of Cooley’s compositions shined the brightest.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had a record where Cooley was as deeply involved in every aspect of the making of it as he was this time,” Hood says. “With his writing, there’s almost no precedent for it in our catalog. He came in with this stunning bunch of songs, full of this beautiful imagery.”
Cooley particularly appreciated the musical dexterity and dynamic sensibilities of the new Truckers lineup.
“This lineup is so direct. It can go from this chainsaw rock ’n’ roll to very delicate, pretty-sounding stuff,” he says. “We wrote a lot of those kinds of songs, and this lineup got all of that as well.”
Musically, “English Oceans” is a lively mix, a collection of high-volume rockers, acoustic ballads and countrified bouncers with a heavy dose of vintage power pop around the edges.
There are plenty of familiar Drive-By Truckers elements in most of the tracks: the twangy quality of both the lead vocals and the harmonies; the steady, tasteful drumming and sparse fills; the melodic bass lines and clever organ/keyboard embellishments; and the texture of the dual rhythm guitars. Producer David Barbe’s organic, no-frills studio touch is still there.
“We really just wanted to capture this band at this moment in time, playing these new songs with a minimum of fussing about or fixing,” says Hood. “It’s very live and in-the-moment. We recorded 17 songs in 14 days and put 13 on the album. There was a lot of fun and camaraderie.”
Cooley adds, “You’re always hesitant to say, ‘Oh, this is the best record we’ve ever made,’ because you always want to. And sometimes you say it, and sometimes you’re right, and sometimes you think, ‘Well, maybe I jumped the gun on that a little bit, I got excited.’ But I think this just might be the best record we’ve ever made.”