The Bible says, “Judge not lest ye be judged.” The Drive-By Truckers, though, take things a whole lot further than that. For the better part of a decade now, their songs haven’t just shown understanding, or even compassion; they’ve demonstrated what is perhaps the noblest of human emotions—empathy. In their otherwise intemperate way, these hard-rocking interstaters from Georgia and Alabama have persistently entered into the struggles of others, redeeming the humanity that lies at the core.
Empathy likely isn’t the first thing people associate with the raucous, habitually unkempt Truckers, but it runs deeper than some might suspect. It may take the form of venting the frustrations of a broken widower (“Puttin’ People on the Moon”), or of getting inside a real-life case of consensual brother-sister incest (“The Deeper In”). Or, in “The Living Bubba,” of sending their hearts out to a buddy who died of AIDS but wouldn’t let the virus kill his spirit. With voices and guitars as rough as the lives they evoke, the Truckers have perennially gone out of their way to lift up and shine a light on the hard-pressed and often misunderstood Southerners who populate their songs.
Witness “Little Bonnie,” a gripping meditation on a family tragedy from A Blessing and a Curse, the band’s forthcoming album for New West Records. Here, traversing great historical and imaginative distance, singer-guitarist Patterson Hood cradles the memory of a young female cousin of his who died an agonizing death before he was born. Hood doesn’t stop there, though; amid haunting filigrees of E-bow and echoing guitar, he burrows into the hurt of the entire family as well.
“I grew up hearing that story,” Hood said, talking by phone from his home in Athens, Ga. “The father in the story – my great-uncle – was an extremely religious man. I mean a fire-and-brimstone religious man, and so much of that came from him feeling like he was being punished by God. It had a really profound effect on me, even though I never met the little girl.”
In the care of less porous hearts, the scenes depicted in “Little Bonnie”—the marble cemetery angel, the pall of divine judgment—might have degenerated into lowest-common-denominator Southern Gothic. Instead, as he and his fellow Truckers so often have done, Hood offers a glimpse of something more enduring—the irreducible, if shattered, humanity at hand.
Singer-guitarist Mike Cooley attributes this capacity for empathy to geography and social location. “The Bible belt can do a lot of bad things to you,” he said, speaking from his home in Birmingham. “But it can instill a few good things too, [such as] being able to express yourself without judging the people you’re describing. I think that’s where a lot of that comes from, and it sure goes a lot farther than Geraldo.”
“I can remember, back in the late ’80s, hearing songs by bands that were being pretty ironic,” Hood added. “They would do a take on something that would be considered maybe kind of trashy culture. And the song would be funny, but when I’d think about it, I’d think, ‘This guy’s being really condescending about the people he’s singing about. He’s really just writing the songs to make fun of these people.’
“I might write a song about the exact same type of person, and try to tell their story, and maybe even try to tell it with humor. But I never want to be condescending about the person whose story I’m telling. His life may be a bit of a joke. He may never have been able to hold down a job or a wife or whatever. But he might also be trying to do the best he can. He might just be kind of a fucked up guy trying to get through life.
“Even on those first couple of records, I was very conscious of that,” Hood went on, referring to Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance, the Truckers’ outwardly caricatured early albums. “People might not have seen that, but I think when you look back on those records after hearing what came after, you can see, I hope, that that was already there.”
Underlying this sensitivity is a profound attunement to issues of social class, and specifically, to how privation breeds anger, shame, violence and abuse. This class consciousness isn’t cribbed from, say, the stories of tragic Southern miniaturist Breece D’J Pancake; it’s earned—born of the insight that comes from witnessing such indignities firsthand.
Now in his early 40s, Hood, who’s sung chillingly of contemplating suicide in the past, admits he’s failed miserably at everything from waiting tables to working construction. “I’ve tried every job imaginable trying to make a living and nothing has ever worked for me except for this,” he said, talking about making music. “And this took me 20 years. I’m just now making a living. I mean literally, just in the last year, I’m making a living at this.”
Hood proceeded to recount a recurring nightmare where he’s waiting on a table of 12 consisting of R.E.M. lead singer Michael Stipe and a bunch of his friends. “Everything was going wrong,” Hood said with a chuckle. “The food wasn’t coming out. The kitchen was screwing up and I’ve turned in the order wrong. I woke up and was like, ‘Holy shit! I don’t have to do this. I don’t have to goddamn go work at a restaurant.’
“I quit waiting tables back in 1999 and I still have those fucking nightmares.”
As Cooley puts it, with one of his inimitable aphorisms in the rollicking-in-spite-of-itself “Gravity’s Gone”: “What used to be is gone and what ought to be ought not to be so hard.”
These days, maybe the biggest “used to be” for the Truckers is the single life. Both Hood and Cooley are now married with young children. Hood has a daughter who turned one in February, Cooley a pair of boys still in diapers. Drummer Brad Morgan also is married, and Jason Isbell, the youngest of the band’s three singer-writer-guitarists, and bass player Shonna Tucker are husband and wife.
“Having a family changes you—physically, mentally, how you look at things,” said Cooley. “We’ve always tried to be considerate of everyone’s personal life, whether it includes a family or not. So it hasn’t burdened anybody, but it hasn’t lifted any burdens either.”
“Separation anxiety is now pretty much a day-to-day part of my life,” said Hood, alluding to leaving his daughter Ava at home with his wife Rebecca whenever the Truckers go on the road. “The most wonderful thing in the world is having my daughter, and I’m sure Cooley would say the same thing about his two boys, but mortal terror goes with it. You don’t want to shelter your kid. You can’t overprotect them; that would hurt them. Coming to terms with that has been a big part of my last year.”
“A World of Hurt,” the benediction-by-way-of-gratitude inventory that closes the album, is the song on the Trucker’s new record that most reflects this maturing perspective and the tensions that attend it. “To love is to feel pain, there ain’t no way around it,” Hood drawls to begin the second stanza. As elegiac strains of Wurlitzer and keening steel and lead guitar lines swirl around him, he nevertheless admits, “It’s great to be alive.”
Though maybe less dramatic, Blessing qualifies as something of a sonic breakthrough for the Truckers as well. Where their first two albums were country-rock, and the four that came after them constituted a grungy update of Southern rock, Blessing is just plain rock—no modifier or hyphen.
“I’ve been trying to get rid of that fucking hyphen for years,” blurted Hood when asked about this evolution. “To me, it’s all rock. That’s part of what I like about rock; when done right, it can go in all these different directions and still be just rock. The hyphens have always frustrated me—and the band as a whole.”
“We just wanted it to sound like a rock record,” said Cooley. “There was no theme or concept or particular subject matter with this one.”
As much as the Truckers love and resemble Lynyrd Skynyrd, they doubtless are weary of people drawing parallels between their music and that of their Southern forebears. Still, with its tightly coiled arrangements and comparably sleek production, it’s hard not to hear Blessing as the Truckers’ equivalent of Street Survivors, which as Hood points out “was definitely the record where [Skynyrd] set out to get rid of the hyphen.”
Authenticity mavens who falsely equate “rawness” with “realness” might cringe over intimations of streamlining and slickness when Blessing comes up in conversation. Yet as was the case with Street Survivors, the album is the band’s best and best-sounding to date, and much of it was recorded live in the studio, the way the Truckers typically do things. Even the profusion of keyboards on the record, compliments of everyone from Isbell to producer David Barbe to Widespread Panic’s Jojo Herman, deepens the songs’ impact.
Much has been made of Isbell’s role in revitalizing the Truckers’ sound after he joined prior to 2003’s Decoration Day, and rightly so; his instrumental work on Blessing is particularly inspired—and expansive. With the pitch-perfect “Daylight,” he even nurtures (gasp!) his inner Freedy Johnston. Not to be overlooked, however, is the “Shonna Factor,” which, among other things, accounts for why Blessing is the first Truckers record with something akin to soul music on it.
“Shonna opened a lot of doors to things that we maybe couldn’t have done before,” said Hood, who certainly knows his bass players. His father David Hood is a member of the legendary Muscle Shoals rhythm section known as the Swampers. Tucker herself was active on the studio and club scene in Muscle Shoals before signing on with the Truckers.
“And having that strong a bass player has made Brad a stronger drummer,” Hood continued. “Shonna’s had a real effect on his playing, which therefore fed all of us.”
Some of this inspiration might have to do with the fact that Blessing marks the first time the Truckers have made two consecutive records with the same lineup. This newfound stability notwithstanding, the group’s been on a roll since 1999’s Pizza Deliverance, stringing together a succession of first-rate, incrementally better studio albums that’s starting to resemble the streak that the Stones had from Aftermath to Exile. Or, to bring things into the post-punk era, the one that Husker Du had from Metal Circus to Candy Apple Grey. Or even the early run enjoyed by R.E.M., which might explain why Stipe keeps popping up in Hood’s dreams.
Much of this ultimately is attributable to the marriage-like commitment of Hood and Cooley. The two have been playing together in bands since 1985, most notably, pre-Truckers, in the group Adam’s House Cat. The key to this staying power, submitted Cooley, is that “Patterson and I pretty much agreed to disagree and laugh about it. We figured that out ten years ago.”
“There are thousands of joke answers that [Mike] and I could throw around,” said Hood, “but really, when it all comes down to it, it’s respect. We used to not get along; for years we fought bitterly. But I think it was the underlying mutual respect that kept the fighting from winning.
“Even when I may not have liked dealing with him on a personal level,” Hood went on, still talking about Cooley, “I’ve always loved what he brings to the table and what he does to my songs. And I say to my songs ’cause sometimes that’s what it is. He’ll definitely play against whatever I think the dominant thing might be about a song. A couple of years of not playing together really reinforced in my head just how much I’d missed that.”
Hood cites “Goodbye” from the new album as an example of this putatively contrarian dynamic. “It’s a very sad song,” he said. “It’s a very personal song about something that everyone in the band feels pretty strongly about. Cooley’s playing brought out the underlying anger in the song. It’s kind of a frustrated, sad song but there’s a certain anger in that frustration. It’s about a long-term friendship that was left kind of badly and then was left unresolved. Cooley’s playing is so passionate and pissed off. I mean, goddamn, toward the climax he’s doing this fingernails-on-the-chalkboard, dissonant, repetitious guitar thing he does.
“Lord knows I can’t talk technical, but when he laid that part down, I was like, ‘Holy shit! That tells more of the story and captures the mood of what I was trying to say better than my lyrics do.’”
It might not exactly qualify as empathy, but Cooley’s guitar work on “Goodbye” is yet another example of how readily the Truckers burrow into the feelings of others. “All five of us are really bighearted people,” said Hood. “Probably the more grumpy of us have the biggest hearts of all. Lord knows they don’t get any bigger-hearted than Cooley, which is part of why he comes off so grumpy. Big hearts get in the way.”
Indeed, and sometimes, as in the case of the Truckers, in the very best of ways.