What's the big to-do? Drive-By Truckers steer to No. 1 (finally)

by Jonathan Takiff

Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

5 April 2010


They’ve been critics’ faves for more than a decade, treasured for the compelling story lines, infectious tunes and thematic arcs running through their albums.

Now, the Drive-By Truckers seem to be busting out with the general public as well. The Alabama-spawned, Georgia-based twang-rockers’ spanking-new and highly entertaining album, “The Big To-Do,” filled with songs about wobbling on a tightrope and clinging to family for support, landed two weeks ago in the No. 1 slot on Billboard’s Indie chart and at No. 22 on the Top 200 Chart. It’s their best showing in the 14 years they’ve been together.

Better yet, the Truckers keep playing to bigger and ever more enthusiastic crowds from here to Australia, said guitarist / composer / singer Mike Cooley (just Cooley to his friends) in a chat last week.

We caught up the morning after their appearance on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” where the band had performed a funny Cooley original about a “Birthday Boy” who’s been given a sexy woman as a present, and a few hours before their sold-out show at New York’s Webster Hall.

Q: You guys don’t really like to be referred to as Southern rock or country rock. Why is that?

A: It’s not something we absolutely hate, but those terms means different things to different people. There’s something that automatically comes to mind when you say that. So, it’s sort of a stereotype, which is not what we are.

We love that stuff and those people, and certainly some of our stuff fits those descriptions. But we like to take it one song at a time and prefer to just call ourselves a rock ‘n’ roll band. You know, the Rolling Stones had quite a few country songs, too, but you’d never call them a country-rock band.

Q: You and co-founder Patterson Hood come from Muscle Shoals, Ala., where Fame Recording Studios was a melting pot for all kinds of talent and styles coming to record from here and there, North and South, from Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding to Waylon Jennings and Duane Allman. And Hood’s dad, David, was the house bassist for a lot of the great sessions, right? How much of an influence was all that on you guys?

A: More lately than back when we were growing up, actually. All that mixing of styles was going on in the studios, behind the scenes. It was an integrated thing that wasn’t part of the local culture, not something you saw everywhere you went. I heard songs for years, by big stars, that I never knew were recorded right there and down the road in Memphis. It’s become more of an influence on us since then.

Q: Is that what inspired you to record as the backing band for Booker T. Jones (of Booker T & the MGs fame) on last year’s “Potato Hole” album and with soul singer Bettye LaVette on her comeback album, “Scene of the Crime”? And how did it feel playing (MG’s guitarist) Steve Cropper to Booker T’s keyboards?

A: Cropper is one of my favorite players. If you’re going to get into that R&B/soul guitar you have to study him, probably first. He’s always had a great sound, a real greasy style. But I didn’t go in trying to be Steve Cropper. That would be ridiculous.

With Bettye LaVette, that was the first time we ever did anything like that. We had to learn on the fly, establish a relationship and a chemistry in a day or two. So we brought in (famed country/soul keyboardist-composer) Spooner Oldham to help bridge that gap of our generations.

Q: Does it stress you guys out being the critics’ darlings? How do you keep coming up with the big album concepts that reviewers love?

A: (Laughs) It’s always been said that being critics’ favorites is the kiss of death. It’s not that surprising they like us, though. If you read enough reviews, you get an idea that the kind of songs they like are the kind we like. I tend to favor stuff — books and movies, as well as music — that has really vivid imagery, with characters so honest, revealing, self-deprecating it almost makes you cringe.

As for the concept-album business, the “Southern Rock Opera” thing (analyzing the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd as symbolic of the South’s rise and fall) was something we talked about ahead of time, as were the themes in the “Decoration Day” and “Dirty South” albums, to a degree.

But on the last couple of records, it’s just naturally fallen into place. Maybe it has to do with the fact we’re together so much, seeing the world through the same windows and the conversations we’re having. So then you go home and write songs with that in the back of your mind.

A lot of this record is about people trying to hold it together. It’s kind of symbolic of the times. But out of the same sessions came another set of songs that we’ve decided to put together as an album called “Go Go Boots.” Its our R&B murder-ballad album. We’ll probably push that back to next year.

Q: You guys were ahead of the curve in establishing an online presence, building a fan base without a record label and manager. How did that come to pass?

A: It’s true. We were in early. We put the band together in the 1996-98 period when the Internet was kind of taking shape and we had a site manager, Jen Bryant, who was already doing Web design for a living. So we were able to get a really good site together, all on our own, for very little money.

We started to feel the impact immediately. It would be a long time before we were drawing a crowd, but there would always be five people there, no matter where we went, who knew who we were. We weren’t just shooting in the dark.

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