A new documentary on the Drive-By Truckers, “The Secret to a Happy Ending” (ATO), shows just how close the great Southern rock band came to breaking up a few years ago. A couple in the band, songwriter-guitarist Jason Isbell and bassist Shonna Tucker, were breaking up, with Isbell eventually quitting the band. And the relationship between the band’s cofounders, singer-guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, was revealed as anything but placid.
“We’re true polar opposites,” Hood says in an interview from the road. “We have to put up with each other to a large extent, because we are very different people.”
But the crisis within the band led the two unlikely collaborators to re-evaluate their ambitions for the Truckers’ music.
“It came down to a late-night, pretty drunken conversation where Cooley and I both spontaneously ended up on the tour bus,” Hood says. “I couldn’t sleep so I went out to the bus from the hotel to see if I could find something to drink to knock me out. And Cooley had just come down for the same reason. We started talking: ‘We finally had achieved what we spent our whole lives trying to do and yet this sucks, I hate it. Is this it?’ We decided it wasn’t. We decided to go through it and figure out everything that was wrong and fix it, and take back control of our lives. Make this a little bit more of what we want it to be instead of playing a part in a sad movie. It was still a two-, three-year process righting everything, but we turned it around.
“The next year’s tour was all about re-establishing what kind of band we are. We never set out to be a ‘Southern rock band’; we added a third guitar player to correctly play an album about a Southern rock band (“Southern Rock Opera” in 2001), but that wasn’t the point of the band. It wasn’t about guitar pyrotechnics, but about the songs. So we stripped it down to the bare essentials and built from scratch again. We played all our songs acoustic, sitting down in a circle with no fancy soloing. That led to ‘Brighter Than Creation’s Dark’ (2008), which was our rebirth record.”
The Patterson-Cooley give-andtake remains central to the band, as they trade vocals and songs on the recent set of companion albums, “The Big To-Do” (2010) and the new “Go-Go Boots,” just released by ATO Records.
“When I write songs I hear the band playing the song in my head and I’m rushing to write it down before the record ends,” Hood says. “The one thing I don’t hear is Cooley’s part. What he does to my songs is something I could not manufacture any other way. That’s why we’ve put up with each other for almost 26 years. Even when I do solo records, I think it could be better if it had more Cooley in it. I like hearing what he does, because he inevitably does something I never would’ve thought of. If it’s a pretty song, he plays something extra weird or obnoxious, and if it’s a rocking song he comes up with more beautiful things.”
What does Hood contribute to Cooley’s songs? Hood chuckles.
“I’m proud that Cooley likes what I do enough that he continues to let me play on his songs!” he says. “I don’t know what my contributions are, but as a guitar player I’m probably more into composed parts, I hear a melody and then I try to play a counter-melody. But the best part of being in a band with another songwriter like him is that I don’t have to front the band every song. I love the taking-turns thing. It makes me better at what I do. It’s like I get to be in two bands at once.”
The Truckers have been as prolific as two bands since emerging out of Athens, Ga., in the mid-‘90s, recording at a pace of nearly an album a year, including live albums and DVDs, plus solo projects, while playing upward of 200 shows a year. As songwriters, Hood and Cooley have few peers in their ability to sketch vivid character portraits or describe slices of Southern blue-collar life.
In recent years they’ve also collaborated with artists such as soul singer Bettye LaVette and keyboard legend Booker T. Jones.
Working with Jones in particular helped the band focus on the musical side of its songwriting, Hood says. “Booker is great at painting pictures with the music. Ever since, I’ve put more care into how something will sound, not just what it will say. I always wanted to write lyrics that would hold up as words on the page. Now I’d like the music to be strong enough to hold up without the vocal track.”
Another soul great, the late Eddie Hinton, also inspired Hood to expand his musical palette. A cover of Hinton’s “Everybody Needs Love” is one of the highlights of “Go-Go Boots,” a redemption song for all the album’s misbegotten characters, with Hood delivering one of his finest vocals.
“That performance was motivated by sheer terror,” Hood says with a laugh. “The original should have been a classic, and we talked many times about covering an Eddie Hinton song because he’s such a great, underrated singer. My father (former Muscle Shoals studio bassist David Hood) was a pallbearer at his funeral. But every time the idea of covering one of his songs came up, Cooley would always veto it. Who’s gonna sing it? Nobody felt qualified. So out of fear and respect, I gave it a shot, knowing there would be hell to pay if I failed.
But to my relief, we were all happy with what we got. Even Cooley liked it.”