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DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS [Photo: Jim Fiscus]
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Led by a triumvirate of guitarists/singers/songwriters in Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell, the Drive-By Truckers are distinctively Southern—the band originated in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and is currently based in Athens, Ga.—and they definitely rock.


But for the love of Lynyrd Skynyrd, don’t call them “Southern rock.” They much prefer the less descriptive—and restrictive—“rock `n’ roll.”


“It doesn’t limit you to one thing or another—it’s kind of open-ended,” Hood said recently. “People say, `What kind of rock `n’ roll?’ And that’s kind of the point. One song might show a real strong country influence, and one song might show a real strong R&B influence, and one song might show a real strong punk-rock influence. And one song might show all of those at the same time. Those are my favorites—the ones that have a little bit of everything in them.”


Hood comes by his musical identity crisis honestly. His father, David Hood, was a legendary session musician who played with everyone from Wilson Pickett to Willie Nelson as part of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.


But some of the Truckers’ diversity—and much of their charm—is owed to the band’s unique makeup. Hood and Cooley have shared songwriting and singing duties since they first picked up guitars together in 1985 in the band Adam’s House Cat, and they added Isbell in the same capacity before the 2003 album “Decoration Day,” for which Isbell wrote the title track.


Such democratic arrangements can be disastrous—Uncle Tupelo, for example, met its demise because co-founders Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar couldn’t strike that balance—but Cooley and Hood have been able to make it work, although for his part, Hood can’t say why.


“We get along great now, but for years and years we didn’t,” Hood said. “Maybe that’s kind of the key, that we stayed together for so many years when we didn’t get along that now it’s just kind of easy. It kind of just makes sense to keep it going.”


For the next few weeks, though, the Truckers are slowing things down.


It’s generally about as easy to see a Truckers concert as a “Law & Order” rerun on cable—the band has averaged more than 100 shows per year since 2001—but this might be the last chance for a while to catch the band’s rock show.


With growing family commitments and a slew of projects in the works, ranging from a new DBT album to long-awaited solo releases from Hood and Isbell, the Truckers plan on taking it easy in 2007.


“We want to play enough to keep the bills paid and keep the lights on,” Hood said. “But at the same time, we definitely want to be able to not be away so much.”


The band’s Web site lists 20 tour dates between now and July 19—and 12 of those are part of the “Dirt Underneath Tour”—a “semi-acoustic, kind of turned-down tour” that Hood says will emphasize the storytelling that gets lost behind the “wall of guitars.”


“Every so often we’ll take two weeks off, come back with a new record and start all over with different T-shirts,” Hood said.


The next batch of T-shirts hasn’t gone to the printer yet, but Hood said the band hopes to start recording the follow-up to last year’s “A Blessing and a Curse” by summer. Hood alone has written more than 30 songs since Thanksgiving (he hopes to cut as many as 10 of them for the new album), he got five more in the mail from Cooley last week, and he figures on a handful from Isbell and his wife, Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker.


“We’ll just kind of see what happens when we all get it together,” Hood said, adding he expects a bit more sprawling record than the lean, mean “Blessing,” which featured 11 tracks recorded on the spot in the studio at The Fidelitorium in Kernersville, N.C.


With Isbell in the midst of a solo tour to support the album he has due out this summer and Hood planning to release his second solo effort shortly thereafter, overzealous fans might worry the Truckers’ days are numbered—but Hood says there’s no reason for concern.


“What’s the Mark Twain quote about rumors of my death are exaggerated, or something like that?,” Hood quipped.


___


A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO THE TRUCKERS


Start your Truckers collection with these key tracks:


1. “Ronnie And Neil”—From 2001’s epic Southern Rock Opera, comes the tale of the “feud” between Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young, distilled into four really loud minutes.


2. “Puttin’ People On The Moon”—From 2003’s Decoration Day, a Patterson Hood track about an Alabama town ravaged by unemployment and cancer, whose citizens lament that down the road the government is pouring money into rockets.


3. “Dress Blues”—An as-yet-unreleased Jason Isbell track about a friend killed in Iraq; like the best Trucker songs it steers well wide of prosleytizing and lets the story do the talking.


4. “Aftermath USA”—Hood riffs on a wrecked morning-after scene—“Car was in the carport sideways/big dent running down the side”—but the tricky title reveals he’s talking about remorse over something much bigger than a hangover.


5. “The Living Bubba”—One of the earliest Trucker songs, it finds Hood paying tribute to Gregory Dean Smalley, a Georgia singer-songwriter who fought his HIV by keeping up an unbelievable touring schedule: “I can’t die now,” Hood sings as Smalley,” `cause I got another show to do.”


6. “A World of Hurt”—The grand finale on 2006’s A Blessing and a Curse has Hood recalling suicidal tendencies before ending the album with the line, “It’s great to be alive.”


7. “Cottonseed”—If Alan Jackson had released this dark Mike Cooley classic, it would have swept the CMAs.


8. “Outfit”—The second song Isbell wrote for the Truckers, it captures the moment of a heart-to-heart between father and son, but it includes a little advice for everyone.


9. “The Company I Keep”—Imagine “Friends in Low Places” with more attitude and more rock.


10. “Heathens”—The first line finds Hood drawling: “Something about the wrinkle in your forehead tells me there’s a fit about to get thrown.” Who could hit the stop button after that?


—Justin Jarrett and Jeff Vrabel

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