[27 February 2009]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
Three tunes into “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” a typically literate and lyrically stark album of rural rock meditations by Drive-By Truckers, sits a song called “The Righteous Path.”
Amid layers of sweaty guitar trade-offs and a rugged, unrelenting Neil Young-inspired groove, Patterson Hood - one of the Truckers’ three singers, one of three guitarists and one of the band’s two founders - sings of a family man who knows plenty about the everyday evils of the world, whether in the form of mounting bills or in the very character and quality of the neighborhood that is crumbling around him.
“The brakes are thin, and the curves are fast,” Hood sings. “We’re trying to hold steady on the righteous path.”
One would be hard-pressed to call the song reflective of Hood’s life, given the presently healthy state of the Truckers. Already this year, the band has continued a lengthy tour promoting “Creation’s Dark,” has played backup for a soon-to-be-released comeback album by veteran R&B keyboardist Booker T. Jones, and has begun writing and recording sessions for what will be the Truckers’ next record. Hood even recruited the band members for his second solo outing, which is due out this summer.
“These have definitely been salad days for the band,” Hood said a few weeks ago. “We’re in really great form, so it’s a blast writing songs. Everyone is being very creative. It’s lot of fun to see how far we can push things right now.”
But there have been times in the band’s 12-year existence when cruising along the righteous path wasn’t so easy. Compare, for example, the state of Hood’s world when he cut his first solo album (“Killers and Stars,” recorded in 2001 but not formally released until 2004) to when he was working on his upcoming solo album, “Murdering Oscar (and other love songs).”
The former is a dimly lit selection of downbeat acoustic songs that Hood recorded at his Athens, Ga., home. The latter is a full electric affair that enlists several of Hood’s Georgia pals, all of the current Truckers lineup and father David Hood, who was bassist for the famed Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a longtime studio session musician and a onetime member of Traffic.
“‘Killers and Stars’ wasn’t even supposed to be an album,” the younger Hood said. “It was more of an exorcism, as I was in really bad shape at the time. I was going through a very painful divorce, and the band was going through a terrible time. We were all really burned out from touring non-stop. Everyone was broke as hell. Everyone’s personal relationships were at odds, and it all spilled over into our inner workings.
“I was kind of at the end of my rope, so I buried myself in my dining room with a recorder and pounded out those songs in a few days to let off steam and, honestly, to keep from doing something really terrible and stupid.”
But, yes, a connection to the righteous eventually emerged. The “Killers and Stars” songs, which were written in tandem with tunes that wound up on the 2003 Truckers album “Decoration Day,” initially found their way to fans through bootleg recordings. That’s when Hood decided to give the record an official release.
“It was still being passed around, so I figured I might as well put it out. I was getting married again, so I used the advance I received for the record to finance our honeymoon. We came home expecting our daughter Ava, so it’s a really happy ending to a horrible story.”
What else has kept Hood and his fellow Truckers - co-founder/guitarist/vocalist Mike Cooley, drummer Brad Morgan, bassist/vocalist Shonna Tucker, guitarist/pedal steel guitarist John Neff and keyboardist Jay Gonzalez - on the righteous path? The Booker T. album is a start. Titled “Potato Head,” it was cut in September and features guitar blasts from Neil Young. This won’t be the first time the Truckers gave their crunchy Southern support to a recording by a soul music giant. The band also backed singer Betty LaVette on her 2007 album “Scene of the Crime.”
“They were both extraordinary experiences, albeit polar opposite ones,” Hood said. “I couldn’t be prouder of either of those albums and really hope we can continue to do those kinds of things. It makes us a better band and expands our horizons in ways that nothing else could.
“It also kind of connects me to what my dad always did. He has been a session player for nearly 45 years. I never thought I would experience anything like that.”
A far more common experience, though, has been the tag that has dogged Drive-By Truckers since its inception: “Southern” band. Its immensely electric music is most certainly rock. But don’t chalk it up as a Southern rock band. Sure, the Truckers have always loved to let its three-man guitar team rip, especially on 2001’s “Southern Rock Opera.” But every record, from the 1998 debut “Gangstabilly” to last year’s “Creation’s Dark,” unfolds with the kind of literary detail and honest human drama that keeps the band light-years removed from conventional Southern rock.
“It used to drive me crazy,” Hood said of the Southern rock shadow. “But honestly, I think the last album kind of recast us and hopefully broke that stereotype once and for all - at least to anyone who actually listened to it. I can’t do anything about the folks who don’t listen to us.”