Since the band’s inception, Mike Cooley has been the Drive-By Truckers understated “other voice”. True, former members Jason Isbell and Shonna Tucker have each had their own turns at the mic, but Cooley co-founded the band with Patterson Hood and his rich southern baritone is instantly recognizable, especially when it butts up against Hood’s strained tenor. Besides both having distinctive Alabama drawls, the two men sound nothing alike when singing. Another thing that sets Cooley and Hood apart is their songwriting speed. Hood is extremely prolific. Even though the Drive-By Truckers have released four albums in the past five years, Hood has still found time to squeeze in two solo albums. Cooley, by contrast, seems content to contribute his standard two or three songs to each Truckers album and go about his business.
As a result, Cooley’s first solo record is a live album consisting largely of his Truckers material. Recorded over three nights in March 2012, it finds him alone on stage with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. And he went even further in stripping it down, choosing to leave his picks at home and play everything with his fingers. Such a barebones approach is meant to bring out the core of each song, but in reality it ends up hurting about half of the tracks on the album. The Fool on Every Corner obviously wasn’t intended to be a referendum on Cooley’s melody-writing skills, but with such a minimalist approach to the guitar, that’s how it ends up.
The album begins with “Loaded Gun in the Closet”, a quiet ballad that at first seems like a strange choice for an opener. But the studio version of the song is essentially the same as this one; it’s simply Cooley singing over a quiet, finger-picked guitar line. Because of that, this is a perfect rendition of the song and a great performance. The menacing outlaw ode “Cottonseed” comes next, and it’s the one time Cooley swaps out his guitar for a banjo. Obviously the banjo is meant for finger-picking, anyway, so “Cottonseed” sounds quite good, and the rowdy crowd clearly appreciates it.
The middle of the album is where the acoustic approach does the songs no favors. A run of deeper cuts ends up relying almost entirely on Cooley’s storytelling skills. Southern Rock Opera rocker “Guitar Man Upstairs” has a great story, so it survives the stripping down intact. Newer songs like “Cartoon Gold”, “Eyes Like Glue”, and “Pulaski” are all pretty ballads, but feel inconsequential with just the singing and barely-there guitar parts. The hard rocker “3 Dimes Down” comes off sounding the worst. Stripped off all its guitar riffing, solos, and backbeat, the song is left searching for a hook, or even a decent melody, and never finds either.
When Cooley gets around to his heavy hitters and crowd favorites on the back end of the record, the songs come to life. “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” has both a great story (the history of Sun Records) and a great vocal melody, and is just as lively here as in the full band version. Cooley pulls out a cover of Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors” and it turns into a whole crowd sing along, much to Cooley’s delight. The album follows that up with “Marry Me”, perhaps the ultimate Cooley fan-favorite. Despite being another hard rocker, the forceful vocals give the song the energy that Cooley’s sedate guitar playing lacks. As fun as the song is, it’s not an ideal recording, since several men in the crowd insist on tunelessly shouting out the lyrics along with Cooley without even attempting to sing. “The Devil Don’t Stay” misses its thumping beat, but its creepy guitar line is fully intact. Similarly, “Shut Up and Get on the Plane” is recast from a roaring rocker to a country cautionary tale. In both of these cases, the core of the song remains strong despite the acoustic rearrangement.
The Fool on Every Corner closes out with a new song, “Drinking Coke and Eating Ice”. It’s a song with a nice little guitar line, and stream of consciousness-style lyrics. Since it’s new, it doesn’t suffer from the preconceptions of some of the other songs on the album, and it sounds more like a promising demo for a future Drive-By Truckers song. While these live shows were probably a unique, intimate experience for a select few Drive-By Truckers fans, it doesn’t come off quite so well on this recording. Cooley’s intention to strip everything down was a good one, but clearly that doesn’t work for all of his songs. Still, the best material here sounds exactly as good as you’d expect, and anyone who’s a fan of Cooley’s Truckers songs will probably ultimately be satisfied with this album.