Sounds Better in a Song: An Interview with Drive-By Truckers

It only took one verse for me to fall hard for Mike Cooley, one of the three guitarist-songwriters in the Drive-By Truckers. Like much of their catalog, this verse, from the innocently titled “Marry Me” off 2003’s extraordinary Decoration Day, pulled no punches:

Well, my daddy didn’t pull out, but he never apologized
Rock and Roll means well, but it can’t help telling young boys lies.
A baby on the way’s a good enough reason to get you out alive
Get you out without having to swallow any pride.

Sentimentality has little place in the Truckers’ world, where you’ll find only bare-knuckled honesty and some of the finest collective playing and writing since the Band cranked out songs at Big Pink. Nothing rings false; the music comes swathed in a concert tee and denim, reeking of stale beer and sweat, a taste of cigarette kisses and lingering regret. You might not always like what they’re saying, but the truths they offer can’t be denied. These children of classic rock past possess an earthy charm that creeps into the blood stream. It’s intoxicating and frequently more than a little disturbing, like the darker passages in Waylon Jennings and Townes Van Zandt.

A Blessing and a Curse, Drive-By Truckers’ new album, is a sharp, playful rock-and-roll outing that harks back to early 1970s vinyl glory days, continuing the stunning creative run that began with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, a double-disc epic loosely based on Skynyrd’s exploits and tragedies. Part of the credit goes to producer David Barbe, who’s helmed every release since first mixing 1998’s chuggin’ live set, Alabama Ass Whuppin’. The combination of Barbe and the Truckers has a hopped-up organic feel that lets in a surprising amount of tenderness between the ax-happy flurries.

Cooley took time to speak with PopMatters from his home before the band returned to their usual Herculean touring schedule this spring.

I just put “Marry Me” on a Valentine’s Day mix for my wife. It’s a little dark but she digs it.
If anybody knew what it was actually about (trails off into laughter).

I get that feeling a lot with your work. There are songs that on the surface they seem to be happy, but when you peel away a layer or two it’s something completely different. If people really got what the songs are about I don’t know if they’d be smiling, no matter how upbeat the tune seems.
Oh, yeah. Maybe they do know what it’s about, and I should be smiling. Every single one of them that sounds upbeat and happy is like that.

There’s some snake hiding in the grass.
Seriously. It ain’t no rose garden.

That’s a big part of the attraction of your music. I never feel like I’m being lied to. With a lot of rock and roll these days I get the feeling it was thought about and shaped way too much, that the concept is more important than the music.
Oh, absolutely. The package. Especially if you get swallowed up by the big labels early enough. You’re gonna go shopping for clothes before you put a reel of tape on the machine.

I will say you folks look sharp in the new publicity photos though.
We clean up pretty good. It’s a lot easier to dress a little nicer if you’re not crawling out of a stinkin’ van after a nine-hour ride every time without a clean shirt.

When did you first get interested in music?
Real early, probably from the beginning. I can’t remember not being interested in it.

What’s the first record you remember?
The first LP I remember having of my own was Johnny Cash at San Quentin. And I always thought that was one of my dad’s records, but my mom took all the old home movies and had them compiled onto a VHS tape several years ago and I watched it. I was opening that record at Christmas. I didn’t remember that.

Your songs and even your demeanor reminds me of Cash. There’s a similar honesty to your music that doesn’t sugarcoat the world.
That’s one of the things I sort of take from him. Outside of children’s songs some of the first music I remember hearing was Johnny Cash.

It’s easy to present the world the way we’d like it to be rather than the way it really is.
That’s what television’s for (laughs).

The Truckers pile up a lot of blood and bodies in their songs — not so much with the new record but in the past catalog. What do you think the appeal of is of that material?
I don’t know, but I love those kind of movies (laughs). They sure do sell.

There’s something about a man with a gun…
A man with a gun in his hand and a naked woman and a car, and you’ve got a movie.

And people will stare.

Are the comparisons to Skynyrd and Neil Young accurate?
I hear different ones. It’s fair. Comparisons are in the ear of the beholder. People hear what they hear, and sometimes they hear what they want to hear. There’ve been a couple comparisons that made me cringe a little bit.

One of the people the Truckers have reminded me of, especially in recent years is Jim Carroll. And then I find out you cover “People Who Died” in concert.
Me and Patterson Hood have been covering that since the 1980s. It was one of the first songs we probably ever played together.

Some of the phrasing and energy of your music comes out of that edgy, urban New York sound.
It’s weird. Some of it does. I didn’t even listen to that stuff growing up. I discovered it when it was new but I didn’t like it much (laughs). I got more into it in my 20s.

When did you and Patterson meet each other?
It was 1985, when we were in college.

You two have such great chemistry together. In fact, the whole band has a really high level of interaction. Do you feel that in the moment making this music?
Oh, sure. When you finally get the right lineup, it’s the best element you can possibly have. That’s when it all comes together and becomes a real band. There was a lot more of that this time, because this is the first time we’ve made two records in a row with the same people in the band. We were all pretty happy and just came off the road. We unloaded the equipment out of the trailer and into the studio (laughs). That was great to come right off a bunch of shows and jump right into it while everybody’s warmed up and playing good. And not too keyed up, a bit tired.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a happy record, but there’s elements that suggest you’re more open to light or hope or something.
It’s true. Some of this was trudging through the bullshit to get there. That’s a lot of what the new record is about, if there really is anything it’s about.

Even just the titles of your first few albums — Gangstabilly, Pizza Deliverance — give off a trailer park kind of vibe. Did you struggle with that as you went into more serious material with Southern Rock Opera?
I think there were a lot of people that dismissed us as a novelty act because the covers are funny and the titles are a little cheesy. I think some might have seen us as a Southern Culture on the Skids knockoff, somebody trying to jump on their bandwagon. It wasn’t a big hurdle to get across.

Anybody who spends time with your music figures that out pretty quickly.
You put something out there and everybody’s gonna get their own idea of what you’re about. People have kind of come out of the woodwork with the last few records.

Where I live, in California, many people have very warped ideas of the American South.
I don’t think it’s as much so anymore. There’s a stereotype of New Yorkers. There’s a California stereotype. And none of them are particularly accurate. Now things are a lot more homogenized. Everybody’s exposed to the same information all the time.

Do you think the band has any guiding principles, things you went in wanting to do that you’ve kept doing?
We knew we wanted it to be fun, first and foremost. We wanted to be true to ourselves, and be honest about what we’re doing and who we are. It just grows from one thing to the next.

When you play live — at the Fillmore in San Francisco last year is a great example of this — you walk in and lay claim to the room. It always seems like every night you play like it’s the last show of your life.
Definitely. We watched and took notes and that’s pretty much the description of everybody I’ve ever liked, everybody who did it right. You just look at what works and what doesn’t, and that’s what you have to do.

Being on the road makes it pretty easy to slip into the party mode every night.
It’s a lot easier not to when you get older. I’m 39 and at a certain point you think, ‘I could go to this after party or I could not’.

Or I could go to the hotel room and sit in a hot shower and feel more human.
That’s it. We try to separate what we are personally from what we are onstage. We try to be ourselves but that’s this life and this is our life. I don’t really mind as long as the image isn’t negative.

You have a reputation for being a bunch of rabble-rousers, with a bottle of whiskey on stage and such. Is it tiring to be seen that way?
Being seen that way doesn’t get tiring, actually doing it wears my ass out.