The Drive-By Truckers' live shows once played like a songwriters-in-the-round session with electric guitars and increasingly empty bottles of Jack Daniels. Then Jason Isbell came along -- and it only got better.
This column's regular readers have probably noticed that I usually find a way to mention the Drive-by Truckers. What can I say? They're one of my favorite bands. Their best songs contain the best kind of lyrics -- the sort that kickstart your noggin on some creative path of its own. And then there's that three-guitar attack of theirs: the last time I saw them live, it was after a day of sitting through a 401(k) meeting, and those road-caked chords washed over me like summer rain on a parched landscape. Heck, it doesn't even have to be that dramatic. Sometimes after listening to CD after CD of brittle indie rock, it's just time for an epic guitar solo.
The Athens, Georgia-based band has been on a bit of a roll for most of the decade. Southern Rock Opera (2001) heralded a new approach for the band. The album raked in accolades for its "concept" of depicting life on the road for a fictional Lynyrd Skynyrd-type rock band, but Southern Rock Opera has since revealed itself as a sharp-eyed chronicle of growing up bored and restless in the South. While the album's double-disc length characterized the Truckers' patented sprawl by including a few songs could have been left off, its top-tier songs like "Zip City", "Let There Be Rock", and "Women Without Whiskey" showed principal songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley making huge strides as songwriters. Some prefer the unapologetic grittiness of earlier albums like 1998's Gangstabilly and 1999's Pizza Deliverance, but cast in the hindsight of Southern Rock Opera and the albums that came after it, the band's early efforts sound more like blueprints than anything else. In at least one interview, Hood credited one of those early songs, the AIDS narrative "The Living Bubba", for showing him what the band was truly capable of.
While the Truckers were still gaining accolades for Southern Rock Opera, 2003's Decoration Day introduced the songwriting chops of the band's newest member, Jason Isbell. It was hard not to act like the band had suddenly achieved its perfect configuration. Isbell's maiden Trucker songs, "Decoration Day" and "Outfit", were both textbook examples of the "old soul in a young body" archetype. "Decoration Day", a chronicle of the brutality and bitterness of a generations-spanning family feud, and "Outfit", with its Polonius-meets-the-trailer park fatherly advice, seemed especially profound for a 24-year-old songwriter. Over the course of his Truckers tenure, Isbell wouldn't reach those heights again, but he didn't fall short by much. "Danko/Manuel", "The Day John Henry Died", and "Goddamn Lonely Love" (all from 2004's The Dirty South) will be Isbell concert staples for years to come. Fanwise, he introduced a new element into the "who's the best Truckers songwriter" argument that had formerly contained clear lines between Hood's rock-'n'-roll-as-salvation narratives and Cooley's Keith-Richards-meets-the-corner-bar persona. Praise for Isbell often made it sound like the Truckers had never even existed -- or at least were pale shadows of their new selves -- before Isbell joined the fold.
As anyone even remotely familiar with the band knows, Isbell left the Truckers in 2007 to pursue a solo career. Some were surprised. Some considered it inevitable. His departure set off no small amount of debate about the band's future, as if Hood and Cooley would suddenly have to start learning how to write songs, like they were Jagger and Richards forcing themselves past covering blues staples. Even today, you can get a pretty decent flame war started on some message boards merely by mentioning Isbell's name.
As for the Truckers? Well, they certainly existed before Isbell, and they exist afterwards. For their first post-Isbell album, Brighter Than Creation's Dark (2008), they looked over to the spot where Isbell once stood and saw in his place not only multi-instrumentalist John Neff, but also legendary songwriter/keyboardist Spooner Oldham (fresh from the band's triumphant work on Bettye LaVette's The Scene of the Crime). Smartly, they adapted their sound to the presence of organ and pedal steel and created the least guitar-intensive album of their entire catalog. Brighter Than Creation's Dark sprawls in typical Trucker fashion (19 songs clocking in around 75 minutes), but Cooley songs like "Ghost to Most", "Three Dimes Down", and "Self Destructive Zones" show a previously unsuspected talent for midtempo kinda-rockers, while Hood rediscovers some of his righteous anger with scorchers like "The Righteous Path" and "The Man I Shot".
Thematically, Brighter Than Creation's Dark doesn't recall the thick narrative threads that defined earlier records like Southern Rock Opera (rock 'n' roll and growing up), Decoration Day (daddy and death), or The Dirty South (daddy, death, and Buford Pusser), but it's not a loose collection of songs, either. The bandmembers' status as family men obviously informs songs like "The Righteous Path", "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife", and "Daddy Needs a Drink", while Cooley has a seemingly endless supply of songs about both rock 'n' roll and about circling an existential drain. What's more, the album introduced the raw but promising songwriting abilities of Isbell's ex-wife and Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker, who contributed three songs.
The band's live shows have also undergone a transformation. After a few albums with Isbell, each show seemed like a songwriters-in-the-round session, only with electric guitars and increasingly empty bottles of Jack Daniels. Isbell, Hood, and Cooley would each take turn throughout the show singing one of his best songs, and fans of each songwriter usually went home happy. After seeing them without Isbell, though, it becomes quickly apparent how limiting that setup might have been.
On the night I saw them on the current Brighter than Creation's Dark tour, the set list borrowed heavily from the new album, which is to be expected. Usual favorites were in short supply (no "Zip City", and obviously no Isbell material). But I and many other fans were probably unprepared for the brooding angst that defined the set list, instead of the tried-and-true "hoist your beers and holler" material. Setlist-wise, it was cohesive in a way that I hadn't seen since the Dirty South tour, when they loaded up on songs inspired by the Walking Tall films. The dissonance of "You and Your Crystal Meth" grew into a droning beast of a song, literally turning into the centerpiece of the set, while lighter fare like "I'm Sorry Huston", "The Opening Act", and "Checkout Time in Vegas" maintained tension by keeping the set from roaring with nothing but guitar-driven rockers. Cooley, for his part, was laying down his patented mix of bluntness ("Mama said a lot of things / And 'be thankful' was the one she never minded saying twice / Thanks to her I can think clear enough / To be thankful that she died before tonight") and obscure whiskey-bottle kōans (in the context of "Ghost to Most", you kinda know what "skeletons ain't got nowhere to stick their money / nobody makes britches that size" means, but to some degree, you're left to construct your own meaning).
Perception-wise, the show is different as well. The stage lighting, which now employs more backlighting than before, silhouettes Cooley in a way that emphasizes his sleepy-eyed swagger. When Hood or Tucker are singing, he hangs back in the shadows, backlit and surrounded by curls of smoke; it's like watching some Alabama-grown strain of dragon lurking at the mouth of its lair. Hood, for his part, smiles that 100-watt smile of his while striking various Christ-like poses or raising one hand as if he's touched by the Spirit. But the stage seems a little lopsided now. When he wasn't singing, Isbell played the role of guitar god to the hilt, effortlessly laying down stinging slide lines and playing to the crowd (the loss of his slide guitar is especially evident on Cooley's thundering "Where the Devil Don't Stay"). Neff, on the other hand, is a much more mannered presence. He can play the hell out of the guitar and the pedal steel, but he doesn't seem to possess Isbell's ego (in the good, playing-to-the-crowd way).
Jason Isbell, live in April 2007
(photo by Tim Bugbee)
Likewise, Isbell, touring extensively with his band, the 400 Unit, has the opportunity to take the fame he gained as a member of the Drive-by Truckers and use it to forge his own solo identity. He seems to be taking the inevitable Truckers questions with a good-natured sense of inevitability, but at the same time, he makes no bones that he's on his own now. At the moment, none of the parties involved seem to be in any danger of stumbling.