When presented with the idea that Drive-By Truckers, as a project, is really just one long love song between front men Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, Cooley laughs and says, “it’s a little gross, but I hope they get someone good looking to play me in the movie.”
The two staple songwriters and guitarists of the Athens, Georgia-based band have been trading riffs since childhood and playing together in the Truckers since 1997—damn near 20 years. The Truckers’ latest record, English Oceans, has been widely lauded as one of their best in years. A remarkable feat given that they almost didn’t make it.
“We had to take some time off,” says Cooley. “And we still played a lot of shows but we weren’t touring or going through the new album cycle. So by the time we took some time and started to record we were excited about it again and kind of fired up and ready to do it.”
Fraught with line-up changes and time away for Cooley and Hood to both record solo albums, the Truckers had been on hiatus since 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. Their latest record marks the first one in eight years without bassist Shonna Tucker, who also sang on the last two. Long time pedal steel player John Neff, who’d played on and off with the band since 1998, is absent as well.
English Oceans, though, is in many ways a story of absence—almost gone is the Southern guilt/hangover that was the foundation of previous records which defined the band. This record puts a focus on the here and now, targeting “political assholery” and placing contemporary characters in less bawdy but equally depressive situations. The stories reside in a wider musical space that’s paired down and simpler, but you can still hear signature wailing notes and chainsaw like riffs below into the fold.
“This line-up and the sound—the way we’re playing—does a lot better job of dynamics than we’ve ever done. And you know me and Patterson have probably gotten better at that too,” says Cooley. Indeed, at times the sound blends down so succinctly it almost feels like listening to a three-piece.
On some of the sparser tracks, mind you, the classic stilted cadence and teetering-on-the-bridge-of-being-off-key singing of both Hood and Cooley do become challenging. “When He’s Gone,” “Pauline Hawkins,” and even “Til He’s Dead or Rises” all have very little melody to them. But for the most part it still all just sounds majestically Truckers. “Grand Canyon,” which is dedicated to long time touring partner Craig Lieske—who passed away suddenly—is perhaps the most filled in song on the album. It’s both denser and softer, more emotional, and closer to traditional trucker ballads of the past.
Given the challenges of a career that’s spanned the better part of two decades, Cooley says he’s not the least bit concerned with keeping it fresh or minding people’s expectations. “I don’t at all get caught up in what people are expecting or what they might think. You can really stifle yourself if you do that.” Which is perhaps exactly why something that could easily sound like a dead horse being flogged after all these years, is at its best.
Drive-By Truckers play the Vogue with Shovels and Rope April 22nd.
By Matt Coté