Prior to launching Drive-By Truckers, Alabama natives Hood and Cooley (from Muscle Shoals and nearby Tuscumbia, respectively) had already played to-gether in a number of different projects, including a six-year stint in a regional punk outfit of some notoriety called Adam’s House Cat.
So their chemistry was there from the start when they formed the Drive-By Truckers in Athens, Ga., in 1996, and it has only further deepened since then.
Although Hood wrote and sang most of the band’s songs early on, in time the two guitarists would begin splitting frontman duties to great effect, with Hood’s weaving of murky tales over ominous arrangements perfectly counterbalanced by Cooley’s generally more up-tempo and melodic tunes (which have rightfully earned him comparisons to Georgia icon Dickey Betts).
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7 – Issue 2) Eighteen years and 14 albums down the line from their formation, the Drive-By Truckers have come a long way from their salad days as scrappy hicks with serious licks playing barroom country rock — and arguably just as far from their turn-of-the-century breakout as the whiskey-soaked poster band for a latter-day breed of Southern rock.
Of course there’s more than trace elements of both still hard-wired into the band’s sonic DNA to this day, but over the span of their nearly two-decade run, the Truckers have covered nearly as much stylistic ground as they have burned through lineup changes, moving from triple-guitar-blazing rock anthems to Gothic Americana to Memphis soul.
The one constant, from their 1998 debut, Gangstabilly, through to this year’s English Oceans, is the nucleus of co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and their shared affinity for a poetic, literate form of Southern storytelling, often steeped in blood, lust, murder, addiction, and all manner of other uncomfortable things.
Mixing the artfulness of William Faulkner with the grizzly elements of Larry Brown — and instrumental finesse and firepower to match both extremes — Hood, Cooley, and the rest of the Drive-By Truckers make music that reflects the Southern American experience in all of its “misunderstood glory” without ever hoisting the Rebel flag.
It was the late-90s, boom times for “alt-country” bands playing to the No Depression set, but the Truckers stood apart from their peers by merit of the fact that they never came across like heart-sleeved sentimentalists with Black Flag posters on their walls; they were genuine Jack Daniels-swigging, cigarette-smoking creek-stompers with grinding riffs, swampy rhythms, and twisted tales of people most folks would rather not know.
But as fresh (and loud) as the Truckers sounded on those early releases (which we’ll come back to in a bit), it was their third studio album that proved to be the proverbial big one — and not by accident, either.2001’s Southern Rock Opera (originally self-released on the band’s own Soul Dump Records label, but picked up for wider distribution the following year by Lost Highway) was epic by design, with 20 songs sprawled across two CDs totaling 94 minutes of music — and all of it devoted to a single overarching theme.On the surface, much of the album plays out like a straight-forward tribute to the legacy of Southern rock gods Lynyrd Skynrd, from Act I’s rollicking “Ronnie and Neil,” which examines Ronnie Van Zandt’s misunderstood relationship with Neil Young, to the handful of songs closing Act II detailing Skynyrd’s infamous 1977 “Greenville to Baton Rouge” plane flight that ended in tragedy.But as forthright as the Skynrd influence may be throughout Southern Rock Opera (both lyrically and especially musically), the album’s real theme is far more complex.Hood calls it “the duality of the Southern Thing” — a messy tangle of contradictions including pride and shame, hope and resignation, celebration and damnation.For infamous Alabama governor George Wallace, the damnation is literal, with fellow “Southerner” the Devil himself summoned up in one song to jovially sing, “Throw another log on the fire, boys, George Wallace is a comin’!