The Truckers play and record as a five-piece band for the first time since 2008.
“We couldn’t have made this record with any other lineup,” Patterson Hood says of The Drive-By Truckers’ new English Oceans. People who first encountered the band during the heavy days of Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South will be surprised by the comparatively light sound. The hammer still comes down on “When He’s Gone,” but Mike Cooley’s lead track, “Shit Shots Count,” is the sort of chugging boogie that The Rolling Stones and The Faces specialized in, and “Primer Coat” is their version of jangle pop.
The Drive-By Truckers will play the Civic Theatre Friday and Saturday nights, and the band is down to five pieces again - for the first time since 2008’s A Blessing and a Curse. They’ll be back with the lineup that cut English Oceans, which is also the lineup that played Tipitina’s last year with long-time side man Jay Gonzales playing guitar and keyboards and The Dexateens’ Matt Patton on bass. Guitarist John Neff and bassist Shonna Tucker and the band parted ways, and the results in concert and on the album are nimbler than the Truckers have been in years. Hood gives much of the credit to Patton and his background playing punk and with some of the blues artists on Fat Possum Records. That experience helped him figure out how not step on other musicians, and “Matt brings great energy to the rhythm section,” Hood says. “He locks in great with [drummer] Brad [Morgan].”
The Truckers were a two-guitar band until they began work on Southern Rock Opera, when the retelling of the Lynyrd Skynyrd story necessitated the addition of a third guitarist. That album and the two that followed introduced so many people to the band that they felt obliged to continue as a three-guitar band, even when the songs didn’t need three guitars.
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." Hood says, quoting Kurt Vonnegut Jr. “It never dawned us that we were going to be called a southern rock band.” By the time the album came out, he and Cooley had most of Decoration Day written, and at the time they were more concerned about being considered dilettantes. The Truckers spent much of the next decade trying to get away from the three-guitar monster without turning their back on the albums or their material. When they brought in John Neff to play pedal steel, it was a step in that direction. 2008’s Brighter Than Creation’s Dark broadened their musical palate, and the ensuing tour included keyboard great Spooner Oldham, but that added yet another necessary instrument to the mix, and keyboards became a part of the road band after that.
“It’s all worked out now, but at times it’s been a difficult thing,” Hood says. “We’re a songwriting band; we’ll do whatever we need to serve the songs we write. We never wanted the songs to serve the band.”
Hood is in particularly good spirits these days because things aren’t as stressful has they have been for the last few years. The Truckers recorded The Big To-Do and Go Go Boots at the same time, but relationships were fraying. He hoped they would improve while on tour, but that didn’t happen. When the band with Tucker and Neff played a two-night stand at Tipitina’s in 2011, the experience had become pretty joyless and musically, a band that lumbered onstage.
“I don’t think anybody had much fun in the last several years during that period,” he says. “We needed to get off the goddam machine for a while.” The Truckers had toured more or less constantly since 2001 and the release of Southern Rock Opera, and everybody was worn out. They didn’t know how to take a break and financially, they weren’t sure that they could. The band cut down the number of dates it played, but nobody got a real breather, so tensions festered rather than defused, and that took its toll.
“It was a brutal time,” Hood says. “I don’t know how we kept with it.”
During that time, he remembered making Decoration Day and, as proud as he is of the album, how hard that time was too. The members were broke, drinking too much, having label issues, and management issues. “I looked back on that period and thought, Man, I wish I’d have had fun when things were that good. We went through what’s threatening to be the high point of our career as a band and I didn’t even enjoy it. What a bummer!”
English Oceans was influenced by the band’s debut album, 1999’s Alabama Ass Whuppin’. They had never reissued it, partly because they weren’t very happy with the way it sounded, but also because they couldn’t find the original masters. When they found the half-inch reels with the original mixes, they discovered that the problems were in the mastering. The album reflected a younger, less able band, but it had something Hood wanted to reconnect to. “It captured a raw spirit that that lineup had at that moment,” he says. “Cooley, and Brad and I aren’t the same people we were when we cut that in 1999, but the spirit that comes through on that thing. It was cool to get in touch with that particular moment of our past.”
Because the band finally took some time off, Hood and Cooley came into the sessions with more songs than usual. Cooley contributed six, and for the first time he also sings one of Hood’s songs, “’Til He’s Dead or Rises.” The album is dedicated to Craig Lieske, a long-time member of the Drive-By Truckers’ musical family, and Hood wrote “Grand Canyon” for him while driving into New Orleans last year. “I learned to play it in front of Tip’s,” he says. “I wrote it without a guitar, and then I had to figure out to play it. I sat there for an hour, which is about three times as long as it took to write it.”
While working on the album, Hood felt that a song was missing - that a point of view or thought needed to be represented, and he kept writing trying to get it with no luck. Finally, when the sessions were over and English Oceans was scheduled to be sent off for mastering, he read The Free by Willy Vlautin and immediately wrote “Pauline Hawkins.” It was the missing song, he thought, and the rest of the band agreed that the album needed it and reconvened to record and mix it the day before they had to send it off. That success has had an unexpected byproduct.
“I haven’t written a goddam thing since. The well is dry. I don’t plan on that being forever, but I’ve had no feeling whatsoever in the direction of writing a song after writing that one. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before. Right now there isn’t anything to write for me.”
Hood says he’s the happiest he has been with the band since Decoration Day. “I don’t think it’s clicked like this since ever,” he says. “If we can’t say it with five people, it’s not worth saying.”