What the Drive-By Truckers created: a gorgeous, sprawling, Alabama-centric, two-CD rock epic loosely based on Lynyrd Skynyrd, literally titled Southern Rock Opera.
What the Drive-By Truckers destroyed: their lives.
Musicians, you see, are complete assholes -- self-centered, stubborn, megalomaniacal. They chase absurd rock-god fantasies by piling into a beat-up van and blowing straight outta town, leaving behind families, wives, sons, daughters, pets, and phone bills as they prance around the country. In the single-minded pursuit of public adoration, they leave a flaming wreck of complete personal destruction. Sometimes this destruction takes on epic Fleetwood Mac-ian proportions: roadies blowing cocaine up your ass, etc. Other times it's your marriage that blows out.
The Truckers ain't famous yet, but they're gettin' there. The Alabama quintet channels classic Skynyrd excess with three hugely talented singer-songwriter-guitarists in the mix. The independently released Southern Rock Opera blew everyone's drawers off in 2001, but this year's vastly superior Decoration Day (bolstered by an actual record label, New West) has cemented these dudes as hard-rockin' saviors for those who enjoy the intelligence and empathy of alt.country but can't stomach all the wussiness.
They're kickin' ass, takin' names. But if it means calamity, misery, divorce -- is it really worth it?
Only one possible answer to that question, folks: "Hoooooooo!"
"Hoooooooo!" exclaims singer and guitarist #1, Patterson Hood. "That's a cold-blooded question that probably inspires a somewhat cold-blooded answer. I did a lot of soul-searching, particularly immediately after all the shit went down and everybody's getting divorced -- one of the older of the rock 'n' roll clichés, you know, the band hits the road and everything goes to shit at home and they write an album about it. That aspect of it makes me almost cringe, really.
"But in the end," he continues, "I really don't feel like any of us had a choice. And that's kind of the hard and cold. Whether it's worth it or not is almost beside the point, unfortunately."
The Truckers had been battering away since the early '90s with low-radar, absurdly titled indie releases: Gangstabilly, the ingenious Pizza Deliverance. But it all exploded on Opera, a literate and evocative head trip though the Skynyrd myth and "the duality of the Southern thing," pulling no punches as it confronted the pride and shame that come with a Deep South mailing address. Opera is often a grim, doomed affair -- it kicks off with a gory car crash, and any Skynyrd fan who hits the song "Shut Up and Get on the Plane" can see the next two songs comin'. But evidently recording it was far more harrowing -- on the cusp of their Big Breakout, everyone's personal lives finally dissolved. Years of Holy Grail-chasing and homeland-ignoring will do that; Hood acknowledges his stubbornness but stops short of apologizing.
"There's really not a goddamn thing that I know how to do worth a shit enough to make a decent living at it," he says. "Early on, we felt like we had somethin'. Somethin' that we had all kinda really been looking for all our lives. We had gotten to that point where if we were gonna see this thing through, we had to quit our jobs and get on the road and go make this thing happen. And we were all in our thirties, and none of us were getting any younger ... this is our chance. And everybody back home was sayin', 'Oh, follow your dreams,' but a year into it, everybody back home's not quite so happy. Bills aren't getting paid, and everyone starts really resenting the amount of time we're having to put into chasing our dreams. I certainly can't blame my ex-wife for not seeing it through."
That toxic atmosphere birthed Decoration Day, written at the height of the Truckers' personal misery. Hood kicks it off with "The Deeper In," a character study of the only brother-sister duo currently in jail for incest. "Sink Hole" is a kill-the-banker-who-foreclosed-our-family-farm fantasy. From there it's on to "Hell No I Ain't Happy," with a two-song suicide suite and the somber joyless-marriage closer "Loaded Gun in the Closet" left to go.
"This record was written during kinda the worst possible time in our lives," Hood says. "Fortunately it's kinda in the past, and everybody's doin' a whole lot better now. But at the time we were writing these songs, we were all pretty miserable. A song like 'My Sweet Annette' [about an asshole who ditches his bride at the altar to elope with the maid of honor] ... the story it tells may be a fictional story, and the POV may be somebody other than myself, but at the same time, the way he was feeling about what happened was probably pretty parallel to how I was feelin' about my situation at the time I was getting divorced. I would say it's kind of emotionally autobiographical, even though the stories aren't."
What breaks up this misery? The obvious relief with which it was recorded: By the time it came time to commit Decoration Day to tape, the internal disasters had blown over. Hood describes it as a "magical experience" -- the suicide tunes are broken up by a studio outtake of the dudes standing around laughing. A new-blood transfusion helps, too: Singer/guitarist #2, Jason Isbell, recently joined the band and delivers a welcome mid-twenties youthful exuberance. He supplies Decoration Day's warmest moment: "Outfit," an earnest platter of advice from a gruffly loving father to his grown-up, starry-eyed son: Don't call what you're wearing an outfit/Don't ever say your car is broke/Don't sing with a fake British accent/Don't act like your family's a joke/Have fun but stay clear of the needle/Call home on your sister's birthday/Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus/Don't give it away.
"That was pretty much actual stuff that he said to me growin' up," Isbell says. His dad wrote it as a Father's Day present, and to that end it's worked splendidly. "I think one of the magazine articles said that'd I'd written the song based on advice that I'd gotten from my 'wisdom-filled father.' So at work now he makes everybody call him 'The Wisdom-Filled Father.' And he won't answer to anything else. It's pretty hilarious."
The new guy is aware of the calamity he's wandered into. "I've always kinda had in the back of my mind that if I was gonna be a musician, I was gonna have to either deal with a strange personal life or deal with estranged members of my family," he says. "That's just kinda how it works. So far everything with me is goin' real well. I'm married, and I still live in Alabama, and I've kinda got the home life thing to come back to when I'm off the road. Makes it a little easier to manage my personal business."
It's not naive, but it's certainly idealistic. But as Mike Cooley, singer/guitarist #3, puts it on Decoration Day's "Marry Me," "Rock 'n' roll means well, but it can't help tellin' young boys' lies." Cooley is the Truckers' knockout-punch specialist, with a vicious knack for distilling the band's mindset into one brutal line. If that one doesn't do it for you, try "I might as well have slipped that ring on your finger from a window of a van as it drove away." That tune, "Sounds Better in the Song," is undoubtedly the record's most drop-dead miserable moment -- the slow demise of a relationship via rock-god hallucination: Dreams are given to you when you're young enough to dream them/Before they can do you any harm/They don't start to hurt until you try to hold on to them/After seeing how they really are.
What's weird is that Cooley's relationship actually survived the Southern Rock Opera calamity. "I was the only one who didn't get a divorce or split up or have some major trauma," he says. "That was the funny thing. We had our problems, yeah, and that's where that song came from, but I was the only one who didn't end in a total shipwreck."
Still, Cooley has just raised the stakes. He's talking during a brief between-tour breather: "Yeah, chillin' out -- we're takin' a little time off right now so I can have a baby and figure out what to do with it." John Ross Cooley is two and a half weeks old now, and Mike realizes one day he might be the inspiration for a fatherly advice tune like Outfit. "Dad is an easy character to write about -- he really is," he says. "Everybody has somethin' colorful to say about their old man. No matter how much they loved him or hated him or how good or decent or sorry he was. Everybody's got a colorful story. That's kind of our job. I've been sittin' here thinkin'. I've got a son now, and I'm like, 'What's his story gonna be for me? What's gonna be the sickest thing I ever do?'"
Maybe chasing rock-star glory is sick enough.