Drive-By Truckers all revved up for success
By ALAN SCULLEY
For the Call
For a glimpse into how life has changed within the Drive-By Truckers, look no further than the contrasts between the making of the band's 2001 two-CD epic, "Southern Rock Opera," and the band's newly released CD, "Decoration Day."
The ambitious "Southern Rock Opera" was a thematically linked work that examined what it meant to be from the South and the contradictions that come with being raised in the region, all funneled through a story line that chronicled the rise and tragic end of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd and what that band meant to rock fans from the South.
Hoping to capture a live sound, band members Patterson Hood (vocals/guitar), Mike Cooley (vocals/guitar), Rob Malone (guitar), Brad Morgan (drums) and Earl Hicks (bass) endured plenty of hardships making "Southern Rock Opera."
"The majority of the record was recorded in a warehouse in Birmingham, Ala., during a heat wave, which there was no air conditioning," Hood said. "We didn't even have fans. Fans would bleed into the mikes, so we had to turn everything off. So we would just get up there in this sweat box and do take after take after take, which was something that none of us had ever really wanted to do. But we felt like for that record it was just kind of the way it had to be."
The recording experience coincided with one of the most tumultuous times within the group on a personal level.
"During that time frame, I got divorced and another member of the band got divorced and another member of the band broke up with a long-term girlfriend," Hood recalled. "Everybody's personal lives were in a pretty bad state of turmoil. We also had a couple of pretty close friends commit suicide during that time. So it was just a really bad period of our lives."
The various personal travails, not surprisingly, spilled over to life within the group, which made touring behind "South-ern Rock Opera" that much more challenging. "We're all cooped up together 150 to 200 dates a year on the road ...," Hood said. "It caused us eventually to start taking it out on each other and blaming each other for things we probably shouldn't (have)," Hood said. "So it's just kind of inevitable that it's going to be pretty taxing on the band as a whole."
One casualty of the period was Malone, who left the band before the recording of "Decoration Day." Guitarist Jason Isbell joined and, in fact, wrote the title song to the new CD. Despite all the difficulties, "Southern Rock Opera" became a breakthrough CD for the band, which formed in 1996 and self-released three other CDs, "Gangstabilly" (1998), "Pizza Deliverance" (1999) and the concert recording "Ala-bama Ass Whuppin'" (1999), before making "Southern Rock Opera."
By contrast, the "Decoration Day," experience so far has been much smoother. For one thing, in recording the CD the Drive-By Truckers were able to use a conventional studio and had more time and a larger budget with which to work.
"It was a pretty amazing experience making this one, making 'Decoration Day,'" Hood said. "And we decided early on that for 'Decoration Day' we wanted to record each individual song in the way that best served that song as opposed to trying to have it fit as a whole and all be a sonically a certain way for the whole thing like the 'Southern Rock Opera' was. This was a much more song-oriented record as opposed to a performance-oriented record."
Musically, "Decoration Day" presents perhaps the band's most varied set of songs and most developed songwriting.
Songs like "Marry Me" and "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" recall the robust, decidedly Southern rock of "Southern Rock Opera."
But elsewhere, the group branches out. "The Deeper In" is a slow, mournful opener spiced by steel guitar. "My Sweet Annette," an easygoing romp, recalls the country-ish touches of the band's first two CDs. The gentle "Heathens" neatly blends country and pop stylings.
Thematically, however, many songs on "Decoration Day" reflect the upheaval that had occurred within the band leading up to recording. For instance, "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" chronicles the wear and tear of the road, while "Sounds Better in the Song," captures the pain of losing a special girl.
The recording sessions themselves for "Decoration Day," though, featured none of that sort of turmoil.
"We were kind of getting our act together as far as getting along with each other and kind of pulling it together,'' Hood said. "So by the time we went into record it last spring and the beginning of last summer, we were really probably in the best shape we'd ever been in as a band ... Pretty much once we hit the studio and hit record, it was pretty magical. Despite how dark the songs sound, we had a really great time making the record."
The Drive-By Truckers play Sept. 16 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room, 6504 Delmar Blvd. Tickets for the 9 p.m. show cost $10 in advance and $12 the day of the show.