Drive-By Truckers: Light It Up

 
Our band is a democracy. Sometimes that can be a train wreck and messy but when it works it's a thing of beauty. Hey, democracy is great when nobody's voting for Bush.

Patterson Hood

 
Photo by Jason Thrasher

Hold Steady On The Righteous Path

Shonna Tucker by Dave Vann
One of the most striking differences between Brighter Than Creation's Dark and the previous seven albums they've released since forming in 1996 is for the first time there's a female lead vocalist in the mix. Outside of a bit of back-up vocals, Shonna Tucker hadn't shown any serious interest in taking the spotlight. However, attentive listeners snapped to attention when Tucker took a verse on the Truckers' version of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" included on a track-by-track set of covers for Highway 61 Revisited put together by U.K. music magazine Uncut in 2005. A few years later, Tucker contributed three stunning cuts to the latest song cycle that hold their own with the boys AND inject a welcome shot of estrogen into the Truckers' testosterone storm.

"Need it, need it! It's very needed. I'm tired of Cooley having to provide all the feminine energy [laughs]. I've never been as into the whole 'boys club' aspect of it anyway," says Hood. "I'm really thrilled she decided this was the time to do it. Her songs were perfect for this record, and it's really great having this lil' different perspective, too. She's such a fine writer and great singer, definitely one of us [laughs]. She was working on a couple of things in the back room in the studio during A Blessing and A Curse. When we'd walk in she'd just stop. We'd say, 'That's good. Keep going,' but she'd shrug us off."

"It makes it more real, somehow or another. It's great because there's another point of view, and the keys they're in break out of the keys we usually sing in. I'm glad she was feeling creative," adds Cooley with typical succinctness.

"It was a whole new world getting in there and singing. Being around Bettye [LaVette] in the studio last year had an impact because I'd never seen anything like her. Most of the vocals on that album [2007's The Scene of the Crime] are scratch vocals. She really belted it out, and it was clearly an inspiration though I knew I wasn't going to sing like her," chuckles Tucker. "We tracked everything so fast on Brighter Than Creation's Dark that we had some time to let me figure out how I was going to sing. I hadn't really prepared. I just came in and said, 'I have these songs and I'm gonna sing now.' It took a lot of courage to bring songs to them because I respect those guys so much as songwriters. It made me very happy when they were willing to do my songs. The recent three night run [at 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA] was an incredible purging. I feel I'm ready to get up in front of audiences now."

The Stroker Ace
As for the reduction in overall testosterone, "Everything is about balance. You can't just sit on the seesaw by yourself," observes Tucker. "Who would have ever thought a female would be in this band anyway? I'd have never guessed that. I just do what I do the best I can. If it works it works, if it doesn't, it doesn't. So far, so good."

Tucker wasn't the only one feeling her oats on Creation's Dark, Mike Cooley, one of rock's secret weapons, had an unprecedented creative explosion. There's something innately rock 'n' roll about the guy – the leather jacket, foot on the amp, hugging the lip of the stage, guitar hoisted skyward – that translates to his compositions.

"I couldn't agree more. He's a prickly pear [laughs]. He was kind of a child prodigy guitar player. He was a bluegrass guitar player as a little boy, and was on local TV on a morning bluegrass show this old guy used to have at like seven in the morning. Cooley would go in there before school and sit in, and he was only about nine-years-old," says Hood. "I've always felt strongly about his writing but he doesn't write a lot. He's a two-song-a-year guy usually, but he came in this time with so many songs, every one of them as good as the two-a-years or maybe even better. It's pretty phenomenal to me. I've always been a huge fan of the songs he writes in our band. They're musically interesting to play and his wordplay always kind of amazes me."

Totally screwed
While chicken wing puke eats the candy apple red off his Corvette
Three dimes down and 25 cents shy of a slice of the Doublemint twins
Come back baby, Rock and Roll never forgets

-From Cooley's "3 Dimes Down" on Creation's Dark

"Sometimes I'll get on a roll but usually in the past if I've got four or five songs on a record they're written over a couple of years," explains Cooley. "We finally just got off the road. I've read this about other bands that say they don't write on the road. I read that about Tom Petty recently but when he's at home he's a song-a-day guy. The day-in, day-out schedule you keep on tour just doesn't allow the space. We had almost four months totally off and we didn't crank back up touring until the spring of '07. It was also the first time ever where we had that much time off and I didn't have a new baby, and you're not gonna write any new songs when you have one of those! This time, I wrote seven songs and got my wife pregnant again [laughs]. During this [current] hiatus I'm not going to write any songs and go get a vasectomy."

You Got To Frame It Just Right

The title of the new record is very poetic and evocative in just four words, but it's also a tongue twister one suspects many will flub.

"Our record label had it up on their website as Brighter Than Creation for a while. That's the record label that actually owns it and gets to make money off it [laughs]. We had the hardest time naming this record," says Hood. "We got along so famously making it, the most natural and organic thing ever, and when it came time to name it we flat out couldn't get a consensus. We finally narrowed it down to four titles nobody hated. We wanted it to be unanimous because everything else on the record had been. There wasn't a single decision that'd been a majority vote. It was always unanimous, and that had never happened before. Our band is a democracy. Sometimes that can be a train wreck and messy but when it works it's a thing of beauty. Hey, democracy is great when nobody's voting for Bush [laughs]. Finally, I called Wes Freed and called out the titles to him. When I said [Brighter Than Creation's Dark], he said, 'I don't care what you name the damn thing. I'm gonna paint that!' Alright, that's the name!"

Wes Freed is an integral part of their story, especially since the band came to national attention in 2001 with Southern Rock Opera.

"He's an underrated part of our story. He's just an amazing artist. It's been one of those great relationships that benefits everyone involved. I couldn't be more proud of what he does as an artist and getting to be part of that," says Hood. "I never give him any input or tell him what to draw or what direction to turn. I have a theory that if I leave him alone he'll come up with something better than what I can think up."

Animated, rabblerousing skeletons are a reoccurring theme in Freed's work with the Truckers.

"Ever since I started drawing I've done skeletons like that. One of my earliest influences was Harryhausen's 7th Voyage of Sinbad movie where he's fighting skeletons. Ever since that I've been in love with skeletons. It's not some kind of death fetish or anything. The design elements of the human skeletal system and just that bony-ness lends itself to line drawing and painting," says Freed. "They kind of exist in a gray area. You don't see many bones actually. They kind of look like photos I saw as a kid of Civil War prison camp survivors. Their skin was almost melted onto the skeletal frame. A lot of times the skeletons in my drawings don't bend at 90-degree angles. Their arms are kind of wavy. And the skeletons are always drinking and, of course, it would just fall out of the bottom of their mouth. You've seen that in cartoons when they try. But my guys have to drink because they couldn't survive otherwise. They exist in a world of their own."

The imagery and mythology of Southern culture also permeates Freed's richly detailed illustrations.

"I was immersed in this culture as a kid. My grandfather filled my head with stories of his uncles that were actually in the [Civil] War in the cavalry. As I got older I figured out that some of the stories he told were things that actually happened to various historical people. He'd kind of cut-and-pasted over their names, which is kind of cool. You should never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Sitting at his knee, listening to these stories, defined me in many ways, at least artistically."

Continue reading for more on the Drive-By Truckers...


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