Drive-By Truckers: Mercy Buckets

By: Dennis Cook

The Truckers are currently out on the road bringing their glorious rock show to cities far and wide. Their next show is Wednesday, March 2, in Reno, NV, followed by gigs in Las Vegas (3/3) and a two-night stand in San Francisco (3/4-3/5). Find full tour dates here.

Drive-By Truckers by Danny Clinch
Go-Go Boots (released February 15 on ATO) may be the most idiosyncratic, oddly compelling album in the Drive-By Truckers’ long, circuitous run. The band has never sounded more relaxed yet simultaneously focused on showcasing one of their finest attributes, the warts ‘n’ all truth telling etched with details that make their stories breathe and sigh. They let their country side hang out a bit more after the brakes-off rock spirit of last year’s The Big To-Do (JamBase review), which was recorded at the same time as Go-Go Boots. It’s a record no other band could make AND a record unlike anything DBT has done previously.

In broad strokes, Go-Go Boots suggests what might have occurred if Tom Waits grew up south of the Mason-Dixon, or perhaps the songs that might have flowed if Tony Joe White had mixed in a little belladonna with his Old No. 7. There’s grime and jealousy and also great love running through this song cycle, which also confirms what a together, effective lineup the Truckers are rockin’ these days. The ensemble exhibits a depth and sensitivity of playing that’s interlocked without being showy, going delicate more often than raging loud. It’s fitting since nothing on their latest seems even slightly forced or premeditated, everything shoulder rolling with confidence and clarity, even through the darkest of alleyways in the human mind.

We sat down with singer-guitarist-songwriter Patterson Hood to discuss the Truckers’ current chapter and where the band finds itself 15 years into their journey.

JamBase: One of the things I’ve always dug and admired about you and the rest of the Truckers is how you’re still big music fans. You still get excited about other bands and new music, which is rare when one has been slogging away in this industry for a couple decades. It’s more common for folks to be bitter, grumpy, closed off, etc.

Patterson Hood by Jake Krolick
Patterson Hood: I understand how that happens but I’ve always rebelled against that and fought hard to not let that happen to me. I got into this because I love it so much. There have certainly been points in time along the way when it’s easy to see how people fall out of love with it. We had a pretty dark time a few years back where we all kinda hated it. And I woke up one day and thought, “This is blasphemous! I’m doing what I’ve always dreamed of doing, and I’m doing it semi-successfully. Why am I not happy?” Taking a step back sometimes is a good thing, so you can look at the big picture to see what you need to change to fix the things that are taking away from what should otherwise be an amazing thing. It is a great job, even though sometimes it is very much a job. It’s something I work at.

JamBase: What do you think turned the corner for the Truckers? What brought you guys through, because you seem to be on a really good tear? The last few years, both in recordings and live shows, the band exhibits a real joyful engagement with what you’re doing.

Patterson Hood: This is the best time in the history of the band, by far. Hopefully the output bears that out. People seem to really like the new record, and the response at shows in the past year has been really, really positive. On our end, from where we sit, it’s definitely the best time we’ve ever had. The experience in the studio making what became these two albums was truly nothing less than joyous. We’d go in everyday for a couple weeks at a time between tours over the course of three months, and we’d start everyday with everyone sitting around drinking coffee and getting our motors runnin’ and discussing where our heads were that day. I had a pretty big stack of songs, Cooley had a few songs and Shona had a few songs, and it was like, “What fits the mood this day?” And that’s where we’d go. Before you know it, we had about 40 songs recorded, which divided pretty easily into two different albums. We’re pretty schizophrenic in our songwriting anyway, so it was pretty easy to split them up into The Big To-Do songs, which were pretty much rock songs, and the others, which were a lil’ meatier and spookier and a lil’ more country-soul influenced, into the Go-Go Boots songs.

Mike Cooley & Shonna Tucker by Jake Krolick
These two records work well as a paired set. You folks are so wonderfully consistent in your quality. I’m not sure that gets celebrated enough in a culture obsessed with newness, strangeness and the like.

It’s funny. I’ve seen artists I love have that so-called “problem.” Oh, there’s a new Richard Thompson record. How is it? Well, it’s really, really, really good like the other 30 Richard Thompson records. I always try to get ‘em all because I love Richard Thompson. His records continue to be great, as do his live shows. So, it’s like it’s been a year and a half. Time for another Truckers record [laughs].

The Truckers could have dedicated themselves to being a total live band years ago, but you put real care and thought into the studio documents you leave behind.

The live show is where we make our living. There may come a time where we see some of that mystical thing they call Mailbox Money, but so far it hasn’t happened. If we’re not out touring, we’re basically broke. And if we’re not out touring for an extended period of time, we’re bankrupt broke. So, the making of the records is really done for the passion of it. By the time we’re done paying for the recording of a record there’s really no money to go around to us, so we don’t really get paid for making the records other than the artistic payment. But I wouldn’t want to be out touring behind a 5-year-old record. I don’t really enjoy touring behind a 2-year-old album. If a percentage of what we’re playing isn’t the newer stuff, well… [sighs]. We don’t have enough hits to be an oldies band [laughs]. I don’t want to be a has-been that never was.

As long as the new songs come, that’s what I’m chasing, and everything else is just to support that. I love playing the show – I absolutely love that – but if there wasn’t new stuff to put into it on a pretty regular basis I think I’d pretty quickly bore of it. It would become work and it’s not fun or inspiring. That happens to some artists. The fans want to hear the hits, though in our case they weren’t exactly hits, though it still applies. There’s a certain pretty big percentage of people that come to see us that want to hear something from five years ago, but I’m not firing with that.

Drive-By Truckers by Danny Clinch
How do you feed that appetite? How do you fire yourself up to deliver the staples fans want to hear night after night?

The upside of having such a crazy prolific 15 year run is we have around a 150 song catalogue that have come out on records. We don’t use a setlist; we decide the first song as we’re walking up to the stage, and from there on for the rest of the night it all happens pretty spontaneously. Figuring out that first song is the hardest part of the night because that song sets the mood. From then on, it’s directed as much by the audience as anything, or how we feel or sound on stage or whatever. That keeps it fresh. So, if one night I’m not feeling “Let There Be Rock” then I don’t play “Let There Be Rock.” Having so many songs, we can still hit enough crowd pleasers on a given night to where it all works for the people out there. The goal is to keep them happy AND us happy. They pay the bills but if we’re not happy then I might as well be working a job.

One of the things that’s continued to make me such a big fan of your music is for all the wide-ranging subject matter the Truckers get to you always have this ability to tap into the frustrations and aspirations of those of us living on the ground, making the sandwiches and scraping by paycheck to paycheck.

We still live that life. We get to do a job we love but we’re still VERY much paycheck to paycheck. If I was to get really sick and had to cancel the next two months of touring, my house might be up for sale. Like I said, there’s no mailbox money, and God forbid, nothing like that happens, but it’s a constant pressure particularly since almost all of us have kids now. There’s actually more Trucker kids than Truckers now! There’s a pretty huge responsibility to keep this thing afloat and moving forward. I don’t really honestly know what else I would do. I’m not really qualified for anything else. I always thought I could make a movie someday, be a film director, but that’s a harder job than the one I’ve got! I’m a terrible line cook and too slow moving to be a waiter – not to mention dudes don’t get good tips – and I’m not a very good bartender, and those are the only things I can think of [laughs].

New Album
You’re a damn good storyteller though. You don’t just write autobiographical stuff, you get under the skin of characters. You get into the heads of people in a way that’s really successful and cinematic.

I think that’s a big key to what our band has done – the frustrated filmmaker – especially me. Cooley may not have that but he writes like he does. His songs are as cinematic as mine, more so sometimes. Speaking of other possible occupations, writing is another one that’s pretty hard to break into. I like to think that at some point I’ll write a book or two, but the publishing world is crazy right now. They’re having worse trouble than the music industry.

It’s hard to imagine you not being up there on stages wielding a guitar. There’s a certain rightness to you and the rest of the Truckers. You look and play just like a rock ‘n’ roll band should. There’s an aura you folks possess that reminds me on a level beyond words of what rock is really about.

Like so many people that end up in bands, I was a misfit kid. I was very unpopular at school. I grew up in Alabama and didn’t like football, so therefore I was a faggot. I thought that was my middle name for about 10 years [laughs]. The first time I ever really felt at home and comfortable was onstage and I was playing. And I’m very, very comfortable in the studio. I love it and would actually love to spend less time on the road and more in the studio, particularly right now with kids. The studio is in my hometown right now, so I could actually sleep in my own bed at night if I do that. The trick is to not let the other aspects take away from the things you love about it.

The studio has grown as a component in the Truckers over time. You can hear things in the way the albums unfold through speakers that allows one to focus in on details the live juggernaut just doesn’t allow.

Drive-By Truckers by Jake Krolick
I totally agree. The live juggernaut is a fun thing to have in your arsenal, but it can also become a trap because quieter moments are harder to achieve in a live setting. The challenge is to fit in as many of those [quiet moments] without losing them. You gotta throw in a “Lookout Mountain” or something like that which makes them go, “Whoooo!” You gotta have the “whooo” or you lose ‘em! With [Go-Go Boots], that’s a lot of why we wanted to put out The Big To-Do first. We wanted to have an album with a lot of those “whooo” moments and then follow it with a weird, left turn record.

As it’s turned out, the weird, left turn record is actually getting the most attention and love, which I’m pretty pleased about. I’m very proud of The Big To-Do and how it turned out, but I always kinda figured we’d use it to pay for the chance to do this Go-Go Boots thing, and it seems like it might be working out to be the opposite. Go-Go Boots might get people to take another look at The Big To-Do and appreciate it more. That’s probably why I could never write a hit song; you never do know what people will latch onto. “Used To Be A Cop” has already gotten more airplay than any song we’ve ever recorded.

And what a strange, really dark song for that to happen with!

It’s seven-and-a-half-minutes long about a guy stalking his wife. It basically takes you on a guided tour of his mental breakdown, and it’s gotten more airplay than anything else we’ve ever done. Go figure! I did always predict that if we ever did reach that next level of success it’d be with something like that, one of those weirder things, because the first success we ever had – I was 36 when it came out – was with Southern Rock Opera. In all honesty, it’s one of the weirdest records anyone has ever made. It’s an odd one. So, it’s better if I don’t think about any of this success stuff and just focus on the songs, which is what I want to do anyway. Where the songs lead me, I go, and I’ll deal with the consequences.

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[Published on: 2/28/11]

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