“If we took a year off, a real honest to God year off, it’d drive us all insane. We’d all be dead by the end of it. The five of us have done this because it’s cathartic, and it’s a release for us to work on these things. It’s very, very good for our well-being. It works better than anti-depressants.”
For almost a decade now, the Drive-By Truckers have written their songs anywhere and everywhere, mostly because that’s what their schedule has commanded. Songs are born aboard vans, at soundchecks, in darkened studios after everyone’s locked up for the night. Last summer, during sessions for the Truckers’ seventh album, Mike Cooley even wrote one while strolling through a field somewhere in North Carolina.
Sure, that’s a romanticized notion — songwriter communes with nature, finds muse — but there’s testimony from credible sources. “I’m just out having a cigarette,” recalls drummer Brad Morgan, “and I look and there’s Cooley out there in the field, walking around with an acoustic guitar. I thought, ‘Wish I had a camera for that.’”
Bassist Shonna Tucker saw it too, wondering all the while what the hell was going on. “But he came back [to the studio], grabbed a guitar and started playing ‘Gravity’s Gone,’” she relates. “We were like, ‘All right,’ and recorded it that day.”
And so it goes, another song in the life of one of the best bands in America. “Gravity’s Gone” ended up as the second track on A Blessing And A Curse, released April 18 on New West Records. The Truckers’ seventh album is leaner and meaner than its predecessors but hasn’t suffered any corresponding loss of muscle mass. As usual, its songs were contributed by the band’s three writers, singers and guitarists: Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell, and Cooley — who, incidentally, wants absolutely nothing to do with any of this roving-the-wilderness stuff.
“Well, I was probably wandering around the field,” he admits, in a speaking voice not far from what Darth Vader might have sounded like if the Galactic Empire were based in northwestern Georgia. “But I don’t know what I was thinking about.”
Which is true enough to form. Ask about the creation of the new record, the secluded North Carolina studio where it was recorded, the effect of a small army of babies on the songwriting, or the fundamental differences between laying down an album in Carolina vs. their Athens, Georgia, base or their spiritual home of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and the answers all seem to be that no one really beats themselves up thinking about it all that much. “As far as the band and the development of it, I’ve always left it alone,” said Cooley. “I’m not gonna change that now.”
But a number of changes did happen during the year or so that produced A Blessing And A Curse, including a few of the big, life-changing and frequently drooling variety. To borrow a line from Cooley, he and Hood both “multiplied” — Cooley had a son, his second, and Hood had his first daughter.
“She sings along to records all the time,” Hood says, adopting a sweet, fatherly tone. “If the music stops, she wants to know why.”
“Seeing those guys really getting into the family mode is great,” adds Morgan. “You can hear it in the writing.”
There’s more. Isbell and Tucker, who married in 2003, bought their first house together in Alabama. Hood and Isbell stayed busy with solo tours and side projects. Last August, Cooley and Hood marked twenty years of playing together — in true Trucker fashion, on the clock. “All we did was acknowledge it for out homecoming shows, and that was pretty much the extent of it,” said Hood.
The band initially planned to take 2005 off, as their professional world had finally stopped spinning enough to allow for such a thing. “There was some road burnout in there,” Cooley admitted. But it didn’t take long for the wheels to roll again. As gifted as they are when it comes to songwriting and performing, the Drive-By Truckers are spectacularly lousy vacationers.