Words to Drive By: The Drive-By Truckers respond to a tumultuous year with personal bests, band firsts, and perhaps the best album of their career.
by Brian Baker
There’s an old observation in creative circles that it’s easier to fashion art from pain than from contentment. If that’s true, then it‘s hardly a surprise that the Drive-By Truckers’ new album, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, is a work that stands with the band’s first acknowledged masterpiece, 2001’s Southern Rock Opera.
The recent upheaval in the Truckers’ camp gave the band a masterpiece’s worth of inspiration. The divorce of guitarist Jason Isbell and bassist Shonna Tucker cemented Isbell’s decision to part ways with the band and launch his solo career, which in turn gave the Truckers the perfect opportunity to reassess what they would do next and how they could accomplish it. Among those decisions included bringing old guitarist/steel pedalist John Neff back into the fold and inviting legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham to contribute to not only a fair portion of the new album but also to accompany the Truckers on their acclaimed The Dirt Underneath acoustic tour late last year.
“He’s become such an integral part of the band in such a short period of time,” say Hood of Neff. “I’ve loved having Neff as part of the band, it’s an amazing chemistry. The chemistry between himself and Spooner is a thing all by itself. You could build a whole record around just that. We love playing with him. He’s phenomenal and he’s such a big part of our new record, too. He’s on just about every song.”
The fact that Creation’s Dark received its first official christening in an acoustic setting might have given some the impression that everything on the album was flavored that way, but that is clearly not the tone of the songs. In fact, Hood is the first to admit that the album may not have a tone.
“It kind of goes all over the map,” Hood explains. “It’s almost like a travelogue of every different sound we have. It’s 19 songs and all 19 are pretty different from each other, yet I think it flows real well. To me, it’s the most cohesive record we’ve made yet, and yet it’s also the most all-over-the-map record we’ve made. And I’m happy about both of those things.”
Hood insists that he and the Truckers didn’t actively set out to do anything specifically different with Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, it just turned out that way organically.
“We just wrote a bunch of songs,” says Hood. “We finally got off the road [in 2006] around Halloween. We’d been touring essentially nonstop since fall of 2001 and it had been like one huge, long tour. We’ve had the most time off this year that we’ve had in the history of this band. We all came home and everybody was worn out and tired; the first month, I don’t think anybody did anything, then all of a sudden, we all started writing. We’d all been through a lot of personal crap, and we had the personnel change happen and we’d been through a lot and it all started coming out in song form. I know I wrote maybe 40 songs in a really short period of time, and [guitarist Mike] Cooley, who’s never been very prolific, wrote like 10 songs, which is huge. He’s been averaging one to two a year and he wrote all these songs that are great — best songs he’s ever written. And Shonna wrote some songs. We knew we were gonna get together in the spring and do the acoustic tour, and we all decided we wanted Spooner to do it with us and we thought, ‘Well, let’s work in these new songs over the course of the tour since we’re going in the studio in June and start working on the record.’ Even then, we didn’t know if we had any great focus or timeline, we were just gonna pick the best of these songs, go in and start recording and see what happens.”
The Truckers’ three week May 2007 tour turned out to be a kamikaze affair as far as the band’s new material was concerned. With a handful of songs already completed and heads full of works in progress, the Truckers hit the road with the intent of honing the new tunes into recordable shape before entering the studio the following month.
“We ended up working up the majority of the record at soundchecks,” says Hood. “We’d work up a new song at soundcheck and premiere it that night at the show, and kind of road test them and iron the kinks out in front of audiences. That went great and everybody seemed to like the new songs and we were really liking what we were doing. By the end of the tour, the show was pretty much all new songs and nobody was complaining about that. I took that as a good sign.”
The Truckers were just as fortunate when they took their newly minted tunes into the studio, just a couple of weeks after some of them had been tweaked and finalized.
“It was almost like throwing it up in the air and it all just landed where it needed to land,” says Hood with a laugh. “It happened so naturally and unforced, which is always best, I think. It kind of formed and shaped itself.”
Amazingly, the Truckers utilized nearly every song they conceived on the road, ultimately deciding that only one of the tunes didn’t quite fit the album’s developing pattern.
“The one song, we went as far as recording a couple of times but we just didn’t really come up with the magic take of it and we decided to leave it off,” says Hood. “Ironically, we still play that one live and it will probably pop up on a future record or a live record or something down the line. But it seems weird to say you have a 19-song record and you stripped it down to just the essentials, but it really kind of was that way. That 20th song was the one we thought we could live without. We probably would have liked to turn in a shorter record and I’m sure our label would have loved for us to turn in a shorter record, but it just wasn’t destined to be. The whole thing adds up to one piece of work and there wasn’t any leaving stuff off.”
Unlike a good many of the Truckers’ efforts over the years, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark is not a concept album with a central theme and some sort of connecting narrative. Rather, it’s a collection of songs that hangs together as a whole, diverse in sonic construction but united under the Truckers’ unique banner. The fact that Hood has done so many themed albums with the Truckers and that he seems to perpetually be thinking about the band’s albums with a conceptualist’s mindset may be the very thing that successfully weaves together the disparate songs on Creation’s Dark.
“There seems to be running themes that keep popping up and it’s extremely cohesive but it’s not a concept record,” says Hood. “It just sounds like one big piece of work, that all the ingredients fit right with. We’ve never recorded a Shonna song before and we’ve got three and they fit perfectly with the record. And we ended up recording seven of Cooley’s songs this time and they’re the best songs he’s ever written and I’ve got nine on there, and I’m as proud of them as anything I’ve ever written. Some of it is really pretty and some of it is kind of primal MC5/Stooges influenced, and it all flows right with each other. There’s definitely a big soul music and R&B influence in a lot of it, and I think that’s always been in our music but never been as noticed, and I’m glad of that.”
Certainly Oldham’s presence on the album had something to do with its rising soul profile, but perhaps just as influential was Hood’s production for and the Truckers’ backing duties on Bettye LaVette’s soul shaking new album, Scene of the Crime, around the time of the tour that spawned the songs on Creation’s Dark. Whatever the cause, the combination of Cooley’s unexpectedly prolific writing phase, Tucker’s first written contributions to the band, and Hood’s amped-up inspiration-by-association coalesced to make Creation’s Dark a smolderingly soulful example of the Drive-By Truckers at their absolute best.
“I’m always a fan of the Cooley songs,” says Hood. “Any given Truckers record, probably my favorite song is something he wrote. And I have to say that I like mine better than usual on this record. I think I hold my own with him a little better than ever on this record. But I’m a huge fan of his writing. If I wasn’t in a band with him, he would be one of my favorite songwriters and one of my favorite artists. That’s why I put up with him [laughs]. 22 years later, I guess I’m not going anywhere. We get along great now, but we haven’t always, but even when we didn’t get along, I was such a fan of what he did, I put up with his sorry ass. He’ll appreciate that.”