Surviving a rough patch: Drive-By Truckers

Boston Globe, March 21, 2008

Last year was a time of transition for the Drive-By Truckers, the Athens, Ga., band with the dual gift for high-octane rocking and magisterial front-porch storytelling. Personnel flux and a sense of fatigue led the group to pare down its sound, perform acoustic gigs, and take time out to serve as backing band on a soul-music project.

But with the brand-new album, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” and a tour that stops at the Paradise Rock Club for a sold-out show tomorrow, DBT, as their fans call them, have emerged from the murk in triumph, making the most mature and emotionally intimate music of their career.

“Brighter” is the band’s eighth album but first since the departure last year of Jason Isbell, who came on board in 2003 and more than held his own alongside co-leaders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley as a writer, singer, and partner in a three-guitar front line.

But Isbell’s departure also opened up new possibilities. Keyboardist Spooner Oldham, a Muscle Shoals session veteran who helped the Truckers back singer Bettye LaVette on her recent album “The Scene of the Crime,” is now part of the regular lineup, as is pedal-steel player John Neff.

But most of all, bassist Shonna Tucker – Isbell’s ex-wife – has stepped up and is now contributing lyrics and vocals, with three tracks, including the standout “Purgatory Line” and the sardonic “Home Field Advantage,” on the new record.

Reached at home in Athens, Hood, the band’s de facto spokesman, says he’s especially proud of this development.

“When Shonna first joined the band, I hoped she would do some singing,” Hood says. “When we made `A Blessing and a Curse’ [the band’s previous record], we were hoping to get one song out of her. But she was going through personal stuff in her life and in the band’s life, and she wasn’t ready to open up at that point.”

Foregrounding a woman’s voice has altered the physiognomy of the band in a way that Hood says was overdue. “The whole boys’ club aspect has its place, but been there, done that,” he says. “I’ve been in a boys’ club for many years, and I’m kind of over it.”

The coed vocal identity has moved DBT onto new ground. Hood points to X, the great Los Angeles band that was co-led by Exene Cervenka and John Doe, as something of a role model for where the band might go next.

Album by album, the Truckers have been negotiating their own ambiguous relationship to their home region and its pantheon of musical icons, sometimes bristling against being pigeonholed by fans or critics in that one particular legacy.

“All that Southern rock talk,” Hood says, throwing in an expletive for emphasis, “Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, that’s not what we’re about at all. Yeah, we grew up with it shoved down our throats as teenagers. But I was more into punk rock and stuff. Then I went back and listened to those bands, Lynyrd Skynyrd in particular, and they made some fine records. And I love good country songwriting like Merle Haggard. But I’ve never viewed us as a Southern rock band.”

But these are the same Truckers who made a 2001 concept double album, “Southern Rock Opera,” engaging this legacy (“I have a love-hate relationship with that record,” Hood says).

And if the Truckers’ musical palette is far more varied and subtle than that of its predecessors, a powerful regional spirit suffuses their writing. In fact, it’s one of DBT’s great achievements that they have presented through simple tools of storytelling – characters, situations, images, idioms – a compelling and humane vision of the South that leaves zero room for any kind of Gothic embellishment or antebellum nostalgia.

“I love music and for that matter books that have a strong sense of place,” Hood says. “I love Faulkner, Springsteen’s Jersey, X’s Los Angeles, the Clash’s London.”

The songs on “Brighter” are of a piece with the band’s longtime preoccupations. Two songs address, gently but with cutting effectiveness, the emotional impact of the Iraq war on small-town soldiers and their families. One is about the meth epidemic.

Others are classic DBT character sketches: the poignant “Two Daughters and a Wife,” in which a man who died too young looks back at those he left behind; or the hard-driving “The Righteous Path,” whose narrator “got a dog and a cat, they don’t fight too much” and “a boat that ain’t seen water for years.”

It’s not exactly a happy album. But, Hood says, though the songs tend to tap into what he calls a “dark and moody place,” they also come alive in new ways in the plugged-in, full-on rock setting of the current tour.

“This record is kind of a balancing act to learn to do live,” he says. “We’re coming out of a period, dark times for sure. But it’s been fun to work against the darkness of the material. On the road it takes on a different light.”