No band has elevated the once-second-class Southern rock genre to as critically and commercially respected heights as has Drive-By Truckers. Lead Truckers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have become American songwriting icons by successfully melding the aw-shucks attitude of The Allman Brothers, the hard-driving snarl of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the mythical style of T Bone Burnett and the backwoods strut of Bruce Springsteen’s forgotten Alabama cousin. Along the way, they’ve sold hundreds of thousands of records, helped to launch the careers of former Truckers like Jason Isbell and cultivated a diehard fanbase.
What’s most impressive, though, is the fact that this ragtag band of Muscle Shoals and Athens-area natives has triumphed in spite of the obstacles: numerous personnel shifts, hard-partying early years, the weight of several dense, double-disc concept albums. Yet even most of those are now certified classics, starting with 2001’s breakthrough Southern Rock Opera, which fictionalized the rise and fall of Jacksonville native sons Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Even as band members have remained vigilant road dogs, touring upward of 200 days a year, each Truckers record made since 2001 has matched or surpassed the success of its predecessor. All six after 2004’s The Dirty South have broken into Billboard’s Top 100; the latest, this year’s English Oceans, hit No. 16.
Much of this new record’s success has been attributed to the fact that Hood and Cooley split songwriting duties equally for the first time in a decade, resulting in a balanced listen that hits all the Truckers’ high spots: chugging blue-collar balladry, muscular classic rock riffs and Southern-fried grooves that swagger with swampy authenticity.
“It was fun watching those two work together,” says drummer Brad Morgan. “Past records have featured so many different songwriters that things get lost in the process. This time, it was nice just having the two of them concentrate on the songs. I know they’ve never had a better time before — we all did, in fact.”
Morgan, who’s the third-longest-serving Trucker after Hood and Cooley (he joined in 1999), admits that even such a laser-sharp songwriting focus didn’t affect the band’s off-the-cuff recording process — which itself mirrors their spontaneous live show.
“We don’t use a set list,” he says. “Patterson and Cooley just fly and feel out the crowd. So I look at the records as blueprints for how shows are going to be. We listen to a demo once, start to cut it, and then use the first or second take. I can listen to English Oceans and hear a couple mistakes I made where the entirety of the track was more important than fixing that mistake. Now I just have to learn to make that mistake every night.”
The rest of the Truckers have learned to roll with those mistakes as well. Several high-profile band members have departed on what have been rumored to be acrimonious terms: Isbell in 2007, Shonna Tucker in 2011, John Neff in 2012. But each time, the band has remained strictly on message. (“We just ran into Jason in London and it was like seeing a brother,” Morgan says. “A lot of love there.”) That’s a testament to the longtime brand management of Jenn Bryant, who, along with visual artist Wes Freed and producer David Barbe, are often credited as unofficial members of the band. “The band without them?” Morgan says. “I don’t think it would work.”
Critics and fans might disagree, as might also legendary soul musicians Bettye LaVette and Booker T. Jones, both of whom tapped the Truckers to back them up on celebrated comeback albums in 2007 and 2009, respectively. Yet even elite gigs like those haven’t kept the band from relying on the road as its main source of revenue. “Touring has always been the way for us,” Morgan says. “That’s the only money we really see, so we’re always out there working. But we love being out there meeting people and seeing all our old friends, too. The band’s in a great place.”
Digging into Drive-By Truckers’ 12-album discography (or reveling in one of its marathon live celebrations) yields far deeper discoveries, however. The band’s hard-charging two-decade existence serves as a crucial link from the Deep South’s celebrated past — Patterson Hood’s father, David, founded the historic Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 1969 — to its vibrant present and promising future.
“The younger generation coming out of Upper Alabama grew up knowing the history of Muscle Shoals and what made the area so popular,” Morgan says. “That died out in the ’80s and ’90s, but these younger cats like Alabama Shakes and St. Paul & the Broken Bones really get it. Usually that style comes from England and has a shit-ton of money behind it trying to make it sound good. But these guys are recording in little bitty studios like we did, to bring that style back. And it’s coming out amazing.”