A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
May 4, 2007
The Drive-By Truckers apparently are going through a transition period that sounds a bit like a midlife crisis. Jason Isbell, one of the band’s three singer/guitarists, recently left the group. This came as the band, which plays at the Lensic Performing Arts Center at 7:30 p.m. tonight, with Texas songwriter Alejandro Escovedo, was going through one of its “reinventions.”
“Last fall we all kind of did some soul-searching to figure out what was next, where we’ve been. We felt like we’d taken something we had done about as far as we knew how to take it,” singer Patterson Hood said in a telephone interview last week.
“Are we gonna do something a little different and see where we can take that, or are we gonna turn this thing into just our paycheck, just our job where we go out and play by the numbers? That obviously wasn’t going to work. We just don’t have that kind of temperament to do that kind of thing.”
At the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the Truckers transform into a casino-circuit band, Hood laughed and said, “We could be like has-beens who never were. The idea that really worked for us was to reinvent ourselves a little bit. That’s what we did with Southern Rock Opera. We had to really reinvent ourselves.”
Southern Rock Opera, for those unfamiliar with the Truckers’ mythos, is a double-disc album that dealt with the life and death of Lynyrd Skynyrd and what it was like to grow up as an alienated teenager in the South during the late 20th century. Critics — including this one — hailed the record as a giant leap forward for the Drive-By Truckers in terms of both sound (more wild-eyed Southern rock and less alternative country) and songwriting. The albums that followed — Decoration Day, The Dirty South (my personal favorite), and last year’s A Blessing and a Curse — brought even more critical praise, if not mainstream success.
Wanting to try something new, Hood and his musical partner of 22 years, Mike Cooley, decided to do a small tour featuring a more acoustic version of the Truckers. They’re calling it “The Dirt Underneath” tour.
“You know that it’s gonna be really big and really loud, and there’s a certain thing that just kinda always happens with it,” Hood said of the crazed, raucous, three-electric-guitar assault for which the band is known. “What if we did a show that took away those elements? Let’s see if we can still have a valid, good show with that.
“This isn’t necessarily going to be strictly acoustic. We’re not calling it ‘unplugged’ or anything. It’s just a different slant on it — maybe change people’s expectations coming in, so the people who have seen it before will know they’re coming to see something different, so when it’s not exactly the way they remember the shows being they won’t leave mad.”
The band will be trying out new songs for its next album, which it will begin recording in June after the May tour.
“Since we’re not touring behind a new record for the first time in years, we could stay home and work up the best for this new record, or we could go out and play some smaller venues and do something a little more intimate and work it up in front of small, hopefully friendly audiences. And, while we’re there, throw in some other songs that haven’t gotten done much in a long time,” Hood said.
“I’m definitely hoping there will be songs done on this tour that have practically never been played live,” he said. “Like ‘Loaded Gun in the Closet.’ I’m really pushing Cooley to pull that one into the list. I love that song; it may be my favorite song on Decoration Day. I think we’ve played it live.”
There will be a guest Trucker on stage also: the venerated Spooner Oldham will be playing keyboards on this tour. Oldham is best-known as one of the primary studio musicians and songwriters who help create Muscle Shoals/Memphis soul in the 1960s. He worked with Hood’s father, bassist David Hood, on too many soul classics to mention.
So what happened to Jason?
“You spend a few years together, you get older, you change, you grow, you kinda have to all be moving close to the same direction to keep it moving forward,” Hood said. “He had some things he was wanting to do and needing to do, and we were all in pretty much agreement with what we wanted to do, and it seemed like a good time to be moving forward.
“Jason’s more pop influenced than the rest of the band,” he said. “But it’s never that cut and dry. In Beatle terms he’d be the McCartney figure. But even in Beatle terms, McCartney is the one who did ‘Helter Skelter.’ ... He was less influenced by the punk-rock end of the spectrum than certainly I was and Cooley was — not so much even the punk-rock music, but there’s a certain ethic that goes with that, I guess, that we’d always based it on. Jason just came from a different time. Jason’s a bit younger than most of us.”
Hood continued: “We were together five years. It was great. We made three records together. I’m a huge fan of his and his music. His record that’s coming out is fantastic. [Isbell’s Sirens of the Ditch is scheduled for July release.] We’ll leave the door open for us to ... maybe work on a project together or something.
“A bus is a small place when you spend 150 to 200 days a year on it, you know, with five or six of us at any given time plus the crew,” Hood said. “We live on it. When we tour, we don’t ride it from hotel to hotel like the big rock stars. We’re just one step away from being in the van; we’re all kind of cooped up in there. It can be a pressure tour when there’s tension. But it’s pretty cool. We’ve always been one big dysfunctional family.”
Tickets to the Truckers’ show are $21 to $35 and are available from the Lensic box office, 988-1234, or www.ticketssantafe.org.
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