As the Drive-By Truckers continue their touring cycle this winter behind their new release American Band — one of their best, most lyrically provocative albums ever — the group also celebrates its 20th anniversary as a band.
Singer/guitarist Mike Cooley, who co-founded and shares frontman duties with fellow singer/guitarist Patterson Hood, is well aware of the anniversary. But what’s special to him has more to do with the music the Drive-By Truckers are making now than simply the band’s longevity.
“To … be coming up on 20 years and not only still be doing it, but to be excited about it and to be able to make a record like this with so much passion in it still, that’s the greatest thing,” Cooley says in a recent phone interview.
“Everybody would like to have a little more money. Everybody would like to have a little more success. But I can’t complain,” he says. “You see so many people that do what we do and get to this point, 20 or so years, and you’re pretty much going through the motions. You’re not making new records. If you do, they’re not well received. You have a fan base that still pretty much all revolves around the two or three, at the most, albums they got into way back when. Nobody wants to hear the new stuff. You play the new stuff and everybody goes to the bathroom. For us, and if that was the case, I’d be happy I could still make a living doing that instead of going and finding a regular job of some sort. But I feel lucky.”
American Band is a resounding indication that the Drive-By Truckers are still as inspired and scrappy as they were when the group was formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1996.
The band has seen several high points over its 20 years, including its 2001 double album Southern Rock Opera, which thoughtfully examined what it means to be Southern through a thematic song cycle, and other first-rate albums like Decoration Day (2003), The Dirty South (2004) and Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (2008).
Along the way there have also been several lineup changes and a period where Cooley’s songwriting output slowed and Hood carried the songwriting load for the 2010 album The Big To Do and the 2011 follow-up Go-Go Boots.
But by early 2012, a revamped lineup that included keyboardist Jay Gonzalez (who replaced Jason Isbell in 2008) and bassist Matt Patton (replacing Shonna Tucker) roared back on the inspired 2012 album English Oceans. A stirring three-CD live album, It’s Great To Be Alive, followed last year and now the veteran group has hit a new peak with American Band.
It’s an album that’s potent musically, and even more powerful lyrically, as Cooley and Hood unflinchingly and intelligently examine where America stands in the 2016 election year.
The album doesn’t specifically address the rise of Donald Trump and his successful run for president; the first primaries were still a few months away when the bulk of American Band was recorded in a productive three-day session in November 2015. And while Cooley strongly opposed Trump and says he sees him as playing to the deepest fears of white, male America (that they are losing their power to minorities and women), the songs he and Hood wrote address a variety of topics that were front of mind throughout the general election season.
They include gun control and the role of the National Rifle Association, immigration, and in several songs, the racial tensions that exist in America today. Hood’s “What It Means” directly addresses police shootings in Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities, media coverage of those events and the reluctance to face up to the key question of what’s behind the tensions.
The thought-provoking lyrics demand attention in and of themselves. But the music on American Band is nearly as powerful. Hood generally favors moderate tempos in his songs, but there’s still plenty of edge and heft in songs like “Baggage,” “Darkened Flags” and “What It Means.” Cooley, meanwhile, ties his words to muscular, high-energy rock, as he and fellow Truckers tear through sturdy tracks like “Ramon Casiano,” the brisk “Surrender Under Protest” and the Stones-ish swagger of “Kinky Hypocrite.”
As a band that generally plays sets running two hours or more, there will be time to cover plenty of back catalog songs in Drive-By Truckers shows this winter. But Cooley says most, if not all, of American Band will be performed from night to night.
“It’s going to all get played,” he says. “Luckily, most of the stuff so far has worked really well live. There’s not anything that’s too slow or moody. Sometimes there are those things that come together in the studio and it’s a great track on the record. But it’s a one-time thing and it doesn’t really work live. But in this case, I think most everything is going to work very well.”