Driving through the lush mountains of rural Appalachia, there's plenty of pretty scenery to look at -- for instance, a tiny TV screen broadcasting images of John Kerry and George Bush ripping each other's throats out.
"We're watching the debate in the van right now," enthuses Mike Cooley of Southern-rock revivalists Drive By Truckers. The singer/ guitarist is viewing a videotape of September 30's showdown between Kerry and Bush as if he were a jock replaying last night's big game. "I still haven't seen the whole thing yet, but you don't really need to. It's all pretty much the same: Bush going, Œ'Cause I said so,' and not really giving any other reasons for anything."
Bush-bashing isn't too hard to come by nowadays. But it is kind of odd to hear someone skewer the president in a down-home accent not that far removed from Dubya's own. Cooley and most of his band -- drummer Brad Morgan, bassist Shonna Tucker and singer/guitarists Jason Isbell and Patterson Hood -- grew up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a small town tucked up in the northwest corner of the state, within spitting distance of Mississippi and Tennessee. As the burg's official website is proud to point out, it's famous for being the home of Helen Keller, not to mention the site of such distinguished institutions as Coon Dog Cemetery and the International Fertilizer Development Center.
Drive By Truckers
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Music, though, has always been Muscle Shoals's most famous attraction. Besides being the birthplace of W.C. Handy, the Father of the Blues, the town also begat the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, a group of backing musicians that worked with everyone from Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett to Bob Seger and Lynyrd Skynyrd throughout the '60s and '70s.
But the Truckers' link to the Muscle Shoals tradition isn't merely geographical. Patterson is the son of David Hood, bassist of the Rhythm Section, and the blood they share is thick with the grit and soul of Southern rock and roll. Not that Cooley, Hood and crew have always taken the mythos of their cultural heritage as seriously as they do now. The quintet's first two releases were dubbed Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance -- titles that sound more Bubba Sparxxx than William Faulkner.
"Those were definitely way more funny songs, way more tongue-in-cheek," Cooley explains. "Back then, we hadn't even become a real band yet. We had never really been on the road; we'd just played a few shows around the Southeast. But I didn't have any kind of career besides music. Name the job and I've had it for two weeks, and I've dropped out of college twice. So it was around that time that I kind of decided to give this thing a real shot."
The breakthrough came with Southern Rock Opera, the Truckers' 2001 double-disc opus. A sprawling and exhaustive dramatization of what Hood philosophically calls "the duality of the Southern thing," the record was a huge step up from the band's earlier lo-fi irreverence. Opera tilled the rich, deep loam in which Afghan Whigs and Son Volt tangled roots with Neil Young and AC/DC, where Skynyrd's fateful 1977 plane crash took on the gravitas of Greek tragedy. As much a fable as an album, it vaulted Drive By Truckers into a realm of acclaim that Cooley, with all due modesty, had a hard time coming to grips with.
"People found out about what the album was going to be about months before it was ever finished," he remembers. "There was a lot of expectation. Then people would tell us about how much the album meant to them, how much it touched them. I was like, ŒNo, it didn't.' That was just too much to deal with. Everyone took it way more seriously than I thought they would."
Indeed, Opera inspired reams of effusive press, including a feature on NPR and a four-star review in Rolling Stone. But Cooley didn't get caught up in the applause. "I have a subscription to Rolling Stone in case I run out of toilet paper," he says with a laugh. "I keep them right next to my high school diploma."
Two years later, the Truckers graduated to Decoration Day, a more scaled-back and lived-in version of Opera's gutsy, full-blooded twang. And while not a concept album like its predecessor, Decoration was a medley of such dark and edgy themes as divorce, incest and suicide, all framed by vivid snapshots of Southern life. It was also the outfit's first studio session with noted producer David Barbe, best known as the bassist for Sugar and the engineer of Son Volt's 1998 masterpiece, Wide Swing Tremolo. The result was creepy and gripping, a kudzu-like overgrowth of raw riffs, contagious tunes and the psychic scars of hardship and poverty.
After two successful discs that surveyed the musical and sociological terrain of the South, many critics and fans wondered what territory the Truckers might set their sights on next. But when The Dirty South was released earlier this year, it turned out to be an exploration of many of the same dusty roads that the group had been rambling down since Opera. Granted, the three-pronged songwriting attack of Cooley, Hood and Isbell still found plenty of life teeming under the rocks in their own back yard -- but even Cooley is surprised that people haven't called them on their insularity.
"I actually expected there to be a backlash, like, "Why are you singing about the same things again?" he admits. "But it never came. I always prepare for the worst, you know? People thought our first two records were kind of novelty records, and they were right. But the stuff we're doing now isn't. It's been a gradual thing, but you can see an evolution from one album to the next.
"But I really am dying to write about some new stuff," Cooley adds. "I think after a while, you just want to go in a different direction. I don't really feel hemmed in, but I've been doing this for so damn long that I really don't know where to go from here. I think we're all ready to move in a new direction. I'm not sure where yet -- we'll just have to see. One thing's for sure: I'm not going to write about love. It's just not within me. My God, I hate love songs."
True to his word, Cooley writes songs that deal with just about every topic imaginable except romance: moonshine, race cars, pride, prejudice, Carl Perkins. "Really bitter love songs can be kind of cool," he concedes grudgingly, "but at the same time, get over it, dude. Hire a hooker."
No matter what direction the Truckers steer in with their next album, it's hard to imagine them ever forsaking the fertile conceptual backdrop of the South. Still, Cooley and company dispel some of the myths of their homeland while perpetuating others. Dixie, of course, will be remembered for slavery, Jim Crow and the killing of Martin Luther King Jr. as much as it will be celebrated for its abundant musical legacy.
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"Back before Martin Luther King was assassinated, things were divided more on economics," Cooley notes. "It didn't become a color thing until after that. I don't know why it went that way, but it did. I think that was exactly what someone wanted to happen. Now everything's separated into black music and white music, but black people and white people always used to play on the same records."
Cooley should know; his music is a product of Muscle Shoals's long history of integration on stage and in the studio. But as Cooley notes, his own neighbors sometimes have a hard time being aware, let alone proud, of their formidable musical heritage.
"It seems like people outside of the South are more educated than people in the South when it comes to all that stuff," he says. "The British are very knowledgeable about all of that. The Rhythm Section are almost like celebrities there. Europe in general, they tend to research and really know the background of what they're listening to. America is just, like, swallow it and shit it back out."
His critique of the nation, however, doesn't end there. After the debate winds down, the guitarist has a few choice words for our country's commander in chief as he delivers his own blow-by-blow commentary of the presidential faceoff. "Bush looked like a little kid that had been told to sit in the corner," Cooley observes, compressing whole generations of Southern rebelliousness into his deep, twangy drawl. "Kerry was laughing, or at least smiling, most of the time, but Bush just looked pissed. Beady-eyed little bastard."