Mike Cooley has never had a problem playing in front of huge crowds with the Drive-By Truckers. Playing solo, however, has been a different experience entirely.
"Sitting down in a room of people right in front of me and playing a song on an acoustic guitar by myself, I would start sweating," Cooley confesses. "It just freaks me out. But I'm getting comfortable with it, and I wanted to do that. That was the goal — to keep doing this until I can walk out of there comfortable."
Cooley's solo debut, The Fool on Every Corner, captures some of that apprehension. The disc, recorded a year ago during a two-night stand at the Earl in Atlanta and a show at the Melting Pot in Athens, Georgia, features a number of reimagined Truckers tunes, plus a never-before-released original, "Drinking Coke and Eating Ice," and a cover of Charlie Rich's "Behind Closed Doors." If there's any awkwardness to be heard on the recording, it's most likely the sound of the 46-year-old Cooley still trying to get his bearings in the solo setting.
"A lot of the songs that I didn't put on there were because I was playing them too fast," Cooley says now, looking back. "The nerves were just driving them along. Since then, I've come up with different versions for them and for some of the other songs, too. There were some classics and some crowd favorites that I didn't get a good version of that didn't get on there. That's why they're not on there. Some of the ones that are on there, I've found cooler ways of doing now. Almost every time I have some shows coming up and I start rehearsing, I'll find a better way of playing at least one song than I've found before."
As it turns out, Cooley didn't go into the three Georgia gigs intending to make an album, but longtime Truckers producer David Barbe wanted to record them, at least to have them in the archives. But since Cooley had come up with so many different approaches to Truckers songs, he figured they would make a cool album. He also thought it would be good to have a release in the can since there was going to be such a long time between Truckers albums (the band plans to head back into the studio in March to start work on the next disc). While Truckers frontman and co-founder Patterson Hood is quite a prolific songwriter, it takes Cooley more time to compose, especially when it comes to penning lyrics.
"Right now I've got what could be two verses and a chorus, and I think I've rewritten and edited the second one twenty times," he notes. "I can't get any farther. It's like I can't go farther with it because I keep rewriting these four lines over and over and over.
"A lot of it has to do with the rhythm and the cadence of the words themselves," he goes on to explain. "If it's not bouncing off the beats the way I want it to, then I've got to find words with different syllables — different numbers of syllables. It's got to roll out naturally."
Although Cooley may not bang out songs at lightning speed, he says he's always working on new material. "It's one of those things where you're not going to catch anything if your hook's not in the water," he points out. "So the antenna's always up. I can think of metaphors all day long. I'm always actively hoping it's there, that I can catch something. I've got a couple of new things I haven't done anything with — two or three, actually, that I'm looking forward to recording with the band. I've got a couple ideas bouncing around in my head that may come to me in a finished version tomorrow...or it may be two years from now."
Although Cooley sings the line "Good ideas always start with a full glass" in the song "Pulaski," from The Fool on Every Corner, he's doesn't necessarily look to booze to help with the songwriting process. He says he tends to come up with better stuff, or at least the stuff he ends up keeping, when he's a little more on the sober side.
"There's an amount of being lubed up where good things start happening, but it's a small window of opportunity," he says. "Once you go beyond that, you're going to wake up the next day and throw that paper away. You know: 'What the fuck was I thinking? That was awful. I thought it was great at the time.' As soon as you start thinking every idea you come up with is great, it's time to quit."
Another songwriting trick Cooley utilizes is putting himself in someone else's shoes just to get an idea out there. So while it seems like he's basing his songs on his own experiences, there really aren't as many of those as you might think. But the real-life instances that are there are definitely noteworthy. "Guitar Man Upstairs" is a good example: Just before playing the song on The Fool on Every Corner, he tells the audience, "I wrote this about a neighbor I had. I hope he's dead."
According to Cooley, there really was a neighbor who lived downstairs from him a long time ago who called the cops on him three different times. "It was never late," he recalls. "I was never that loud. The first time was in the afternoon, which was weird. I was playing an electric guitar loud, but not high-volume. I'd gotten some piece of gear I was messing with and trying to figure out how to use it. It wasn't very loud at all. Four o'clock in the afternoon, the cops are knocking on the door.
"Then there were two more times," he goes on. "The third time, I was playing an acoustic guitar with my fucking fingers. It always blew me away, because I could have the TV on or I could play the stereo loud — anything, or whatever other noise — and I wouldn't hear a peep out of anybody, but if I touched that goddamned guitar.... The third time, the cops were real dickheads to me because I was trying to explain this, but if cops come to your house for a noise complaint, it's your goddamned fault, period, no matter what. They didn't feel like fooling with it, and I didn't, either."
Whichever way the songs come to him, Cooley says the words usually come easiest when he's playing acoustic guitar. "I can hear myself think," he says. "Everybody seems that way. I come up with ideas sometimes when I'm messing with an electric guitar, but I usually have to switch to acoustic to get the words, if there are going to be any. It just lends itself more to playing and singing, I guess."
On his current solo tour, Cooley is pretty much playing all the songs on an acoustic guitar, and he says he's doing so without using a pick. He started playing this way out of necessity. There wasn't always a pick lying around at home, so he got in the habit of playing without one, and now that's just what he does. "It's just better," he concludes. "I can make things far more interesting if I can find a way to do it that way, and it sounds better."
Keeping things interesting is important, especially when you're playing by yourself.