Any fan of the Drive-By Truckers is aware of how cool their merchandise is. A lot of it has to do with the southern-goth artistry of Wes Freed, whose work has long been a staple of the band's album covers, T-shirts, and posters.
I've got one proudly displayed in my home hallway, as a matter of fact.
But apart from offering some of the sweetest concert souvenirs on the planet, the Truckers also had one helluva guy selling those goodies to fans at shows. The group actually dedicated its new album, English Oceans—and the song "Grand Canyon" in particular—to the memory of Craig Lieske, a longtime member of its touring family.
The former manager of the fabled 400 Watt Club in Athens, Georgia, Lieske died suddenly of a heart attack last year following the first night of the band's three-night homecoming stand in Athens. He was 48.
"We've known him for a long, long time," explained DBT singer-guitarist Mike Cooley on the phone last week. "Patterson [Hood] has known him almost since he moved to Athens years ago. He actually used to work for Craig when he was his boss at the 40 Watt Club for a while.
"And then several years ago he went out on the road with us selling merchandise, and he really became so much more than a merch guy. I mean our entire fan base got to know him personally, and he became really close friends with a lot of them."
In the final verse of the Hood-penned "Grand Canyon", an elegy for Lieske, there's mention of a white owl, and on the front of the English Oceans CD booklet there's a Freed illustration of a ghostly white owl resting on a branch.
"Wes always comes up with some kind of theme," said Cooley, "and there's some kind of recurring image. We always had the black birds that came into the mix around the Southern Rock Opera album, and that's been a mainstay. That album had a lot to do with dyin' on the road—or fear of dyin' on the road—and that's what the black birds signify.
"The white owl kinda symbolizes living on the road," he adds, "and living on, ya know."
For more from Mike Cooley—in advance of the Drive-By Truckers' show at the Vogue Theatre on April 22—see the story in this week's issue of the Georgia Straight.