In praise of Mike Cooley, the Drive-By Truckers' unheralded songwriting genius

Just got back from a family vacation to Powell River, and man, if you ever get the chance to go kayaking in Desolation Sound's Okeover Inlet, take it. The scenery is stunning and you can get up close and personal with bald eagles, seals, and huge orange (or purple) starfish. And the two-person vessels from Powell River Sea Kayak have plenty of cubbyholes for stashing coldies.

You should also consider taking lots of Drive-By Truckers tunes with you on your next trek to the Sunshine Coast, because I found their honest, southern-tinged roots-rock to be the perfect musical companion for viewing the ruggedly gorgeous sights. I've got a bunch of the Georgia-based band's songs on my i-Phone, but found myself continually drawn to the ones written and sung by the brilliant Mike Cooley, who sometimes gets overlooked in the shadow of the group's more outgoing and prolific frontman, Patterson Hood. Four tunes in particular had me entranced, so I figured I'd pass them on via YouTube versions for anyone who might not be familiar with the genius of "The Stroker Ace".

For starters, check out this video for "Perfect Timing", a whimsical Cooley track off the monumental 2008 DBT album, Brighter than Creation's Dark. It features some sweet acoustic lead-guitar by John Neff, who more often handles pedal-steel. Anyone with an interest in how handcrafted guitars are constructed should enjoy the clip.

Now let's head over to Shake It Records in Cincinnati, where two weeks ago the band performed Cooley's "Carl Perkins' Cadillac" amid the stacks of vinyl. That song about '50s music mogul Sam Phillips and his legendary Sun Records artists is from the 2004 DBT album The Dirty South. I like the part where Cooley sings "Mr. Phillips never said anything behind nobody's back, like 'Dammit Elvis, don't he know, he ain't no Johnny Cash' ".

My alltime favourite Cooley composition is another Brighter Than Creation's Dark track, "A Ghost to Most", a stirring indictment of the Dubya-led war in Iraq. I love it when he slyly compares the ex-President's twisted vision to that of a KKK member: "Talkin' tough is easy when it's other people's evil and you're judging what they do or don't believe/Seems to me you'd have to have a hole in your own to point a finger at somebody else's sheet."

We'll finish off this little homage to super-Cooley with "Birthday Boy", a rousing rocker off the DBT's latest album, The Big To-Do. If this track about a young man being serviced by a well-meaning prostitute doesn't turn your crank, I don't know what will. I call it the best song of the year.

You can follow Steve Newton on Twitter at twitter.com/earofnewt.

Comments (14) Add New Comment
Drive By Fan
Ya gotta love 'My Sweet Annette' from Decoration Day.
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Steve Newton
I guess I should have included "Space City" from A Blessing and a Curse as well.
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Scott Holcomb
Nice choices. I recommend you go purchase Southern Rock Opera. Zip City is easily the best song in the Truckers catalog. Hell, Patterson says it's his favorite song by any band. That album also contains Women Without Whiskey. Those two songs should be in anyone's top-Cooley song list.
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Steve Newton
I have SRO on CD, Scott; I'll go back and revisit those tunes. thanks for the tip
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Kevin Kellam
I have to second the towering "Zip City". As a Cooley devotee also, I think it's his finest moment. Not only does it tell a perfectly compact narrative with fully created characters, but it abandons any traditional verse-chorus structure, choosing instead to just build and build. I'm a huge music fan, and I consider it one of the best songs I've heard over the past several years.
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Shwa25
"One Of These Days," by Cooley from Pizza Deliverance is amazing.
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halodawg
go to southernshelter.com and check out Cooley's solo shows. Pretty sweet.
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Graham
Atta boy Steve!! Keep pluggin' them Truckers!! Love ya for it. Anything by Cooley is GREAT.......love like this, zip city, cottonseed, gravity's gone, where the devil won't stay, pin hits the shell................I could go on...........
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Steve Newton
You definitely know your stuff when it comes to the DBTs, G. Weren't they wicked at the Biltmore a couple of years back? Maybe we need to get a petition going to get them back in Van!
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Graham
Definately!! That show was June of '08. I haven't seen them since Nov '08 in Seattle. They haven't been into the PacNorWest yet to promote "The Big To-Do". They're releasing another album in '11 called "GoGo Boots". Hopefully they will make it up here then. I'll start begging on the message bords, lol.
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Maremare
See yall in Cooleyville @ the next rock show
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Steve Newton
the next rock show in Vancouver is March 11 2011, at the Commodore. See ya there!
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choptrees
Daddy's Cup... best song on Dirty South...
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Steve Newton
the next rock show in Vancouver is March 22, 2012, at the Commodore. See ya there!
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