Drive-By Truckers make a departure

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Last year the Drive-By Truckers released The Big To-Do, a raucous collection of southern-fried alt-country tunes highlighted by the exuberant single “Birthday Boy”. A totally different vibe typifies the band’s new album, Go-Go Boots, which is surprising since its material was recorded during the same sessions as its predecessor. As singer-guitarist Mike Cooley explains on the phone during a tour break in Salt Lake City, en route from Omaha to a gig in Reno, the sextet was just as into exploring straight-up rock ’n’ roll as it was sparser, country soul.

“We wanted The Big To-Do to be tight, focused rock ’n’ roll,” says Cooley, “and it was. But then we had all these songs we were recording at the same time that were just takin’ on this spookier, darker shape—a little more space in between the sounds. It was obvious we had two records happening.

“I thought it might be a little weird for a lot of people,” he says of the resultant Go-Go Boots, “but everybody seems to be pretty excited about it.”

While the new disc is a major departure from previous DBT records in that there isn’t one raggedy, Neil Young & Crazy Horse–style rocker in the bunch, it does have some similar traits, like evidence of singer-guitarist Patterson Hood’s penchant for lurid tales of homicide (“The Fireplace Poker”). The group has also been known to throw in the occasional cover tune—having previously paid tribute to such ’70s icons as AC/DC, KISS, and Tom Petty—and this time around its country-soul mojo gets invigorated by the inclusion of two songs by Eddie Hinton. He’s the troubled former lead guitarist in the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, whose life was marred by mental illness and homelessness.

“He was an interesting, kind of tragic character,” notes Cooley, “like a lot of the people of this calibre tend to be. He was no doubt a true genius in every sense of the word, but he also had the psychological torment that goes along with it, very similar to Brian Wilson in a lotta ways.”

A feature-length documentary on the Drive-By Truckers, The Secret to a Happy Ending, was released in conjunction with Go-Go Boots, and it leaves you with the impression that, were there any justice in the music world, the critically acclaimed group (No Depression’s band of the year back in 2002) would be much bigger than it is today.

“I never really thought about giving up for lack of success,” replies Cooley when asked if his 15 years as a Trucker ever yielded doubts about sticking it out. “The things that frustrate me aren’t lack of commercial success; in fact, a lot of that would probably frustrate me even more. I’ve seen what happens to people who are a lot more successful in this than I am and I don’t envy them, to tell you the truth.

“I’m pretty happy,” he adds. “I mean, everybody wants things to be a little better than they are, but nobody seems to be able to describe that. I’d like to be able to spend a little more time off the road—that’s one of the things that maybe a radio hit or two could make happen. But then again, if you get that kiss of death you’re gonna be on the road for years!”

The Drive-By Truckers play the Commodore Ballroom on Friday (March 11).

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