Along with the kind of gritty, triple-guitar southern rock their fans adore, the Drive-By Truckers are known for delivering the goods in the album-art department. For the last seven years, their recordings have featured the southern-gothic work of Virginia-based Wes Freed, whose dark depictions of ghoulish skeleton-rockers, barren graveyards, and flaming muscle cars tearing up country roads at twilight help illustrate the brooding, intense tone of the music within. From a tour stop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, singer-guitarist Patterson Hood raves about the artwork Freed created for his band’s eighth and latest CD, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which spotlights the serpentine black bird seen on previous DBT discs.
“Some of the albums he’s done for us have been watercolours,” explains Hood, “some have been oils, some have been acrylics, but on the front cover of the new record he used something called a scratch pad—it’s like a black pad and you scratch off the black to expose the white underneath. It was something he’d never done before, and I just really like the way it looks and the mood it conjures.”
Eye-catching cover art is something that Hood has grown to appreciate over the years. Despite losing “a coupla thousand” albums in a divorce, he still has a vast vinyl collection. “I grew up in the ’70s, so all those Hipgnosis covers really got me,” he recalls. “Led Zeppelin always had great covers—Physical Graffiti was such a great one—and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was cool, with the triple fold-out and illustrations for each song. But I also love the early punk-rock covers, the look that that had and how it kinda captured the mood of that movement.”
The Drive-By Truckers have proven adept at capturing moods themselves, in particular the raw, backwoods vibe of guitar-drenched southern rock. The band first garnered major acclaim with its fourth full-length offering, 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, a two-disc, sociopolitical concept album that drew on the mythology and folklore surrounding Lynyrd Skynyrd. Guitarist Jason Isbell joined after the release of Southern Rock Opera, and became a major creative force before leaving last year, owing to “personal and creative differences”. Hood was confident that the group he’d founded with long-time musical cohort Mike Cooley was strong enough to handle the loss, and the proof is in the sprawling, 79-minute Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.
“I was thinkin’ we’d be okay,” drawls the Alabama native. “I mean, he [Isbell] brought a lot to the table, and was a great member of the band for five years, but, you know, when it’s over it’s over. And I felt like we had a lot to offer. We were getting along and havin’ a good time, and Cooley came in with a huge batch of great new songs.”
One of those is Cooley’s Crazy Horse–approved “A Ghost to Most”, which carries on the band’s tradition of finding lyrical fodder in the blunders of the Bush administration. Although Hood is encouraged by the potential for change seen in the rise of Barack Obama, he’s not ready to celebrate the Republicans’ downfall just yet.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” he warns. “I’m really excited to see Obama get the nomination, and it’s gonna be a thrill to actually vote for my first choice in November, ’cause usually it’s for the lesser of two evils. But they’re gonna play every dirty trick in the book to try to discredit him between now and then, so we’ll see what happens. I’m very cautiously optimistic, is the best way of puttin’ it.”
The Drive-By Truckers play the Biltmore Cabaret on Friday (June 27).