was a year of transition and reinvention for our band, having been
on the road almost constantly since the fall of 2001 a break was
desperately needed. A little time at home to recharge and perhaps
rethink some things.
of the lines between the personal and the musical has always been
an integral part of what this band does and part of what sets it
apart from the corporate music machines that dominate so much of
pop-culture in the name of what used to be called Rock and Roll.
That said, when things go wrong it can become an unbearable situation
on levels both personal and artistic. Such is what led to the amicable
and mutually desired parting of ways with Jason Isbell in the spring
of 2007. He had been an integral part of our musical family for
five years and three albums but personal and creative differences
brought about the need or change.
Moving on after
such a loss seemed at first a daunting challenge. Our band’s
survival instincts (much of what has kept mine and Mike Cooley’s
partnership alive and well for 22+ years) led us to strip everything
down to the essential elements of song and rebuild it from scratch.
This led to us booking and playing a semi-acoustic tour we named
The Dirt Underneath where we would go out without all of the trappings
and decorations of “The Big Rock Show” and put the emphasis
on the songs and stories. It also gave us a chance to acquaint everyone
with our dear friend John Neff. Neff was a founding member of our
continued to play on our albums from time to time and he became
a full-time part of the touring band a couple of years ago. He’s
an excellent guitar player but is best known for his amazing pedal
steel abilities. His playing has graced acclaimed albums by Japancakes,
The Star Room Boys, Barbara Cue and Lona among many others. During
some troubled times, John’s playing was
one of the few things we could all agree on.
same time we were asked to back up soul legend Bettye LaVette on
the follow-up to her excellent breakthrough album I’ve Got
My Own Hell to Raise. For that project we took her down to Muscle
Shoals, AL and enlisted the help of another soul music legend, our
dear friend Spooner Oldham. The resulting album Scene of the Crime
(Anti Records) has furthered her comeback and showed off another
side of our band’s versatility (something often overlooked
by folks who often label us as some kind of “Southern Rock”
novelty act). Working with Spooner on that project also directly
led to us asking him to participate
in The Dirt Underneath.
When we all
convened to work up The Dirt Underneath show, everyone came in with
lots of new material and it became almost immediately apparent that
the show’s emphasis would be on working up our new album in
front of a live audience over the course of the tour. Cooley
has always written my favorite songs in the band. Like so many other
ways that we find ourselves as the polar opposites, I’ll write
dozens of songs searching for that good one, he’ll skip the
middle man and write one or two songs in a year but they might be
“Zip City” and “Women Without Whiskey”.
This year he came in with seven songs, each one as good as any he’s
writing songs since I was eight years old and writer’s block
had never been anything more than a week or two dryspell, however
the past several years had seen me slow down to a trickle. This
finally ended with a vengeance around the time we came off the road
last fall, as I wrote about 50 songs in six months, giving me a
lot of material to choose from for the new album.
We spent two
days rehearsing and premiered The Dirt Underneath at The Georgia
Theatre in Athens, GA on April 27 and 28 then loaded the trailer
and headed west for a three week tour that went far above and beyond
our best hopes. By the end of the tour (at the Fox Theatre in Boulder,
CO.) we were averaging 8-9 of the new songs a night, many of which
were getting our best responses. It was really surreal hearing people
sing along with Cooley’s “A Ghost To Most” considering
we had yet to record it and had only worked it up three weeks earlier.
We came home, slept for a couple of weeks and reconvened in the
studio on June 11, 2007 (one day after our band’s eleventh
Most of the
songs were recorded live in the studio although we will admit to
taking great care with getting really good vocal takes and with
really taking our time working on harmonies. Some songs were well
rehearsed when we went in to record them, having worked them out
on the road the previous month. Others were improvised on the spot.
Some of our favorite moments were total accidents and we intentionally
allowed ample room and opportunity for the happy accident. Those
happy accidents were recorded and captured on sixteen tracks of
glorious 2” tape by our recording soul mate David Barbe at
his Chase Park Transduction studio in Athens, GA. This is our sixth
album with him and each time it gets better. We
spent most of July on the road doing a second leg of The Dirt Underneath
before reconvening in August to finish recording and mix the album.
This time David mixed it himself, keeping true to the homegrown
and ‘keep it in the family’ spirit that pervades the
As the album
took shape, the sequence came so easy it was as if it was written
in that sequence. But as time ticked away on the recording session,
one song seemed to be missing. With 18 songs in the can the notion
of a missing piece was amusing to most, but with each listen and
every possible arrangement of songs, one song just wasn’t
there. Finally, a couple of days before our last day of tracking
I wrote “The Righteous Path”. I went in the next night
and played it through once for everybody and we rolled tape, nailing
it in one take and finishing the puzzle.
to having Spooner Oldham play on the album, this time also marked
the first time we recorded songs by our bass player, Shonna Tucker.
A more private person cast in the midst of a bunch of extroverts,
I’ve known of her great skills as a writer for as long as
I’ve known her. This time she showed up with two great songs
she wrote the week before recording commenced. She then proceeded
to write another at the studio. They make a great addition to our
themes explored by three different writers (with three very different
points of view) has always been a hallmark of what sets our band
apart. This album might even take all of that to the next level,
as this is by far our most eclectic, yet cohesive album ever. In
the end, we ended up with nineteen songs. Nine by me, three by Shonna,
and seven by Cooley. Stylistically, they run the gamut from old-timey
sounding country to a heavy R&B influence. Some songs that are
quieter than any we’ve ever recorded and some that rock harder
than anything we’ve ever done. In the end it’s still
all Rock and Roll (which is why that will always be the description
of choice to us when describing our music in stylistic terms). Finished,
sequenced, even mixed and we still had no title for the album.
As a band famous
for our sometimes hard-fighting ways, we managed to make this album
without so much as a single creative disagreement. They say that
the best art is often born of adversity and there was plenty leading
up to the writing of the songs, but the actual recording process
was a marvel of united purpose and inspiration. Then it came time
to name the thing and we couldn’t agree on anything. No heated
battles, just a comedy of errors as each potential title would get
2-3 votes. Every decision had been unanimous and we wanted the title
to be also but there was always a dissenting vote.
In the end we
went with BRIGHTER THAN CREATION’S DARK, which came from a
line in Cooley’s song “Checkout Time in Vegas”
and to me made an apt description of the music we had made. Don’t
think we ever got that unanimous vote, but ran out of time and had
to name it something. It was also a title that greatly appealed
to Wes Freed, who has done all of our album cover art since 2001
and would be designing this one also. He was so inspired by the
title that he created the finest artwork of our history for this
This story ends
here with the completion of our best album. It is also the beginning,
as we will be spending most of the next year or two playing these
songs all over the world for what should become our most ambitious
seasons of touring yet.
grower so play it loud and play it often.
Long Live Rock
- November 1, 2007 – Athens GA. USA
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS - "BRIGHTER THAN CREATION’S DARK"
Song By Song by Patterson Hood
and a Beautiful Wife was written as a result of trying to make some
kind of peace with an unspeakable tragedy that affected so many
people I know and love. I was hoping to help with the healing and
closure by trying to provide a beautiful song that dwells on the
positives of love and family. I knew it was the first song on the
album the moment I wrote it.
3 Dimes Down
is a Cooley song and he never really discusses any of his lyrics
with me or anyone else so I’m not going to do him the disservice
of doing so myself except to say Tom T. Hall’s “Week
in a Country Jail” is certainly worth
checking out for a clue. He played me a 4-track demo he recorded
of it one night while we were all working on the Bettye LaVette
album and I doubled over in laughter. The second verse may be my
all-time favorite on a Drive-By Truckers album.
We were almost
through tracking this album when I wrote The Righteous Path. It
was the missing piece of the puzzle and I knew it immediately. I
played it through for everyone once and then we nailed it in one
take. Some songs are just meant to be.
Shonna has been
writing songs as long as I’ve known her. She always said that
one day she’d bring one or two in for us to possibly perform.
I kinda thought she was going to pull one out during the making
of our last album but, alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The week
before we began recording the album, Shonna wrote The Purgatory
Line and I’m Sorry Huston. She demoed them in her living room
and played them for us when we convened. We were all blown away
by what great and beautiful songs they were. A day or two later,
she stayed behind while the rest of us went to supper and wrote
Home Field Advantage..
Every time I
hear Perfect Timing, I pick up on something new in it. It’s
really a grower and a really good performance. John Neff did a great
job with the acoustic guitar solos.
A Drink really showcases the chemistry we have with Spooner Oldham.
His legendary playing has graced some of our favorite records in
the world. He co-wrote “I’m Your Puppet” and played
on “When A Man
Loves A Woman”
and Aretha Franklin’s “I Never Loved A Man (The Way
I Love You)” and “Do Right Woman”. He is the single
most creative soul I have ever met and his talent is only exceeded
by his charm as he is one of the single sweetest men we have ever
met. Every single day on the road and in the studio was brightened
by his presence and his contribution to this album is monumental
(thus its dedication to him).
talks about what inspires specific songs, but I was there with him
in 1991 and saw Self Destructive Zones play out in living color.
I think the imagery about the pawnshops and pointy cheap guitars
is priceless. I know Bob and you do too. Everyone knows him and
he’s probably about as good as they come. I probably know
his mother too.
There are things
you sometimes have to do in order to do what you got to do. The
trick is to not let that thing kill you before you do what you got
to do. Some folks don’t learn that one in time. The Opening
Act began as a song written on the back of a discarded setlist from
the headlining band on a sticky table at the shithole bar described
within it. The fake bull and faux cowboy were all too real, as was
the trip to the hospital for the guy looking for his manhood
in all the wrong places. I struggled with an ending for the thing
for several years, leaving it behind only to be drawn to it again.
It was only with the retrospect offered by a year or two of distance
that revealed the song’s true meaning to me, thus telling
me exactly how to close it out. I like to think of it as a short
film without the film. There is nothing like a Technicolor horizon
to offer a centerpiece on an album so full of black and white and
Birthday was inspired by a story told to Cooley by our old guitar
tech Mark Messner. I think it sounds like pure Country Gold circa
backstage visits by almost strangers, each touched in different
ways by our American tragedy in Iraq, led to the writing of The
Home Front and That Man I Shot. I was only a kid when we were over
in Vietnam, but I somehow did learn a lesson or two from it. I never
so much wanted to be proven wrong in my beliefs as with our current
situation, but the evidence so far seems to support that it ain’t
working out too good for anybody. Now, we’re
just trying to save face, at the expense of many young lives that
could be ordered to serve our country in more productive ways. Seems
our band has some fans over there and we’re always moved by
the stories of really fine folks
who are sacrificing so much for our privileged existence. The man
in That Man I Shot probably doesn’t agree with a lot of my
viewpoints, but I tried to be true to what he said and how he said
it. You don’t have to agree with someone
to respect them and that seemed to run both ways with us. As a writer,
it’s not my job to agree or disagree and certainly not to
judge. It is my job to be as true to the character’s voice
as humanly possible and to tell the story accordingly. The extended
family that inspired The Home Front absolutely broke my heart with
their story. I changed the names and some details but again tried
to be true to the spirit of what they told me.
Wanted to be
true also to that guy riding to his destiny in the back of a rented
car in the middle of the night to a destination that he thinks will
be the answer to all his problems. It was an ageless story with
a different twist.
for the family seemed like a better option than the kind of prison
awaiting him. A thousand decisions had led him there and it wasn’t
my place to question them. There isn’t an actual road called
Goode’s Field Road but if you grew up where I did you know
exactly where it is. Some of the best stories aren’t really
for the telling and the best songs come from the details and spaces
I wrote this
song in 2000 and planned it for The Dirty South album, but at the
last minute decided we didn’t have the magic take and swapped
it for Lookout Mountain. The song has been on my mind ever since
but its transition from the mannered country of its original version
to the raging primal stomp we landed on here (one magic take) made
all the difference and once again proved to me that all things happen
for a reason, you just have to trust your instinct (if they seem
to be good ones at least) and let things reveal themselves in their
own due time.
You And Your
Crystal Meth was recorded for Blessing and A Curse but voted off
the album. I was quite unhappy about it until I realized how perfect
it sits between Checkout Time in Vegas and Goode’s Field Road.
We used the old take exactly as it was. I think that take was when
I knew that John Neff HAD to rejoin this band. Our beloved producer
David Barbe played an extra big part in the creation of that song
in Vegas was inspired by the true-life story of our dear friend
Scott Baxendale. He builds guitars for a living (he’s currently
working on a second one for me and a third one for Cooley). He is
also a talented screenwriter
and documentary director. The story this song alludes to is the
basis for an excellent screenplay that he has been trying to get
filmed. He became convinced that Johnny Depp should play his character
(I want him to maybe play me too for that matter) and went to great
lengths to get him a copy. He filmed these great lengths and made
a documentary about it all, which recently was screened at The Hollywood
Film Festival to rave reviews. He is currently negotiating a distribution
deal for it. This guy is amazing and you should play one of his
guitars. We meet the most unbelievable people out there on the road.
his set with A Ghost to Most, which I am firmly convinced is the
best song he’s ever written. We worked it up in practice for
The Dirt Underneath Tour and it quickly became one of the standout
tunes of each show.
The chorus reveals
an image so basic and simple yet each listen reveals another layer
of story implied within. I overheard Cooley being asked by a friend
what it all meant and his response was how “It’s really
hard for me to find a suit that fits me right.”
The album closes
with The Monument Valley and the classic imagery from John Ford’s
immortal masterpiece The Searchers as the door closes on John Wayne’s
walk off into the desolate beauty of a disappearing America. Ford
been America’s greatest ever filmmaker and repeated viewings
of his work reveals insights into our psyche that have never been
expressed better. For me it’s an extremely personal song and
it was a magical take that night in the studio. I knew that it would
be the last song on the album the moment I wrote it.
I often write
liner notes for our albums and worked most of the summer on a set
juxtaposing the two backstage meetings last year. One with the three
Green Berets soldiers who had returned home and the other with the
family of the soldier who didn’t. Those two events played
a large part on the writing of this album and I plan to get around
to writing about something else pertaining to all of it at a later
November 2, 2007 – Athens, GA.