If you think drums are integral to the deeply literate, pile-driving rock 'n' roll of Drive-By Truckers, then spend some time with the band's new album, English Oceans.
The clap of sticks from Brad Morgan, who has manned the drum chair in the Athens, Ga., band for the 17 years, is the first sound you hear before the Truckers erupt into a Mike Cooley narrative about life in war-torn suburbia. Morgan is also the last musician standing as the album fades with the beat of Patterson Hood's eulogy for a longtime Truckers pal.
To bookend an album so powerful, a sound so huge and a band so continually vital speaks well of the kind of musical gusto Morgan can summon. But there is another, less visible role Morgan has played behind the scenes. Given the personalities at work in and around the band, the kind of relentless touring regimen they often fall into and the potentially devastating aftermath both can unleash, Morgan's other duties probably have played into the Truckers' longevity as deeply as his groove.
"I always saw myself as the psychiatrist of the band who was making sure everybody is happy and making sure everything is rolling the way it should be," he said.
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"It's all about personalities living in very close quarters. I mean, we see the crew as band members. We're all living together. We're around each other all the time. It feels like there are 10 people in the band. All those relationships have to work. Everybody has to get along. If people have problems with somebody, I'm like, 'Let's figure this out or something else is going to happen.' I'm kind of sensitive to that type of thing."
His efforts seem to be working. Morgan said band spirit is high, thanks largely to its newest lineup, dubbed DBT 12 in the liner notes to English Oceans. The album marks the recording debut of the band's latest recruit, bassist Matt Patton.
"As a drummer, a good bass player for the rhythm section is really important," Morgan said. "Just having somebody there who is just nailing it every time really takes a load off me. Plus, it's nice being on the road with a bunch of old friends and having everybody get along."
But personalities also have been at the heart of the Truckers' longevity. On English Oceans, Cooley and Hood take full and equal ownership of the songwriting duties for the first time. The distinction between their narrative styles of songwriting — Hood's songs read like dark, rural novels; Cooley's have a more informal yet bluntly conversational tone — fascinated Morgan even before he joined the band.
"I was like the No. 1 fan," he said. "I would be at every show. One of my best friends was playing drums for them at the time. When I was able to start subbing in the band, it was great because every night I would get to hear those songs from the back of the stage. Even today, that puts me back in that state of just how much I love the band and the songs. People at the shows get that, too. I can see it in people's faces."
Perhaps the most the heartfelt personality surrounding the Truckers these days belongs to a friend who is no longer with them. On the Hood- written Grand Canyon, the closing song on English Oceans, the Truckers honor Craig Lieske, a touring companion who sold merchandise at concerts and was a beloved member of the Athens music community.
"It sucks to have that happen," Morgan said of Lieske's death last year. "We were on the road with Craig for, like, seven years. Before that, I had been friends with him for another 10. I mean, everybody loved him. It was a connection you kind of took for granted until he was gone."