Music News & Reviews

Even in an 'off' year, Drive-By Truckers is onstage

The Drive-By Truckers — Brad Morgan, left, Patterson Hood, John Neff, Jay Gonzalez and Mike Cooley — are playing without bassist Shonna Tucker, who left the band at the end of 2011. The split was not especially amicable, Cooley says.
The Drive-By Truckers — Brad Morgan, left, Patterson Hood, John Neff, Jay Gonzalez and Mike Cooley — are playing without bassist Shonna Tucker, who left the band at the end of 2011. The split was not especially amicable, Cooley says.

Drive-By Truckers

9 p.m. Oct. 20 at Buster's Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St. $25 advance, $28 day-of-show. (859) 368-8871.

This was supposed to be the year everyone took off, a period of artistic and personal refueling after years — shoot, after nearly a full career — of non-stop touring and recording. But you just can't keep Drive-By Truckers off the road for long.

Thus, the celebrated Southern ensemble — famous for songs full of dark rural narratives, a sound grounded in roots-driven rock and soul, and a truly inexhaustible fan base — returns this weekend to Lexington, one of only a handful of cities it will be playing during a brief fall tour.

There is no new album to promote, no special agenda to address. Instead, the evening will be devoted to songs pulled from a 13-album catalog recorded during the past 14 years. No wonder a break was called for.

"We put out album after album after album," Truckers co-guitarist and co-founder Mike Cooley said by phone last weekend. "And of course, the more you release records, the more you tour. So it was just time to let it all take a rest. You want to give your audience a rest after a while, too. You can start overexposing yourself to them. There's a chance they might start losing interest, and you definitely don't want that to happen.

"For a while, I was really getting burned out, too. This was about two years ago. It got to the point where I was going, 'Man, am I going to keep doing this?' And if not, then what?' I was actually asking myself those kinds of questions. But we put the brakes on, and now I'm excited to go back out and start playing again."

While the Truckers' touring schedule has always been rigorous, it went into overdrive with the rapidly successive releases of its last two albums, 2010's The Big To-Do and 2011's Go-Go Boots. The upside? The mammoth touring schedule culminated — locally, at least — with a riotous, weekend-long engagement at Buster's in April 2011. The downside? By the end of the tour, the band was whipped. Underscoring the aftermath was the departure of Shonna Tucker, the Truckers' bassist of eight years and, along with Cooley and Patterson Hood, one of its three vocalists and lyricists.

When asked if the split was amicable, Cooley replied, "Not especially. I've got to be honest about that. Hopefully at some point, it will all be OK."

For now, Matt Patton, from the Tuscaloosa, Ala., rock troupe The Dexateens, will handle bass duties in a Truckers lineup that includes Hood, Cooley, drummer Brad Morgan, keyboardist Jay Gonzalez and guitarist/pedal steel guitarist John Neff.

So what goes into a supposed "year off" for the Truckers? For Cooley, the break offered an opportunity to make music on his own. He began performing the massive library of songs he has co-penned for the Truckers, which has included such fan favorites as Zip City, Carl Perkins' Cadillac and 3 Dimes Down, in solo acoustic concerts.

"I rework a lot of the songs and try to find ways to make them interesting with just vocals and guitar, and that's been a lot of fun," he said. "I've put a lot of time into doing that. You're just mainly trying to figure out things like, 'OK, there is usually a guitar solo here. Now what do I do?' But you come up with different ways of doing things, so I'm enjoying that. We've recorded a few shows and are working on trying to get a live solo album together. It's some pretty cool stuff.

"It's a little more nerve-wracking when you go out there by yourself, sit down and have it all fall on you. But that's good for me. I kind of took that as a challenge. I've made it my goal to get over that and become at least as at ease going onstage alone as I am with the band."

Hood also took to the road this fall, with Morgan and Gonzalez in tow, to promote his third solo record, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance. In fact, Cooley conducted our interview by phone from an Atlanta airport, where he was waiting on the three to arrive. They were to then "jump in a van," drive southward to Albany, Ga, and join Neff and Patton for a Truckers concert that night.

That's the band's idea of a hiatus.

"We just have to keep things fresh for ourselves and for our audience, which remains very, very loyal," Cooley said. "I'm constantly amazed at how loyal some of these core fans are. And a lot of that has to do with knowing when to take time off."