The news coming down the wire from Europe last November read like a World War II dispatch from the Battle of the Bulge: the troops were sick, tired, beat up, and beat down – but still marching on.
The Drive-By Truckers were on the homestretch of a successful year, having won the applause of fans and critics alike with the release of The Big To-Do, their latest studio album of new material. Keyboardist Jay Gonzalez (who came on board full-time in 2008) had mastered the art of how to co-exist with a three-guitar-plus-a-bass lineup, complementing and challenging them at the same time. Drummer Brad Morgan and bassist Shonna Tucker fed the beast’s boiler, while John Neff continued to blow listeners away with his guitar abilities, ranging from achingly-lovely pedal steel to crunchy six-string riffs. And band co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley were full-steam-ahead being Cooley and Hood: a little bit of yin, a little bit of yang, some great songwriting, killer riffs, and a whole lot of music that speaks to the everyman.
Yeah, it was a great year, but a hard one, as well. The Truckers have never been a band to slack off, whether the going was tough or the going was easy. They were worn out before they got on the plane to head to Europe in November for three weeks of shows (21 of them in 24 nights), but you know … the rock show must go on, y’all.
And then the unthinkable happened: Mike Cooley hit the wall. Literally. Two weeks into the tour, Cooley – the seemingly invincible Stroker Ace of the dangling cigarette and non-poser presence – collapsed in a hotel hallway in Belgium just as the band was getting ready to trudge north for a string of Scandinavian shows.
The first post-Cooley-crash announcement was made by management: the Truckers were canceling the remainder of the tour and coming home to heal up. A scheduled appearance at Warren Haynes’ Annual Christmas Jam was called off, too. It sounded serious.
And then came the word that all had been waiting for on the band’s website from Patterson Hood.
Just so everyone knows,
Cooley’s ok. I’m ok.
Hood wrote that Cooley had been diagnosed with exhaustion and dehydration – plus had received some stitches from his bout with the wall. The rest of the band were still on their feet, but it was clear they had run out of steam. They were flying home to rest and regroup.
It was an apology and a concession speech, for sure. But Hood signed off with:
Get them Go-Go Boots ready, for DBT will rise again.
See y’all in NYC for New Year’s.
Crash-and-burn be damned: the way the band tore through their New Year’s run in New York, you’d never have known how wrung-out they’d been a few weeks earlier. Forget the funeral flowers, baby; the Drive-By Truckers were alive and well.
2011 finds the Truckers banging on all cylinders with two new projects to unleash on the world. The Secret To A Happy Ending, a documentary by filmmaker Barr Weissman, captures the band during the high point of the period when Jason Isbell was a Trucker – while managing to deal with the hard times of Isbell’s divorce from Shonna Tucker and his eventual departure from the band in a manner that’s open and honest while respectful at the same time.
And then there’s Go-Go Boots, the Truckers’ latest studio album, which has everything you love about the band (yes, boys and girls, don’t worry: there are two songs on this one about men of the cloth turned bad) plus a whole lotta soul that fits them perfectly.
In amongst all the smoke and swagger, the raunch and the rock and the roll, there is an element of grace and strength to what the Drive-By Truckers are doing these days – simply by still being together and creating music. They are survivors.
Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood were kind enough to share some of their precious time at home with us recently to talk a little about “country soul,” songwriting, dead heroes, and guitars.
Part I – Mike Cooley
It’s easy for rock writers to compare guitarist/vocalist Mike Cooley to Keith Richards. Cooley has the same dog-with-a-bone attention to a song’s groove combined with a natural … well … Keefness, you could say; a cool stage demeanor that hasn’t changed, no matter the degree of fame achieved by the Drive-By Truckers.
But to get closer to the real Mike Cooley, you’d have to add in some of the storytelling abilities of folks like Larry Brown and Mark Twain and stir in some of the pure country heart of Johnny Cash. Then you’d be getting somewhere.
This is a man blessed with the ability to write simple yet profound truths – and rock your living ass off when the songs call for it.
Our visit with Mike Cooley begins with a meteorological discussion of Groundhog Day.
BR: I’m guessing it’s not a raging snowstorm where you are in Alabama today.
MC: Naw – and I’m staying right here, too. (laughs) For the first time this winter, I’m not about to go in the dumbest direction I could possibly go. (laughter)
BR: Well, we’d love to have you up here in Maine, but don’t come today.
MC: You know, I saw the weather report and looked at the calendar to see if there was, like, a Chicago show this week that I didn’t know about. I figured, “It’s snowing like hell – we must have something going on up there.” (laughter)
BR: Man, I don’t know what you had for weather over in Europe back in November, but that was the tail end of a long year for the band, wasn’t it? You really beat yourselves to a pulp in 2010.
MC: Yeah, it was pretty crazy. That European tour itself was long by anybody’s standards. We never do more than three weeks to a stretch – I don’t think we ever have. Two over there’s about all you can stand with all the travel … it just takes a lot more out of you.
So, yeah, we were beat to death and it was cold and disagreeable … (laughs)
BR: And you’d been over there how long when you pulled the plug on the tour at the end of November?
MC: Two weeks – I think we had about a week still ahead of us. We were headed for Scandinavia and the way the weather was turning, our driver had already told us to be prepared for the very real possibility of not making a couple of those shows.
I really wasn’t looking forward to it, so I just threw myself against the wall. (laughter)
BR: The truth comes out! (laughter)
MC: Naw – I legitimately just passed out. We were joking about it after and they all said, “Man, you really were sick of this tour, weren’t you? You went and cracked your head open!” (laughs)
BR: I wanted to ask you how you’re feeling now. Since you all got back home, you haven’t exactly been on bed rest. I know there’ve been a bunch of shows …
MC: Yeah, we’ve been busy since then, but it’s more annual stuff that we were looking forward to: the 40 Watt show that we do every year; the New Year’s Eve thing that was a lot of fun; that kind of stuff. It’s been cool.
But everybody’s feeling fine now. I went to the doc here and got some tests done just to make sure and they said, “Well, you were probably just too damn tired!” (laughter)