Listen to me: grab a copy of the Drive-By Truckers’ new Go-Go Boots in your format of choice, throw it on the stereo and put an ear to, say, just the first four songs. And then we’ll talk.
Track 1: “I Do Believe” – Sweet summer top-down-and-surf’s-up shimmy hip shake propelled along by Brad Morgan and Shonna Tucker’s bass/drum road rhythm. You don’t even need the words to get the vibe; once you do take in the lyrics, it’s no surprise to find out that Patterson Hood is sharing memories of his too-cool grandmother who drove a Mustang convertible way back when. The track clocks in at 3:31; hit repeat maybe three times and – zap! – you’ll have a handsome left-arm tan and your hair will be wind-blown back in a mid-August highway-do.
Track 2: “Go-Go Boots” – The title tune pulls the shades down suddenly, plummeting the album into darkness, both message-wise and sonically. This is a classic example of what producer/engineer David Barbe is capable of doing when it comes to capturing a song’s mood. A typically-twisted Hood lyric about a preacher with a dark side is brought to life by a band sound that is totally 2:00 AM and dry as a yellowed bone. Dig the sound of John Neff’s slide guitar: that’s not a processed reverb soak making that hollowness – the damn thing is simply WAY OVER THERE in the darkest part of the shadows. Add in Jay Gonzalez’ B3 lines stalking the vocal, flurries of six-string snap and snarl from Mike Cooley, and Morgan’s heartbeat drum: you’ve got yourself a head full of snakes and a case of the creeps, Truckers style.
Track 3: “Dancin’ Ricky” – Tucker hands off her bass to Barbe for this one and sits down at the piano with a vocal mic. Tucker cares about Dancin’ Ricky, for sure – and lays her concerns out with everything from gentle verses to eyes-closed-and-leaned-into-it choruses, never sounding anything but real. In the meantime, Barbe (long-time rocker in his own right) and Morgan lay down a slow, stark, and steady beat that leaves plenty of room for Neff’s nothing-but-sweet pedal steel, keyboard accents from Gonzalez, and little crunchy guitar bits from Cooley and Hood. “Hey Ricky, don’t let the diabetes get you!” Damn right. There are 13 other tracks on Go-Go Boots and none of them sound a thing like this. At the same time, “Dancin’ Ricky” sounds exactly like the Drive-By Truckers. Think about it.
Track 4: “Cartoon Gold” – Combine the lyrical wit of Paul Westerberg with the ache of ol’ Hank Williams and the voice of Johnny Cash and you might come close to defining the vibe of “Cartoon Gold”. There’s enough grit to make you think Beggar’s Banquet and enough sweetness to make you want to quote lyrics to someone you care for (“I think about you when I can and sometimes when I don’t I probably should”). All three of the Cooley-penned tunes on Go-Go Boots have this same acoustic-based vibe and more from-the-heart country feel than 90% of the big-hatted/big-haired crooners on CMT these days. What the Stones paid homage to with tunes like “Country Honk” and “Dead Flowers” is what Mike Cooley is.
There you have it: four songs into Go-Go Boots and the Truckers have already taken you ‘round the world once. While the band has always written and performed with a depth that far exceeded any tag that’s been pinned on them (not that there’s anything wrong with “Southern Rock”, boys and girls, but come on: never mind the accents, listen to the music) Go-Go Boots finds them with a new level of confidence without cockiness, and diversity that’s absolutely focused at the same time. The roux that ties it all together? I’m still struggling to come up with the right term. “Country soul” is about the closest I’ve come to it so far, but I’m still working on it.
There are tortured souls with tension-filled stories (Hood’s “Ray’s Automatic Weapon” and “Used To Be A Cop”), broken hearts (Cooley’s “The Weakest Man” featuring lovely backing vocals by The Bottom Feeders and a make-you-order-another-beer accordion), and the kind of dysfunction that we all know and love (“The Thanksgiving Filter”).
And, most of all, there’s salvation and hope. The album-closing “Mercy Buckets” with Hood’s pledges of support to the very end (“I will bring you buckets of mercy/And hold your hand when you’re crossing the street/Pay your bail if you need it/I will be your saving grace”) features a massive 3-guitar weave that packs plenty of emotion and power without ever getting tangled in its own feet. And if that wasn’t enough to provide fodder for yearbook quotes, tattoos, and locket inscriptions for years to come, there’s “Everybody Needs Love”.
Originally written and recorded by the late Eddie Hinton back in the 80s, “Everybody Needs Love” is what Mike Cooley refers to as “Songwriting 101 … write it on a gum wrapper and it’s brilliant.” And it is. Sadly, it was largely ignored by the world at the time of its release … the Truckers may send many scrambling to find out just who Eddie Hinton was – and kick themselves for not finding out sooner. (Hinton passed away in 1995 after a life that saw him homeless at times, but always respected and admired by his peers.)
With Hood’s vocal nailing the “white Otis Redding” soul of Hinton’s original performance, the Truckers take “Everybody Needs Love” in deeply and let it back out in great big bubbles of sound. Once again, Barbe’s production lets every note and every voice stand on equal footing. Neff’s delicate dobro does a beautiful slow dance across the sawdusted floor, handing the lead off to Cooley’s mournful-toned electric; Tucker and Morgan drive the just-waiting-for-a-hand-clap beat home; Gonzalez’ keys swell with all the majesty of a young Bobby Whitlock; and The Bottom Feeders sing the chorus like Saturday-night angels. It may be a cover, but it’s one of the Truckers’ greatest studio performances of their career. Their feelings for Hinton are right out there for all the world to hear and feel.
And maybe that’s the deal with Go-Go Boots in general: music doesn’t get any more honest than this.