Drive-By Truckers Are a Southern Contradiction

Drive-By Truckers Are a Southern Contradiction
Almost 20 years into their career under the Drive-By Truckers handle, and nearly 30 years together in total, Alabama natives Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley remain two of the most consistent, incisive rockers in the game. A testament to their respectful partnership and lucid vision, the Truckers have managed to stay afloat even though the band have had a revolving door of members since day one. Caught somewhere between rock, country, punk, folk and metal, these tireless road warriors have developed a signature sound that is immediately, and unmistakably, their own. Throughout it all, critics have fallen at their feet, fans have flocked to their epic three-hour shows, and each successive record has only further crystalized the impression that Drive-By Truckers just might be America's best rock'n'roll band.

1964 to 1984
Patterson Hood is born in Muscle Shoals, AL in 1964. The son of local bass player David Hood, Patterson grows up surrounded by musicians. David Hood joins the Swampers, better known as the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, and plays with Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Clarence Carter, and dozens more artists looking for "that Muscle Shoals sound." Patterson Hood is already writing songs by age eight. Mike Cooley is born in nearby Tuscumbia, AL in 1966. He picks up the guitar at age eight and is taught the instrument by a local bluegrass fiddler named Al Lester. Lester hosts a TV show and Cooley plays guitar on the program three times when he is about nine or ten years old.

At age 14, Hood joins a rock band at his high school. He attends a Blue Öyster Cult concert that year at which he takes LSD and "thought them lasers were a spider chasing me." In 1977 he sees something about punk on TV and is fascinated. He has grown up on soul music and "a little Elton, a little Neil, a little Pink, a little Zeppelin. The Beatles, the Stones, Steely Dan, even God forbid some Eagles." But now he was "scouring the racks looking for punk rock records — not necessarily easy to find in North Alabama at the time." This precipitates a musical split between Hood and his father. After a particularly bad show in senior year, his father suggests he try college instead of music, and he puts away his guitar for four years, although he continues to write songs every day.

Cooley is a lousy student and his parents lament his interest in rock'n'roll. "I can't say I blame them," he would later explain in an interview with Reverend Guitars. "They were afraid I would fall in with the wrong crowd and end up playing dive bars, sleeping on filthy floors, and coming home with nothing to show for it. And just to show them, I spent 20 years doing just that!" He forms a few bands in high school but loses interest in them after a few gigs. He is shot at by a neighbour while trespassing, a random near-death experience that haunts him. Meanwhile, Brad Morgan practices eight hours a day in his teens and jams with his older sister's friends, but doesn't think he's any good until he starts playing with singer-songwriters.

1985 to 1994
By happenstance, Cooley and Hood move in together in 1985. Hood is flunking out of college and unhappy. He and Cooley play guitar together in their leaky basement apartment. Hood listens to Tim by the Replacements and decides to drop out of school and try rock'n'roll again. He convinces Cooley to do the same thing, and to start a band. They co-found Adam's House Cat in August, 1985. The band name refers to the local Alabama saying: "I wouldn't know him from Adam's house cat." The band rehearses at Hood's grandmother's house. Their friends do not like the music they make. They are thrown out of their apartment "due to our excessive suckitude." Though most bands in the area only play covers, Adam's House Cat focus on original songs. This is not popular. Hood's great uncle loans them money to buy a PA system to convert his grandmother's basement into a band space. They move through a series of drummers before they settle on Chuck Tremblay. Tremblay is 35 years old and considered by local musicians to be a great talent. Hood recalls that Tremblay "basically trained us to be a good band." They have a hard time finding a bass player, and sometimes Hood and Cooley trade off guitar and bass duties. Adam's House Cat makes enemies of some locals when they start playing a new song called "Buttholeville" which people presume (wrongly) to be about Muscle Shoals. In 1988 they win a Musician Best Unsigned Band contest. John Cahoon joins as full-time bassist.

They embark on the so-called "Nightmare Tour" during which they have gear stolen after a show in Birmingham, AL. Their big homecoming gig in Florence, AL (just across the river from Muscle Shoals) is wiped out after a series of tornadoes sweep through the region. Newspapers report of the twister that "it sounded like a train." Hood would later immortalize this experience in the song "Tornadoes" in 2004.

In 1990, the band decide to make a record with their own money since no label is willing to sign them. They buy some late-night studio time at Muscle Shoals Sound (Patterson's father's old studio). Two days after Thanksgiving Adam's House Cat record all 13 tracks live under the supervision of co-producer and engineer Steve Melton. Hood returns in January (the night Operation Desert Storm begins in Iraq) to record the vocals. Cahoon quits the band before the overdubs are complete and new bassist Chris Quillen sings high harmonies on one track. The album will be called Town Burned Down; it is never released. Adam's House Cat tour through the summer and after a show in Nashville promptly break up.

Cooley and Hood move to Memphis. They form an acoustic duo called Virgil Kane and play gigs for 18 months. They then form another rock band called Horsepussy, which does not last. Hood moves to Athens, GA and he and Cooley don't play together for roughly 18 months.

Hood plots to bring Cooley into a new band, and begins working with local musicians in Athens before coaxing him to join. While doing sound at the High Hat Club, Hood follows a local band called the Diggers, which features Gregory Dean Smalley. Smalley is a local legend, involved in several bands simultaneously, founder of the Bubbapalooza festival, and key figure in the Redneck Underground movement (which includes Kelly Hogan and Bill Taft). Smalley is also, tragically, dying of AIDS. As Hood will recall in a piece for Paste Magazine: "He responded to his death sentence by joining several more bands and playing constantly, sometimes several nights a week… It made me question and eventually reaffirm my own convictions and beliefs." Smalley invites Hood's then-band the Lot Lizards to play Bubbapalooza, but when Hood calls to thank him, his wife informs him that he has only a few days left. Hood walks out into his backyard and writes "The Living Bubba," which he believes to be the best song he has yet written.

On a lengthy road trip Hood and friend Earl Hicks begin to map out an idea for a concept record about growing up in the South told through the story of Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd. This idea will percolate for years to come.

1996 to 1998
In 1996 Cooley and Hood reunite. Cooley recalls that the decision was easy. "There was a point where it was like: 'Well, there are things we can do together that we can't do separately.' That's how most partnerships work. The successful ones." They work with several different musicians to retool old Adam's House Cat songs and write new music. Patterson Hood names their new band Drive-By Truckers and they get to work playing gigs and writing new material. "I don't know where he got [the name]," Cooley says now. "It's just been there so long it's like that dog — you don't remember where you got it, you just started feeding it. But you generally give yourself a name so you can go out and play some bar gigs, and nobody's gonna be there. So, you come up with something that just works. But you'd better be careful because people might start showing up and you might be stuck with that fucking name for the rest of your life." Adam Howell joins the band on bass, Matt Lane on drums, and John Neff on pedal steel. Gangstabilly, their debut, is released in 1998 to little notice or acclaim, but sells well at gigs. Despite its roughness and DIY feel, it features several songs that will become fan favourites, including "Steve McQueen," "18 Wheels of Love," "Buttholeville," "Why Henry Drinks," and "The Living Bubba." Hood would later describe it as "our weakest album" because "we didn't really know how to do what we were trying to do yet." Andy Howell is replaced by Robert Malone. John Neff leaves the band.

The Truckers continue to play regionally across the south through 1998. Somewhere along the line Cooley picks up the nickname "The Stroker Ace." "We were giving each other nicknames from old Burt Reynolds movies," Cooley would explain to The Auburn Plainsman in 2005, "and mine was the only one that stuck. It's funny, because that's one of his worst movies."

The DBT record their sophomore record in early 1999. Again featuring a loose cast of musicians (friends, mostly), Pizza Deliverance is recorded in Hood's living room over five days. It is another DIY, rough-hewn effort. Hood swears you can hear his dogs fighting over "which one's going to eat the other's puke" in the background of the track "Mrs. Dubose," for example. A much stronger effort overall than their previous album, Pizza Deliverance features three compositions by Mike Cooley to counterbalance Hood's material. The record closes with the meditative "The Night GG Allin Came To Town," a song Hood wrote for Cooley as a birthday present "at a time when we weren't speaking." An autobiographical mid-tempo country song about a punk legend who "took a microphone and shoved it up his ass" while "me and Cooley we just laughed so hard we both fell down," this is something different. "Overall, we kind of nailed what we were shooting for," Hood says. "We were starting to come into our own, right there. For Cooley and I, that was 14 years into our playing together! We were slow bloomers."

The Truckers tour across the U.S., living out of a van and hawking CDs at shows. Pizza Deliverance gains critical traction. Brad Morgan joins the band on drums, cementing the core trio that remains to this day. That autumn, the band (Cooley, Hood, Morgan, Malone) record a live record at shows in Athens and Atlanta, GA. A hard-rocking album that edges away from country and toward the punk that has always motivated the songwriting, Alabama Ass Whuppin' is released to little notice in 2000.

The Truckers begin work with friends to develop a website (designed and run by friend Jenn Bryant) and a distinctive graphic concept. They begin their longstanding relationship with artist Wes Freed, who will go on to design all of their record covers and define the "look" of DBT insignias. Throughout 2000, the band continue to tour tirelessly, building a community of fans despite lackluster record sales. Long-time collaborator Earl Hicks takes over on bass. The band struggle with the pressure of constant touring and little income or attention. "They lost girlfriends, they basically were homeless at one time or another. Because they put everything into that band," Bryant will explain in the 2009 documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending. "I'd come home and then have to go to my dishwashing job," recalls Hood. "Or wherever I could find that would hire me for four weeks until I'd leave again. To try to save up enough money to get to the first town of the next tour. I mean, it was that bad."

2001 to 2002
Following up on an old idea, Patterson Hood has been working on a screenplay about a fictional band called Betamax Guillotine that is loosely based on Lynyrd Skynyrd. They decide to turn the screenplay into a concept album about the life of a touring rock band, and what Hood dubs the "duality of the Southern thing." It will be co-produced by David Barbe; Barbe will stay on to produce every subsequent Truckers record. They record it "like it was the '70s" and frame it as a "rock opera" on a double-LP with two distinct "acts." "That's a good ridiculous thing to do!" Hood declares. The album is recorded in a series of all-night sessions in the middle of a September heat wave, with no air conditioning. "The year that we actually made Rock Opera was pretty much the worst year of our lives," Hood will later tell Rolling Stone. "We recorded it three separate times and had two marriages and one long-term relationship break up during the two weeks we spent recording the actual version that came out."

They are still working independently, so they shop the finished product to a range of labels, but no one is interested. The band are struggling with major internal strife and personal issues. In early 2001, Hood records a solo album in his dining room, which he dubs "my homemade exorcism tape." He'll later refers to it as a "black-humoured document of a shitty time." It will remain unreleased until 2004.

Meanwhile, the band suffer a breakdown. "It all kind of exploded", Hood recalls in The Secret to a Happy Ending. "We had this huge, huge battle and decided, 'Well, are we going to break up or what?" The band take a break, but Hood believes the strength of the record keeps them together. "We made it happen. We may not all be necessarily liking one another right now, but we got work to do, you know? If we break up now, there's no saving face. We're just another bunch of fucking losers that didn't follow through on what they said they were going to do… Somewhere by the end of that ranting and cussing, it swerved into 'Fuck it! We're gonna do it ourselves. We'll find investors. I'll book the whole goddamn tour myself. We're just gonna do the whole goddamn thing! We're going to see this thing through.' That's when our lives all got turned around, basically." They self-release Southern Rock Opera on September 12, 2001. For a record that culminates in a catastrophic plane crash, this is not terrific timing.

The CD release concert, scheduled for that night, is thrown up in the air following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. "We all decided we weren't, figured we weren't going to play. [But] we called the club and they said 'We're going to be open. If y'all want to come play, that's fine. And if you don't, that's fine too. We understand. We don't know if anyone's coming or not. But a lot of people want to get out and drink. Maybe it might do them some good to hear some rock.' So we drove up, and played, and toured for the next two years on that record."

The album is their critical breakthrough. Rolling Stone gives it four stars – remarkable considering that the independent album is virtually unavailable in stores. Buzz and acclaim builds throughout 2001 and into 2002 as the band tour. Robert Malone leaves and Jason Isbell joins the band on guitar and vocals. In June 2002, Drive-By Truckers announce that the Lost Highway label will re-release Southern Rock Opera in July. Now, proclaims Hood to Rolling Stone, "we can concentrate on the rock." The band tour Europe for the first time.

The Truckers sign a record deal with New West and prepare to release Decoration Day. Another concept record, Decoration Day is, according to Hood, "an album about choices, good and bad, right and wrong, and the consequences." Released to wide acclaim, the album features two songs written and performed by Jason Isbell, and showcases a broader range of musical styles than Southern Rock Opera. However, it harkens back to the DIY sound of Pizza Deliverance in that half of the record is comprised of first takes. Selling reasonably well, Decoration Day reaches #27 on the Billboard Independent Albums chart. The band continue to tour relentlessly, playing Bonnaroo for the first time and heading back over to Europe. At the end of 2003, a year in which they play over 100 shows, Earl Hicks quits the band and is replaced by Jason Isbell's wife, bassist Shonna Tucker.

Patterson Hood's first solo record, Killers and Stars, is released. The new line-up Drive-By Truckers begin recording another concept record. "If you wrote down on a piece of paper the idea for this band," Isbell will declare in The Secret to a Happy Ending, "nobody would do it. If you wrote down: We're gonna have a band with three different singers, and each singer is gonna write his own songs. And you said 'Well, it's gonna be a Southern-oriented rock'n'roll band, but it's not gonna be a Southern rock band. And the guitar player and the bass player are gonna get married. And these guys are gonna be in their 40s, and these guys are gonna be in their 20s and these guys are gonna be in their 30s.' If you wrote all that down and tried to audition people for the gig, you wouldn't have a single person show up. There's no way! It's the worst idea in the world. On paper. But, it worked."

This time they try to work up songs that reflect different aspects of the underside of American identity. The centerpiece of the album will be a three-song suite that interrogates the legend surrounding Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser, real-life hero of the Hollywood film Walking Tall. Patterson Hood will explain this thematic approach to The Aquarian Weekly the following year. "In the South there has been Bear Bryant, [George] Wallace, Buford Pusser, and Jimmy Carter, who have all become larger-than-life figures in Southern culture, or perhaps represent the South in American culture. As an artist, I have long been drawn to the various sociological aspects of icons and in recent years have made a couple of albums talking about the ones associated with the South and how they have shaped peoples views of this region. I'm also interested in how they have shaped Southerners views of themselves."

Cooley will later explain to Exclaim! that "honestly, this stuff is American. It's not uniquely Southern. That's something we've always been trying to drag in there. We use the backdrop of our own culture because that's what we know, those are the images we know, those are the pictures we can paint. But, one of the things that motivated George Wallace to go on and run for President, and to believe he could do it, was all of the support he got from all over the country. For his segregationist policies. And he looked at it and said 'Holy shit, the whole damn country's dixiefried!' And it was then, and it is now. So I try to bring that angle into it as much as I can."

Partially recorded at the fabled FAME studios in Muscle Shoals (where his father used to work), The Dirty South is the first Truckers record that is a strong seller. Another critical success, the record features four songs from Jason Isbell, including his ominous "love song" for Shonna Tucker, "Goddamn Lonely Love." Things between them have already become somewhat rocky. The record also contains "Tornadoes" (about their so-called Nightmare Tour) and "Lookout Mountain," a song that dates back to the Adam's House Cat days. The track "Goode's Field Road" is a late scratch from the album despite being Hood's favourite composition from the period. It will resurface in a new arrangement on Brighter Than Creation's Dark in 2008.

2005 to 2006
DBT release a live DVD entitled The Dirty South – Live at the 40 Watt that was shot over two days the previous summer. The Truckers' live show gains notoriety as a kind of hard rock variant of the Grateful Dead. The band pride themselves on refusing to write a set list, and playing as long as the venue will allow. "If I'm doing the first song I have no idea what the next song is gonna be until Cooley either kicks it off or cues us," Hood will tell Exclaim! in 2014. "We have hand signals and shit!" Occasionally, these shows stretch close to four hours, covering as many as 30 songs a night. "Being a pro in this business is just tough," Cooley tells Exclaim! "It doesn't really work well for it. You're expected to be, and you know when you have to be, but it's also rock'n'roll! It's all about feelings and emotions and affecting people emotionally, and about using your own [emotions] to do that. So, if you're not feeling it, it's hard to ignore that." Famously passing around a bottle (or six) of Jack Daniels while they play, the Truckers gain a reputation for boozy, loose, unpredictable performances. Cooley admits to The Auburn Plainsman that although "usually we know when to stop [drinking onstage], one night in Cleveland things really went sour in a hurry for us. It can really turn on you... it's kind of like having a really mean dog." Some band members begin to temper their partying as they enter their 40s. When asked by Anti-Gravity Magazine if it is difficult to keep up his "Stroker Ace" persona every night, Cooley explains: "I don't have to get drunk to do that. I just have to make sure you are." New West re-releases the now out-of-print Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance.

In late 2005 the band return to the studio to record A Blessing and a Curse. Tucker and Isbell's marriage is breaking up, and the sessions are difficult. The record, released in the spring of 2006, features no thematic glue, and Isbell's two contributions are his weakest yet. John Neff re-joins the band as an unofficial sixth member, playing pedal steel throughout the record. The record closes with "A World of Hurt," a song that seems to be about Tucker and Isbell's impending divorce, or is it the impending break-up of the band? "There was one point around A Blessing and A Curse where we wondered if we were done or not," Cooley says now. "But we got over it. We didn't really come close to breaking up, I wouldn't say." They tour non-stop from June till November, opening for the Black Crowes for a stretch in the early summer.

One year after A Blessing and a Curse is released, Jason Isbell leaves Drive-By Truckers. Though at the time this was said to be an amicable departure, Isbell will tell The New York Times in 2013 that this was a charade, and that he had in fact been forced out. "Jason needed to front his own band," Cooley will tell Exclaim! "That's what he needed to do." John Neff is promoted to full-time member. Two weeks after Isbell's departure, veteran session player and soul music legend Spooner Oldham joins on organ and piano. The Truckers are asked to be the backing band for veteran soul singer Bettye LaVette on the follow-up to her well-received comeback record I've Got My Own Hell to Raise. Hood takes up production duties and together they work up material for LaVette to cover. The resulting record, Scene of the Crime, is well received by critics, and is nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album. The Truckers undertake a largely acoustic tour they call "The Dirt Underneath," and use it to work up material for the next record, the sprawling Brighter Than Creation's Dark.

Brighter Than Creation's Dark is released in January. The album features 19 songs and for the first time includes tracks written and sung by Shonna Tucker. The highest-charting of any Truckers album to date, it reaches #37 on the Billboard 200 album list. It features Cooley's response to Hurricane Katrina ("A Ghost To Most") and Hood's aching song about the murder of fellow musician Bryan Harvey ("Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife"). They name the tour for the record "The Home Front" after Hood's song about the neglected families of war veterans. Oldham leaves the band following the tour, and is replaced on piano by Jay Gonzalez. With Gonzalez, they play for the Austin City Limits TV program in September. This performance will become a 2009 live record and DVD Live From Austin, TX. That fall, the Truckers head out on a tour co-headlining with the Hold Steady. They switch opening and closing acts every night. The tour is entitled "Rock And Roll Means Well," a line from Cooley's "Marry Me."

Stax recording veteran Booker T. Jones asks Drive-By Truckers to back him for his next record and the band jump at the chance. "Working on that record was absolutely one of the greatest moments of my life," Hood says now, "and I know I can speak for Cooley and the band on that too. It was really a highlight. Like a bucket list thing." The resulting album, Potato Hole, features Neil Young on lead guitar (his work was overdubbed — he was never in studio with the Truckers), Booker T. on organs and some guitars, and the Truckers. The highlight is a cover of Cooley's "Space City," perhaps the best song from the lackluster Blessing and a Curse. Potato Hole is nominated for two Grammy Awards and will win Best Pop Instrumental Album in 2010.

Among the most fabled Truckers performances occurs in February. Hood is sick with pneumonia and cannot perform for either of the two sold-out shows at Washington's famed 9:30 Club. For the first time, the band does both shows without him, with Cooley taking lead vocals on almost all the songs. "I do not need Patterson Hood anymore," he jokes from the stage (according to freelance writer Chris Klimek). "I hope he sees this on YouTube and shits himself!" "He's been shitting his pants all day, unfortunately," is Tucker's laughing response. During the encore, Cooley invites a random audience member onstage to sing Hood's song "Life in the Factory." He nails it. In June, Patterson Hood's second solo album, Murdering Oscar, is released. It features his father David Hood on bass.

Documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending comes out. Made by filmmaker Barr Weissman over the course of three years and covering the near-break-up of the band following Isbell's departure, it showcases the band as they move from a state of comfort to one of transition and confusion. However, by the time of its release, the band have moved well past these concerns. They are released from their contract by New West, and the label put out a collection of B-sides, outtakes and alternate versions of Truckers songs in September. The Fine Print is comprised of 12 tracks recorded during Isbell's tenure with the band, and serves for many fans as a kind of coda to this period. The band are busy working up new material for the two albums they are recording simultaneously for their new label ATO, The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots. The first of these will appear in 2010, and the second in 2011.

2010 to 2011
In January, the band play a set at Third Man Records in Nashville with David Hood playing bass. It is recorded and released in a limited edition, on vinyl only. It has since gone out of print. The Big To-Do is envisioned as more of a straight-up rock record (although it features several politically-charged songs, especially "The Fucking Job") while Go-Go Boots is much more contemplative and story-based. Both are filled with down-and-out characters, people struggling to make it in the Great Recession. "I grew up around a lot of those people," Cooley will tell Exclaim! now. "I can see how misunderstood they are. Sometimes those people are people I don't particularly care for, but I like to humanize them. I may not like what they are or what they express, but I try to understand how they got that way, and at least feel empathy for that." Both records are received with glowing reviews from critics, and the Truckers play both The Late Show with David Letterman and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The Truckers make some history on Letterman — they are only the third act ever to be invited by the host to perform an encore. They are offered the opening slot on a tour with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. For Record Store Day, 2010, the Truckers release a seven-inch with the songs "Your Woman Is A Living Thing" and "Just Maybe." These tracks remain unavailable on CD, but were made available as digital downloads from the band's Facebook site some time later. New West releases a "greatest hits" CD entitled Ugly Buildings, Whores and Politicians in August. After a show in London, ON, Hood takes to the band's website to complain about a group of unruly fans in the front row. "'Buttholeville' really is a state of mind," he declares, having seen proof that redneck idiots are to be found everywhere you go.

Trouble is again brewing in the band and in December 2011, Hood announces that Shonna Tucker is leaving DBT. "We all love and respect her," he writes on the band's website, "and wish her all of the best in everything she sets out for." "It had been great for awhile, and then it just really wasn't that great anymore," Hood elaborates in 2014. John Neff, who has been dating Tucker, also leaves the Truckers. Mike Cooley confirms that Tucker and Neff "didn't really leave on good terms" with the band. "We haven't spoken since they left, and probably never will again," he laments.

Jay Gonzalez takes up double duty on keyboards and guitar, and long-time producer David Barbe picks up the bass temporarily. Patterson Hood's third solo record, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance is released to wide acclaim in September. Both Cooley and Hood undertake short solo tours, while the band take their longest break in years. "We had a much-needed rest… I think we had just run ourselves out, kind of on every level. I think it probably saved the band," says Hood. "We needed to get some time away from it," Cooley explains. "It was nice! It wasn't one of those things where we had to get away to keep it from imploding on us. We'd been there before. But that wasn't the case this time. It was more of a walking away without walking away."

Matt Patton of the Dexateens officially joins the band on bass. Mike Cooley's first-ever solo record, the live acoustic album The Fool On Every Corner, is released in January. The long out-of-print Alabama Ass Whuppin' is re-remastered and released on ATO Records in the summer. DBT, meanwhile, are busy recording their first album since the sessions that produced The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots back in 2009. The Truckers go on tour co-headlining with the Old 97s in the fall.

English Oceans, the Truckers' first record with their new, leaner line-up, is released in March. Recorded in the wake of the loss of their old friend and Truckers merch man Craig Lieske, the album culminates in "Grand Canyon," a song about his sudden death. "I hung out with him all night the last night he was on earth," Hood explains. "He had an amazing last night. It's tragic that he's gone, but at the same time, I can only wish that my last day on earth would be as full of joy as his was. The song wrote itself. I wrote that song in like 15 minutes. And it's probably one of the two or three best things I have ever written." Featuring an almost even split in songwriting duties between Hood and Cooley, and no third songwriter for the first time since 1999, English Oceans marks the beginning of a new period for the band. By August, 2015, the core duo of Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley will have been playing music together, almost uninterrupted, for 30 years.

Essential Drive-By Truckers

Pizza Deliverance (Soul Dump, 1999)
At the tail end of their loose, punk-inflected first incarnation, the Truckers produced an alt-country masterpiece. Featuring some of the best songs they'd ever write — "Love Like This," "Uncle Frank" and "Bulldozers and Dirt" — and revelling in a late-night-and-blind-drunk living-room vibe, this band with a silly name made an album with an even sillier name that only a fool wouldn't take seriously. It's all a great unholy mess, but what are you going to do? Turn it up.

Decoration Day (New West, 2003)
Although Southern Rock Opera remains their signature album, and may boast the highest proportion of stone classic songs, it also contains some misfires. Its follow-up is emphatically on target. The addition of a third singer-songwriter and lead guitarist in Jason Isbell injects some new blood into the system, and the record is carried aloft on some of the best songwriting of the early 2000s. The four-song suite that ends the record — all with lyrics about guns, death, guilt and memory — is among their most towering achievements as a band.

Brighter Than Creation's Dark (New West, 2008)
Following Isbell's departure, the band could have fallen apart. Instead, they returned with perhaps the most accomplished album in their entire catalogue. A sprawling collection of 19 songs, several written and performed by Shonna Tucker for the first time, here are the Truckers at their most lavish. And yet the excess is never unjustified; there is not a wasted note on what would have been a double-LP in the pre-digital years. And, despite being an unsettling journey through a swampy American shadow land, BTCD is filled with such memorable characters, such unforgettable turns of phrase, and such unshakable melodies, that it remains their best gateway album.