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Just because a band is from the South and rocks, that doesn't make it a "Southern rock" band. This is a misnomer the Drive-By Truckers have been trying to shed practically since forming 16 years ago. Founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley do admit a fondness for their home-state brethren Lynyrd Skynyrd — and sing about Molly Hatchet and other Southern groups — and feature a three-guitar lineup, à la these bands, but the truth is, DBT has far more country leanings.
"I think we have moved on from the kind of Southern rock thing that was going on. We had a couple records that, hell, maybe had it in the title [Southern Rock Opera and The Dirty South], but we never really wanted to be labeled that way," Cooley says by phone from his home in Birmingham, Alabama. "If it sounds Southern rock to somebody, that's fine. I kind of consider that to be part of that era, back in the '70s, you know . . . I don't know where we really fit into that."
More recently, DBT rediscovered Southern soul and rhythm and blues, as evidenced on Go-Go Boots, released just over a year ago. Hood's father, a session bassist at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, backed the likes of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and The Staple Singers, so it makes sense that this musical influence would eventually seep into the Drive-By Truckers' sound.
"Some of the stuff, this time, is more country and is more similar to what we started out doing on our first couple records, [but] a lot of [soul] has always been there," Cooley says. "We've been able to go a little more in a classic soul direction now. It's something we always wanted to do, but I think we finally improved enough and developed some of the skills to pull some of that off."
"I wasn't always a big fan, but I'd heard it," he continues. "It wasn't until, I guess, I reached a certain age and something flipped in my brain. I really appreciated it in ways I hadn't before. I started taking it apart and figuring out how to incorporate it into my thing. I think it's made me better. We're not necessarily writing those kinds of songs — I don't think we're those kinds of artists — but it's creeping its way in. I'm enjoying its influence."
Whether soul, country, or rock, one constant in Drive-By Truckers songs is a well-conceived, often cinematic lyrical tale that allows the listener to participate in the story. Country themes are the norm: trailer park fights, moms running off with truckers, unsolved mysteries, grisly murders, poverty, struggle, and, occasionally, some sort of redemption. As principal songwriters, Hood and Cooley frequently follow the same path. It's not surprising, considering the pair have made music together for 26 years.
"Dark is just a little more interesting," Cooley says. "It feels right; I don't know why. It makes my ears perk up a little more if you can tap into something of a darker nature."
A touch of darkness hangs on the band as it rolls into Phoenix. Bassist Shonna Tucker left in December, almost eight years to the day since joining the band, back when it featured her then-husband, Jason Isbell. Matt Patton, from the Dexateens (a group produced by Hood), is the second bassist to plug the hole. What this means for subsequent tours and recording sessions anticipated later in the year, Cooley says, is unclear.
"We may end up with a third or fourth bassist, somebody rotating in or out," he says, a touch wearily. "We're still trying to figure out where to go from here."