“It’s a wacky business we’re in, and nobody’s playing straight-up rock ‘n’ roll,” claims Shonna Tucker, bassist and occasional vocalist for the Drive-By Truckers. “It’s like, ‘Get out of your office, go have a drink and go rock out: You’ll feel better.’”
Or try this: Seven tracks into Drive-By Truckers’ newest album, Brighter than Creation’s Dark (New West Records, 2008), an upbeat strum of acoustic guitars rings out like a new morning. The song, “Self Destructive Zones,” may contain the most upbeat and bittersweet lyric about surrender released this year. It also boasts this sage kernel from band co-founder and guitarist Mike Cooley: “It’s easier to let it all die a fairy tale, than admit that something bigger is passing through.” Listeners are compelled to wonder if that line references the Truckers’ recent lineup shuffle and retreat (albeit short-lived) to a quieter, more introspective sound.
Turns out, the line is just a nod to the musical torch-pass from hair metal to grunge rock.
“That’s what the song is about: changing from the leather pants to Birkenstocks,” laughs Tucker.
While the songs on the Alabama-born and Athens, Ga.-based Truckers’ latest album lend themselves to heavy-handed analysis from rock dorks with too much free time, they still display the group’s trademark wit and character sketches, only with that wall-of-guitars sound turned way down. Sure, there are a few moments when the band lets the three-headed guitar monster out to play (“We couldn’t do a completely laid back record, so we have a few rockers on there,” Tucker confesses), but introspection and song writing chops are at the forefront on Brighter.
However, the laid-back style of the new album wasn’t a group decision. It’s a reaction to the songs the band was creating together for Brighter. “We never really make a plan with anything on stage,” explains Tucker. “A couple of songs were written before we went into the studio, and a few were written while we were recording. We didn’t really plan on it, it just kind of happened.”
Providence, perhaps. But now that the band is back on the road, don’t expect just the quieter, gentler Truckers that Asheville audiences were treated to during the group’s last local stop. According to Tucker, the band has unleashed those guitars again, only this time with a few breaks to spotlight the quiet side displayed on Brighter.
“We are all plugged back in,” the bassist notes. “The other night we played for three hours. We played everything we could, including the new songs.”
To some listeners, Drive-By Truckers will always be synonymous with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, a genre-defying album that both praised and buried the South. With punk attitude and rock swagger, the band endeared itself to music fans through impassioned live performances and a good old-fashioned sprawling saga of an album. That success brought expectations of a sequel: something the band has no interest in doing.
“We do what we want to,” Tucker stresses. “Each record is completely different. We never know what direction we are going to go in. Southern Rock Opera was a concept record, and it’s definitely the Southern-rock sound that caused that label to be put on us.” Ironically, “After that, nothing else we did sounded like that album.”
She adds, “There were a few people who were let down, because they expected that we would sound like [Opera], but we keep getting further away from that.”
With an eye keenly trained on the future, the Truckers are searching for their next sound. That evolution includes Tucker’s writing skills (the bassist contributed three songs to Brighter) added to the road-tested talents of co-founder Patterson Hood and Cooley.
“[Hood and Cooley] are two of my best friends in the world, and also two of my favorite writers in the world,” says Tucker, who joined the band in 2002. “It was quite intimidating, the initial ‘This is what I’ve got,’ but then I saw the reaction and I knew I was in.”
These days, the Drive-By Truckers are stronger than ever, renewing their mission to convert audiences to believers in the majesty, beauty and audacity of rock music.
“That’s what this band has always been about,” Tucker says. “Each year that the band survives just gives us a reason to fight for it.”
[Jason Bugg is a freelance writer based in Asheville.
who: Drive-By Truckers with The Whigs
what: Earnest, hip-shaking Southern rock
where: The Orange Peel
when: Saturday, March 29 (9 p.m., $25, SOLD OUT. Info: 225-5851)