Patterson Hood rarely looks in his rear-view mirror. As the ever-unapologetic Drive-By Truckers retread after the departure of important member Jason Isbell, the band’s swaggering, whiskey-bent fountainhead displayed his forward-thinking disposition in a recent talk with Xpress.
“It kind of got to the point where, in my opinion, [Jason] outgrew being one-fifth of this thing,” said Hood. It should be mentioned that Isbell withdrew his rejuvenating presence from the Truckers with a vivid goodbye salute. In a recent photo, the talented slide guitarist extended his unmentionable finger with gusto.
But before beginning the inevitable pontificating about what the Truckers ain’t got no more—and how amicably or otherwise the split played out—it’s worth noting the things they do have. And legendary keys player Spooner Oldham is a right fine place to start.
Oldham has been playing select shows with the Truckers and “is all over the new record” they will record late this summer, notes Hood. Oldham’s old-school credentials are unrivaled by any player who doesn’t at least have an AARP Magazine subscription: He played with Hood’s father, David, in the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound bands of the ‘60s, penning hits for Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett along the way. He’s also been an in-demand session player for decades, and still tours with the likes of Neil Young.
His recent appearance at the Truckers’ “Dirt Underneath” shows in Athens marked the first real test of the band’s newest lineup. That unplugged evening was a far cry from the blistering, triple-ax rock shows they’ve buttered their bread with since 2001’s critically acclaimed Southern Rock Opera, released shortly before young Isbell joined their ranks.
The acoustic ensemble, which will open the Asheville gig before it melts into the more familiar rock show, scores as a runaway success for a band that seemingly should be reeling from the loss of Isbell. But a number of Hood songs (tentatively planned for the new record) debuted at those dates, as well as a Mike Cooley tune or two and fantastic acoustic treatments of oft-neglected material from across the DBT catalog.
Cooley, Hood’s partner in music and swagger for more than 20 years now—and the only other Trucker to survive DBT’s multiple lineup changes—writes much less than Hood, but manages some of their best songs when the muse touches him in that certain special place.
“Cooley’s been a two-song-a-year kind of guy for a long time, and even less than that in recent years,” says Hood. But at last count, Cooley had eight tunes on the chopping block of their forthcoming seventh studio record. This is a good omen for Truckers fans, who know Hood isn’t nearly as interesting without the flying-V-toting Cooley by his side: a man with some of rock’s best hair, who croons catchy-ass, often Stones-ish tunes about race-car obsessions, zippy teen angst and very bad men followed by even worse women.
However, even with a re-inspired Stroker Ace (Cooley’s porn-quality nickname) and an undisputed legend helping out part-time, some kinks and questions remain to be settled. But for now, Hood keeps to the high road when discussing Isbell.
“[Jason is] very prolific and he is very ambitious, and he’s very much moving forward in kind of a big way.”
In any case, change was coming with or without Isbell on board. Older Truckers songs were getting major tune-ups, and, more and more, acoustic guitars were supplanting the Truckers’ signature, Isbell-fortified “wall of sound.”
However, this writer wondered most about another Trucker, pedal-steel maestro John Neff, who was hurriedly rushed to the fore as both pedal-steel and guitar player in the hasty announcement on DBT’s Web site the day after Isbell broke the news.
Asked if Neff, who brings unquestioned mastery to some of the Truckers’ best tunes, could also step up as formidable guitarist—especially on slide, where Isbell shone—Patterson slipped into an exasperated tone: “I mean, how do you play a pedal steel? It’s a slide instrument. … [Neff] can play slide guitar. He’s not gonna play Jason’s parts—he will do his own thing with it.”
Okay, then. Time will tell.
[Freelance writer and editor Stuart Gaines is based in Asheville and in Chattanooga.]
The Drive-By Truckers play The Orange Peel (101 Biltmore Ave.) on Friday, July 13. 9 p.m. $20/$22. 225-5851.