There may be no more antiquated idea in rock 'n' roll than the “greatest hits” collection. Long gone are the days when the commercial success of a band's singles was an applicable gauge of their legacy (if those days even existed in the first place).
Today's music market is pockmarked by myriad cultural divides, and truly great rock bands most often grab the interest of LP-stacking obsessives rather than attention-depleted iPod junkies.
A greatest hits is surely not an apt showcase for Georgia's Drive-By Truckers, indie mainstays that have spent 16 years unearthing the subtlety beneath the red-clay riffs of golden-age Southern rock. It certainly wasn't a notion that guitarist and singer Mike Cooley greeted with excitement.
“A greatest hits is something that normally you'd do if you had hits,” he laughs, speaking from his home a few days before the Truckers left on their current tour. “Since we didn't, I thought, 'Well, this is silly.' It's kind of a standard contractual obligation is what it is. It's in almost any contract that at the end of the contract they reserve the right to release a greatest hits compilation or a 'best of' or whatever you want to call it. And I thought, 'OK, well, whatever, put it out.' I was pleasantly surprised. There's a lot of really good things on there.”
Released last year, Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians is by no means an adequate summation of the band's varied accomplishments, but it proves their touch for pairing insightful twang with boozy rock 'n' roll swagger.
“The Living Buddha” and “Bulldozers and Dirt” open the album with a dose of the outfit's delicate and devastating beginnings before tough-as-nails Southern-rock history lesson “Ronnie and Neil” trumpets the muscular riff-rock that has become their bread and butter. Most of the record sticks to similarly rollicking territory, though “A World of Hurt,” with its lilting late-night country, closes the compilation with a hint of the genre-bridging skill that awaits on the band's LPs. Like Creedence Clearwater Revival's Chronicle or The Beach Boys' Endless Summer, the Truckers' collection is a supremely effective surface scratcher, ably distilling their broadest appeal and wisely eschewing any attempt to express their impressive range.
Successfully invigorating old-school tricks is nothing new for the Truckers. Unlike many of their peers, they roll with multiple songwriters, a convoy of notable rock 'n' roll composers that are made stronger by proximity. Cooley's Keith Richards-mumble serves as an off-kilter complement to Patterson Hood's gravelly, Tom Petty-croon, and his knack for specificity and wisecracks grounds the far-reaching anthems of the far more prolific Hood. Add in contributions from departed members Shonna Tucker and Jason Isbell, and the result is a rich catalog that's far more cohesive than the varied songwriting credits suggest.
“For most of this time, this 15-year history that we have as this band, if we got any closer we'd be wearing the same underwear,” Cooley says. “We're having conversations together every day. We're seeing the same things. We're thinking about the same things. We're having the same experiences. It's more a matter of proximity than coming in there and going, 'OK, I'm going to write one about this from this angle, and then you kinda counterpoint that.' It's more a matter of sharing space than it is Cheech and Chong.”
In addition to being one of the most versatile entries in the Truckers' catalog, last year's Go-Go Boots LP is perhaps the strongest case yet for their well-matched talents. Following a pair of prickling slow burners by Hood and a slice of sexy Nashville pop courtesy of the exiting Tucker, Cooley offers up “Cartoon Gold,” a bare-bones, back-porch knee slapper that excavates the tender emotions from Hood and Tucker's pristine Southern curios. “Tending bar in L.A. after dark must be like mining cartoon gold,” he moans, twisting a punchline into a somber revelation. “Rocks that won't cooperate and tools that drive you crazy must get old.” The tear-stained jokes and steady-driving banjo-and-piano shuffle cut to the quick after the album's elaborate opening trio, a purposeful and direct change of pace from a group of time-tested craftsmen.
“It's not just all about the words,” Cooley says. “The most important thing to know is that it's got to be a damn song at the end of it. You're still making music, and you can get caught up in thinking about what it's about and what you want to comment on. At some point you've got to realize that it's a damn song. It's not book club. You're bringing a guitar to book club, and that's why no one's showing up.”
— Jordan Lawrence is music editor at Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.
who: Drive-By Truckers
where: The Orange Peel
when: Friday and Saturday, Aug. 17 and 18 (9 p.m. $25/$30. theorangepeel.net)