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Drive-By Truckers’ Mike Cooley hauling new material around the country, delivering Southern-rock anthems.
Mike Cooley is restless. The guitarist, vocalist and songwriter with the Drive-By Truckers is sitting at his Alabama home in early 2013. His three children — ages 5, 7 and 9 — are still on winter break so Cooley is playing the part of “housewife” — as he calls it.
This is the home life of one of the coolest, sumbitch rock ’n’ roll stars on the planet. Sure, you might know Cooley as the other side of the Drive-By Truckers’ brain trust. Fellow guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Patterson Hood’s counterpart. The country side of things in the Drive-By Truckers, the gritty Southern rock ’n’ roll band.
But at home Cooley is a husband and father. Being a “housewife” is why Cooley is ready for the road and a short, January tour of the Southeast by the Drive-By Truckers, including a Jan. 23 stop at the Rev Room. Cooley considers touring relaxing. “Most people wouldn’t see [touring] that way,” he says. “Procreate and you will.”
Over their roughly 16-year history, it has been unusual for the Truckers — Cooley and Hood along with drummer Brad Morgan, bassist Matt Patton and keyboardist and guitarist Jay Gonzalez — to find themselves at home. After all, this is a hard-touring band, an outfit that in its beginning crisscrossed the Southeast and then America in a beat-up van and gradually pulled itself up.
But after four albums in six years and the constant touring behind these albums, the Drive-By Truckers didn’t hit the road hard in 2012. (Not hitting the road hard being about 55 shows.) During one of these breaks from the road in the winter of 2012, Cooley recorded his first solo album, a live recording titled The Fool On Every Corner. The 13-track collection showcases Cooley’s contributions to the Truckers’ repertoire, including Decoration Day’s “Marry Me” and The Dirty South’s “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac” along with a new Cooley track, “Drinking Coke And Eating Ice,” and a cover of the country classic “Behind Closed Doors,” a No. 1 hit for Charlie Rich in 1973.
While Hood has recorded a number of solo albums and toured solo since 2001, 2012 marked Cooley’s first extensive slate of solo shows. More are coming this February. “I never really hated doing it,” Cooley says of playing solo. “It was one of those things that in the past I was always glad that I did it once it was over, but I didn’t enjoy anything leading up to it. But now I’ve done it enough over the last year or so that I’m comfortable with it and starting to have fun with it. This past year the band was off so much that I thought I should do it for my own good. Like I said: I got kids all over the house; I got to get the f*ck out of here sometime.”
The songs of The Fool On Every Corner are bare boned, just Cooley on either fingerpicked acoustic guitar or banjo, singing and playing the tunes he’s written. And his solo shows have taught him some lessons for his regular gig with the Drive-By Truckers, including being a little more detail oriented. “When you are by yourself, every little thing that you do wrong sticks out like a sore thumb so I probably watch my details a little more even when I come back with the band,” he says. “I know I think about the songs differently when I just do them by myself. I probably put a little more heart and soul into them when I go back to the band.”
Cooley doesn’t write as many Drive-By Truckers tunes as Hood. That’s a shame. Not because Hood is a bad songwriter. The man is a brilliant songsmith. But Cooley is likewise. Mostly Cooley writes a handful of tunes for each record, but those songs are lyrically stunning. Consider these 11 words from Southern Rock Opera’s “Shut Up and Get on the Plane”: “Living in fear’s just another way of dying before your time.” That’s a perfect line. Economical in its delivery, but with so much weight. The line (and others) prove Cooley is kind of an aw-shucks good ol’ boy with a philosophical head upon his shoulders.
So why doesn’t Cooley write more Truckers tunes? Well, he is always working at the craft, but sometimes it takes a while, and he can’t write on the road, where the Truckers have lived for the most part until the last year or two. “Sometimes you have to fool around,” he says of songwriting, “and sometimes it looks like you are doing nothing, and you pretty much are, but it can take three or four hours to get my head in that direction or even find the path to go down, and there’s no way to do that on the road.”
But Cooley, much like Hood, is always working on new material. The plan for 2013 is head into the studio in the spring for the first time in four years. (Both of the band’s previous albums — 2010’s The Big To-Do and 2011’s Go-Go Boots — were recorded simultaneously in the winter and spring of 2009.) Once again, the Drive-By Truckers will work with David Barbe. And once again, the band will probably work up some of the most kickass Southern rock ’n’ roll anthems and poetic, back-porch country ballads this land knows. That’s just what the Drive-By Truckers do.
But this time around things will be a little different. First, bassist Shonna Tucker departed the group in 2011. Patton, who plays with Alabama rock ’n’ roll outfit The Dexateens, replaced Tucker. Then, just a few weeks ago, right before the Truckers three-night Washington, D.C., stand at the end of the year, guitarist John Neff left the band.
While Cooley says Patton “can be as permanent as he wants to be” and the band loves what he brings to their sound, for his part he doesn’t think Neff will be replaced. He kind of digs this leaner sound of the Truckers. “I was real happy with the way the [late December] shows went,” he says. “The band sounds really good. There were a few areas where his parts were key that we’ll have to work around, but we’re already finding ways to work around it.”
But turnover in the band is nothing knew. Hood, Cooley and Morgan are the only original members of the band still around, with Morgan joining a few years after Hood and Cooley started the band in the mid-1990s. And while others who have played with the band have contributed songs — former guitarists and vocalists Rob Malone and Jason Isbell, and Tucker — Hood and Cooley are still the main songwriters for the Drive-By Truckers.
The friendship and band partnership is a relationship that Cooley jokes is better than some marriages, but he doesn’t know the secret behind the duo’s long-time association.
“The two of us used to butt heads like crazy all through the ‘80s when we first started playing with each other,” he says, “and at some point I think we just got tired of bitching and we said, ‘What the f*ck. I guess we are stuck with each other. Let’s make it work.’ We get along great now. Have for a long, long time.”
SEE THE SHOW
The Drive-By Truckers play Rev Room on Jan. 23. Opening the show is Houndmouth, a muscular folk rock band from Indiana and Kentucky. The music starts at 8:30 p.m. with tickets $20 in advance and $22 day of for the 18-and-up show.