In a Drive-By Truckers song, a bad thing will happen to a good person as often as a good person will do a bad thing. A tornado pulls a man through a window. A fed-up farmer murders a banker and buries him in a sinkhole. A groom elopes with the maid of honor. A friend "just one day cease[s] to be."
In the 18 years since Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley formed Drive-By Truckers, trouble has not limited itself to the Alabama-born songwriters' imaginations. They've lost bandmates, endured spells of writer's block, suffered personal tragedies and come mighty close to burning out. In 2010 and 2011, they released two albums within 10 months, and while Hood gamely compared one to "an action-adventure summertime flick" and the other to "a noir film ... like 'Night of the Hunter' only with some weird colors to it," listening to those recordings felt like a chore, an obligation owed to a band that at its best joins the bluesy soul of Southern rock with the haunted heart of Southern literature.
"English Oceans," Drive-By Truckers' new album, stands as a correction to that experience. Cooley, having recovered from a creative drought, wrote six of the album's 13 songs, contributing world-weary but clear-eyed tales involving family life, growing older and simple pleasures. Even his mellow songs have a kick, and if he wasn't having fun before, he is now. Hood also sounds renewed, particularly on "Pauline Hawkins," which he based on a character from Willy Vlautin's just-released novel, "The Free." Assuming the voice of an emotionally guarded hospital nurse charged with caring for an Iraq War veteran, Hood sings, "Don't tell me your secrets/I'd rather not listen, or know what I'm missing." From Hood, who will appear with the Truckers Wednesday, June 4, in Fort Lauderdale, the song offers a typically generous look at another person's difficult life.
Last month, while touring with his band in Europe, Hood responded to questions via e-mail. An excerpt from that interview follows.
Drive-By Truckers have experienced several lineup changes over the years, yet you and Mike Cooley have remained the core of the band since its founding. To what do you attribute the success of your working relationship?
We always greet each other in the nastiest, most belligerent terms every day: "Good morning, mother------," things like that. We call each other terrible things to each other's faces. It's good for communication. Then, we get along famously. In all seriousness, he's an amazing partner and a true friend. We have a well-earned respect for each other. He's one of the few writers whose songs I like better than my own.
At one point, the band included four songwriters. What effect did working alongside this many writers have on your songwriting? Do you feel less pressure now that it's just you and Mike? More?
I think it made things harder. We started all of that for the noblest reasons, but it kind of became a trap. We all collaborate and share music writing, anyway, but with too many songwriters including songs, the records run too long, and it gets confusing. I think we have the magic situation right now. Plus, everyone is free to pursue side and solo projects.
"The Big To-Do" and "Go-Go Boots" were recorded at about the same time and were released less than a year apart. What effect did producing two albums in this manner have on the band and, later, on the recording of "English Oceans"?
It was fun making those two, but the reality of releasing and promoting and touring behind two records that close together was brutal and not much fun. We'll never do that again.
What is it about Willy Vlautin's novel "The Free" that inspired you to write "Pauline Hawkins"?
I loved that book, and was very moved by the way he drew that character. I couldn't tell you what specifically made me want to write about her, but I was very touched by her. She's very different from me, but I felt great empathy for her.
On your website and in interviews, you often describe the meaning of and inspiration for your songs, sometimes in great detail. Why is it important for you to convey this information to your listeners? I've met songwriters who would sooner wire their mouths shut than discuss their songs in anything but the most general terms.
They might be right to be that way. I guess I look at it like describing this world that they live in, and the songs were sometimes just a part of a bigger picture. Same time, I have no idea what some of the songs on this album mean. They're starting to reveal some things to me, but a lot of it is a mystery.
You and Mike both have battled writer's block over the years, with Mike more recently suffering a bout of it. How aware were you of his creative crisis at the time he was experiencing it?
I was aware, for sure, but probably so caught up in the songs I was writing at the time that I probably wasn't tuned in enough.
Did you offer him any advice?
Our methods and processes are so different that I don't think I could offer advice. My dry spells have so far never lasted as long as that. He obviously came out of it in a big way. His songs on this album are some of his finest ever. I think "First Air of Autumn" is one of the best songs I've ever heard.
Drive-By Truckers will perform 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 4, at the Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $32.10. Water Liars will open. Call 954-564-1074 or go to CultureRoom.net.