Drive-By Truckers' 1998 debut could have easily been called Country Crack, Meth and Moonshine, Ballads of Blue Collar Woe, or Shit-Kicking Swamp Stomp. Instead, this alt-country, Southern-rock masterpiece was christened Gangstabilly, which adds up to much more than just a great title or a spot-on description of the poignant tales lurking within.
This title is everything that is the Drive-By Truckers. And so was born out of Athens, Georgia (via North Alabama), many gritty indictments of the seedier aspects of Southern life delivered with an uncommon wit for such dark discourse.
Some 15 years after Northern Alabama guitarists/vocalists Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood formed the band with what was then a revolving cast of musicians, its ninth studio record, titled Go-Go Boots, has arrived. Over that time, certain aspects have remained constant, chiefly its cerebral, highly conceptualized collections of songs, cinematic storytelling, and a penchant for shining a light on ugly slices of life, like alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence, and sordid sex.
Hood calls Go-Go Boots an R&B murder record, though he admits he uses the description loosely.
"It's definitely more openly influenced by [R&B] than everything we've ever done," he says. "We're all huge R&B and soul-music fanatics in the band. It's something that's been part of us since day one, but I don't think we've ever made a record where we wear that so much on our sleeves such as this one."
Dedicated R&B fans will be disappointed if they're hoping to hear anything as contemporary as Chris Brown's imprint or T-Pain's AutoTune-drenched hooks. In fact, outside of someone poring over the record with a jeweler's loupe, it's unlikely most will hear the influence of R&B outright. Make no mistake, though, it's lying beneath the surface, with reverberations closer to blues and soul than rhythm and blues. The blues influence is constant but particularly prevalent on "Dancin' Ricky" and the mournful "Where's Eddie," both sung by bassist Shonna Tucker.
"With the murder-ballad thing, there's always been a pretty huge death toll on our records," Hood says.
The menace is a little easier to pick up on, especially across the rugged "Ray's Automatic Weapon" and "Used to Be a Cop."
Go-Go Boots is actually the second release culled from a particularly productive studio stretch yielding two very different records. Released in 2010, The Big To-Do is its jubilant, half-drunk sibling who follows you into the bar bathroom after getting worked up to Molly Hatchet on the jukebox.
"In some ways, what we were attempting on [2006's] A Blessing and a Curse is done better on The Big To-Do," says Hood. "It's probably a little more on the power-pop side of what we like and do, and I think it's a more fun record. It kind of roars out of the gate, and that's what I like about it."
For 2008's reunion of sorts with their swampy roots, Brighter Than Creation's Dark, a lot of disparate musical themes got cozy with one another during one album cycle, but Go-Go Boots projects a very different feel from its predecessor.
"They're polar-opposite ends of what we do," Hood explains. "This time, instead of doing a sprawling record that was all over the place, we really early on got the idea to divide it into two projects. And that was a fun and liberating way to work."
Impressively, DBT has averaged nearly an album per year for the past decade, so this prolific work ethic is unsurprising. Hood also makes no apologies for the band's art so closely imitating life in a trailer park as captured through a cinematic lens.
"Sometimes I think of myself as a very frustrated filmmaker," he muses. "A filmmaker who's never gotten to make a movie. And maybe someday I will... and then it'll suck."
Until Hood gets behind the camera, he'll have to stick to the self-admitted "unwieldy" turns that branded Southern Rock Opera as the Truckers' most ambitious record to date upon its 2001 release. With only $5,000 to record the album, the band still managed to turn out an epic 20-track double album. Southern Rock Opera would serve as a springboard for both DBT's national recognition, earning four stars from Rolling Stone, and subsequent efforts to produce painstakingly plotted concept albums ever since. All the while, it's been a brass-balls approach to songwriting that has set the band apart.
"I'm a huge Randy Newman fan," Hood says, "and I've heard him say many times in interviews, 'You know, the subject matter I write about is probably not the best subject matter to write songs about. But it's what I'm interested in, and it's what I write songs about.' Of course, now as fate turned out, he's in this alternate job writing music for movies that's made him millions of dollars and made him more wildly successful than he probably thought he'd ever be. So who knows? Maybe I'll get lucky too someday."