The Drive-By Truckers spent six years making Southern Rock Opera, their monumental 2001 song cycle about Lynyrd Skynyrd, adolescence and the mixed legacy of the South. They wrote the songs in the back of their cramped tour van, working from singer/guitarist Patterson Hood's idea for a screenplay about a fictional Skynyrd-esque band, and recorded bits and pieces when they could afford to get studio time.
They were broke, approaching middle age and had no real reason to expect that the new record -- if it ever got finished -- would get any more attention than their two previous studio albums. But they figured they might as well go out with a bang.
"We're all kind of older guys, most of us anyway, and we had a little headway," Hood says from his home in Athens, Georgia. "Things were coming together, and if we had a chance to do what we always dreamed of doing, this was it. We thought it might be a last hurrah."
Last hurrah, indeed. Southern Rock Opera generated significant buzz in 2001, after the band released it on their own, and quickly sold out. It made dozens of year-end top-ten lists, despite being almost impossible to find. The Lost Highway label picked it up and released it again, with much wider distribution, in the summer of 2002. The Truckers (Hood, guitarist/singers Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell, bassist Earl Hicks and drummer Brad Morgan) became surprise critical darlings, hailed for their incisive songwriting and incendiary live performances. Frat boys, indie hipsters and aging bikers flocked to their shows, drawn by smart, unapologetically earnest and straight-ahead Southern rock that filled a niche between the adult-alternative fare of the Americana charts and the ironic pastiche of the new wave of garage rockers.
But the making of Southern Rock Opera, despite its success, took its toll. "When we were working on Southern Rock Opera we were all really, really broke. Relationships were falling apart," Hood says. "I was getting divorced, another band member was getting divorced, another member was ending a long-term relationship. It was a turbulent, really bad time. We were making this ambitious record. We had no budget, so we had to come up with ways of doing things that we couldn't afford to do the normal way. And we were on the road all the time.... It's not hard to understand why wives started splitting."
Those shadows haunt the band's follow-up record, Decoration Day, released in June on the independent label New West. (Lost Highway refused to release Decoration Day and sold it back to the band's management.) Most of the songs were written while Southern Rock Opera was being recorded and reflect the turmoil in the Truckers' personal lives. From the tormented romances on "The Deeper In," about a consensual relationship between a brother and sister and "My Sweet Annette," an account of a Depression-era bride left at the altar, to the suicide anthem "Do It Yourself," loss and grief permeate the album.
But, just like they didn't cave when the pressure of Southern Rock Opera almost became too much, the Truckers didn't totally give in to their darkest impulses on Decoration Day. "The songs themselves are so dark or sad," Hood says. "Everybody's gut instinct was to play against that. When we were recording it, we treated it like a fun party record. Because everybody did make it through the bad times. It's a celebration of surviving all that."
Hood attributes much of the band's renewed enthusiasm to the addition of Isbell, who joined the Truckers in time to tour for Southern Rock Opera. Isbell, at 24, is at least a decade younger than the rest of the band. He added two songs to Decoration Day -- the title track, a moody rocker about an old Southern family feud, and "Outfit."
"He wasn't so jaded," Hood says. "It was good to have somebody with a bright and optimistic outlook come into the proceedings. He was able to help us get our priorities back in the right direction. Not to mention he's so damn good. He's as good a songwriter as I've ever met, or listened to."
Age is a prime consideration for the Truckers' future. Hood is 39, and even though the band travels in relative comfort now, compared to the days before Southern Rock Opera, he's not sure how much longer he's willing to grind out the months on the road. "I think I'm a lifer as far as being a musician or a writer," he says. "I don't know how much longer I can do this. It's more taxing every year.... Cooley and I have eighteen years together, and the chemistry between the two of us is better than it's ever been, and the same goes for the chemistry between the other members of the band. But I don't think anybody's willing to make the personal sacrifices we used to have to make."
Hood feels a little uncomfortable that his bad times are so clearly reflected on Decoration Day. It's a bad cliché, he says, to turn bad personal business into good rock music. But he's also clear-eyed enough to know that, for better or worse, he might not be where he is today if he hadn't.
"Some of my best memories of this band are the creation of these songs," he says. "It solidified the band and may account for why we're still together, through periods when the odds didn't look too good. It helped pull us through the bad times."