The call of the open road is an old metaphor; road trips are a romantic way to escape off into the sunset, a modern runaway narrative manifested through stretches of white lines and black asphalt.
On the road, away from the distractions of home, one can contemplate larger issues of self and identity; as Kerouac put it, "Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me."
The Drive-By Truckers, a band composed of five guys from the South, three of whom live in Athens, Ga., with the other two residing in Alabama, know the mythology of the road all too well. They know the stories, the cliches, the drama and the romance, and their new record, Decoration Day, is their pearl. Written mostly on the road during their two-year tour support of 2001's breakout hit Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day tells the story of what happens to a bunch of Southern guys when things like fame and fortune stick their meddling hands into the dough.
"About the time we put out Pizza Deliverance, in the beginning of '99, everybody pretty much quit their jobs and we just hit the road.É During that time, we put out a live record and we made Southern Rock Opera whenever we had a week or two off the road. We'd work on the record, and then we'd hit the road again," explained singer and guitarist and main songwriter Patterson Hood.
"And doing that, it kind of wreaked havoc on everybody's personal lives, to the point (where) I got divorced, and another member got divorced, and another member broke up with a long-term relationship, and another one went through a lot of turmoil but managed to kind of pull it out, you know, and save it. It was a really kind of tumultuous time, and a lot of that kind of came to a head as we were recording Southern Rock Opera, so this record was written in the fallout from all that, when we were trying to piece our lives back together and not break up the band and figure out a way to try and make that work and continue on.
"It's like an old cliche," said Hood. "Band hits the road, band works hard, band has a little bit of success, and everything in their personal life goes to shit. Band writes dark depressing songs about it and makes new record."
Decoration Day tells the story of the only two people in jail in America for consensual incest, the story of a man leaving a woman at the altar, and the story of the banker taking the family farm; there are songs of lost love and losing love and losing friends to suicide, songs of fear, of anger, of pain. The title track, by guitarist and singer Jason Isbell, who joined the band after Southern Rock Opera was recorded, deals with the staying power of family loyalty even after death. Isbell's other song, "Outfit," was written as a Father's Day present for his dad. Within each song is a narrative that extends beyond the four or five minutes of the actual song; the Drive-By Truckers can pull together the whole history of a character or relationship in one song.
Said Hood, "(It's a) pretty dark, sad record in a lot of places; plus we had several pretty close friends commit suicide during that period of time and that kind of took its toll, too, and definitely affected some of the songs. But on the other end of the equation, by the time we actually made the record, Decoration Day, we had spent two years on the road touring behind Southern Rock Opera, and it had been pretty well-received, and things had kind of turned around and we'd all kind of gotten our personal lives back on track and a little more straightened out. Everybody was a lot happier, so we went in, had a really great time making this record. As dark as the lyrics may be, I think it's kind of a fun record. That's probably my favorite thing about the record, how it kind of plays against that, instead of being all mopey and depressed-sounding, it doesn't come off--you almost have to read the lyrics to realize it's as dark as it is."
The storytelling aspect of the Drive-By Truckers is one of the things that gives their music that classic sound, more than just the basic elements of guitar, drums, bass, pedal steel, fiddle and the voice of the dizzy drunk, deadbeat and downtrodden. Music of the South, from Leadbelly to Lynyrd Skynyrd, has traditionally been about the land and the people and what happens to both. The Drive-By Truckers are Southern rock spoken just a little differently, like the subtle state-to-state differences between Southern accents.
"I've always really loved storytelling and a good story, and so that's something we've had fun dealing with in our music," said Hood. "Particularly, writing Southern Rock Opera was a lot of fun because we were really creating it as opposed to totally writing about ourselves or this girl did this or whatever, you know, and it's fun, really, coming up with a story and trying to find a way to express it in songs and to try and make it cohesive. I think it made us all really grow a lot as artists and it certainly made me grow a lot as a writer."
The three guitars and three songwriters of the Drive-By Truckers give the band a polish that few Southern rock/alt.country bands can achieve. "There's a lot you can do with it beyond just the cliche or whatever," said Hood. "Whether its Southern rock or whatever, there are a lot of other directions you can go, and that was a fun part about making this record, doing something like 'Give Pretty Soon' or something like that which definitely showcases all three guitars but in a way that's maybe a little different than how they were presented on Southern Rock Opera. Plus, with Jason, now that he's in the band ... he also plays dobro and mandolin and banjo and piano and a whole bunch of other things and so we're not necessarily limited to that either, there are other things we can do to change it up if we get restless. More than anything that's what we tend to do, is get restless and want to do something different. We're out for our own entertainment."
A little known-fact is that Decoration Day became an album zygote here in our humble hometown. Said Hood, "We did pre-production for this record in Tucson. When we were in town of January of last year, 2002, we had a day off, and our friend Jamie who lives there let us set up in her living room and we had a recorder with us and we set up and recorded demo versions of all the songs we were considering for the record, just so we'd have something to listen to and to kind of learn the songs from before we went in and actually paid for studio time. So it's gonna be really cool coming back, now, with the finished record, coming back and performing it live there."