When Alabama's suddenly hip Drive-By Truckers stop off at the Hi-Tone Café Saturday, March 22nd, for their first Memphis appearance since the release of their much-heralded double-disc Southern Rock Opera, they won't just be another band passing through on their way back from Austin's South By Southwest Music Festival. Rather, it will be a homecoming of sorts for the band, since co-singers/songwriters/guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley once lived in the Bluff City.
"Cooley and I both lived there in the fall of '91, during that really nasty mayor campaign [Herenton-Hackett] and when [confrontational punk rocker] G.G. Allin came through and played that famous show at the Antenna club," Hood remembers, speaking via cell phone from the band's van on the way to Austin.
Cooley and Hood (son of Muscle Shoals session player David Hood) moved to Memphis in hopes of relocating their band, the Replacements-inspired Adam's House Cat, but the band broke up after the move. Hood and Cooley played a few local shows under the moniker Virgil Cane (the narrator of the Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), Hood's job at the New Daisy Theatre helping them land a few opening gigs there, including a slot in front of Rev. Horton Heat.
"I had always wanted to live [in Memphis]," Hood explains. "[Adam's House Cat] played there so much, with Uncle Tupelo at the Antenna and at the Daisy and at Six-One-Six, and it was a good town for us. It was just two-and-a-half hours from [the band's rural Alabama home], but it was a city. It was basically the closest city to home that appealed to me because I've always hated Nashville and didn't want to live in Birmingham. Memphis was the other option. But that wasn't a very good time in my life. I was going through a divorce and other bad stuff on a personal level. The band broke up, my car got stolen my third day in Memphis, and then the band's truck got stripped in front of our house the day I got my car back. It was sort of a bad period, so we got the hell out."
The band did get a couple of songs out of the experience, both of which appeared on the Drive-By Truckers' second album, Pizza Deliverance. There's "The Night G.G. Allin Came To Town," though Hood confesses that he wasn't actually at the show. The song is sung from the perspective of a bewildered older couple reading an account of the "concert" in a local paper. ("Punk Rockers Paid $12 To Be Shit On!" goes the headline.) And then there's Cooley's "One of These Days," where, speaking of his father, Cooley sings, "I remember him saying that Chicago was a hell right here on earth/And 25 years later I was saying the same thing about Memphis."
But times have changed for Hood and Cooley in the decade-plus since they fled Memphis. The Truckers' fourth album, the two-disc, 20-song opus Southern Rock Opera, self-released in late 2001 and re-released by hotshot roots label Lost Highway (home to Lucinda Williams, Ryan Adams, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?) last year, has made them minor stars on the club scene and major figures in the music press.
A prickly meditation on the band's Southern heritage ("the duality of the Southern thing," as Hood sings) and the career of iconic Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd, the album marshals rousing anthems (Hood's "Let There Be Rock," which somehow transforms the lyric "And I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Molly Hatchet/With .38 Special and the Johnny Van Zant Band" into a moment of triumph), Skynyrd reenactments (Cooley's pre-crash "Shut Up and Get On the Plane"), historical arguments (Hood's passionately conflicted "The Southern Thing," with its unrepentantly proud shout of "Robert E. Lee!/Martin Luther King!"), and Tom T. Hall-worthy character sketches (Cooley's "Zip City" and "Guitar Man Upstairs") into a band apotheosis.
The album and its rapturous critical reception raised the profile of these perennial underdogs, even landing them a few gigs opening for Skynyrd themselves. ("The crowds seemed to be mostly people who'd never heard of us. Most nights the first half of the shows would be pretty touch-and-go, like the crowd was sizing us up. But I think we passed the test," Hood says of the Skynyrd gigs.) "[Southern Rock Opera] got a lot of attention and that's helped us get more and more people out to shows," Hood says. "It was a lousy time making it, but since the record came out, it's been nothing but good."
And though one might think the record would have a hard time translating outside the band's native South, Hood claims just the opposite. "The farther away from the South we get, the more people seem to like it, actually," he says. "The South treats us pretty good, but whatever criticism we got for that record tended to come from the South, either people saying that we were digging up stuff that shouldn't be dug up or people accusing us of whitewashing things." Hood also says that the band regularly draws large numbers of expatriate Southerners when performing around the country.
With Southern Rock Opera in the pipeline pretty much from the band's genesis and with the record being the impetus for 14 months and 250 shows worth of touring, Hood confesses that it's a great relief to have new product on the horizon. Hood says he'd like to revisit Southern Rock Opera in the future, possibly as a Last Waltz-style DVD concert, but for now the band is focused on material from their next album, the forthcoming Decoration Day.
"Decoration Day was written while the band was making the rock opera, during some bad personal times," Hood says. "But by the time we got ready to record Decoration Day, we'd come through all that and actually had a great time making that record." The new album's release had been set for May, but turnover at Lost Highway led to the band's recent drop from the label, and now it looks as if Decoration Day will be released by Texas-based indie New West Records, probably in June.
At 15 songs in just over an hour, Decoration Day is a departure for the band -- darker, more somber, more subtle. With this change in tone and a Southern flavor that manifests itself in a preponderance of decaying small towns, Southern Gothic stories, gun violence, and burdens handed down from generation to generation, Decoration Day sounds like a record more likely to come from a band named Virgil Cane than from one named the Drive-By Truckers. But this is one band that's always transcended the jokiness of their name: No one could have expected a band whose previous albums were titled Gangstabilly, Pizza Deliverance, and Alabama Ass-Whuppin' to deliver something as literary, thoughtful, and ambitious as Southern Rock Opera, and Decoration Day is an extension of the band's continued flouting of expectation. Hood even confesses to a far less likely dream project: a Todd Rundgren-inspired power-pop record he's long hoped to make with Memphian and former Big Ass Truck guitarist Steve Selvidge. Asked about this later, Selvidge also expressed enthusiasm for the potential project but surmised that it would probably end up sounding more like .38 Special, hinting that perhaps Hood's deep-rooted Southernness may be the only restriction on his or his band's art.