In 2004, Drive-By Trucker Patterson Hood released a solo album, Killers and Stars, that included a cover of the Tom T. Hall song "Pay No Attention to Alice," a matter-of-fact depiction of a drunk seen through the eyes of her husband.
At that point, the Drive-By Truckers had long been one of my favorite contemporary bands and Hall's near-perfect 1988 compilation The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Songs had long been one of my favorite records. And yet I never made the connection between the band — small-town Alabama post-punk rockers with a literary aptitude matched by very few guitar-wielding wordsmiths of their generation — and the man — small-town Kentucky post-Depression baby with a catalog of folk-meets-country songs matched only by the likes of Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash — until Hood made it for me.
Lynyrd Skynyrd and, to a lesser extent, Bruce Springsteen are often cited as key influences on the Drive-By Truckers, but more than their multi-guitar classic-rock sound, the Truckers are defined by the songwriting of comrades-for-life Hood and Mike Cooley. But young fans looking for perspective on Hood's and Cooley's deft, detailed working-class short stories are advised to hunt down Hall's Story Songs rather than Skynyrd's Street Survivors or Springsteen's Darkness on the Edge of Town (though the latter pair are also highly relevant).
On the band's new Brighter Than Creation's Dark, a 19-song, 75-minute opus that once would have been called a double album, Hall is name-checked on a Truckers record for the first time, this time by Cooley. In the midst of spinning a cryptic tale of good times gone bad on "3 Dimes Down," Cooley muses: "If the part about being who he was didn't help Tom get loose/What's a guy without a 'T.' going to get?/Totally screwed." This seems to be a reference to Hall's "A Week in a Country Jail," in which the narrator is picked up for speeding and describes his failure to communicate effectively with the local sheriff with typical understatement: "That part about me being who I was did not impress him."
If anything, Cooley has long seemed even more the Hall acolyte than Hood, his own best songs often fitting the format: rich narratives told through the voice of (untrustworthy) protagonists who often aren't the songwriter, the details unfurling with minimal outside commentary. Cooley's "Guitar Man Upstairs" (told from the perspective of the aging downstairs neighbor who's fed up with all the noise) is in the finest Hall tradition, rivaled by Hood's early "Margo & Harold," an uncomfortable portrait of a couple of aging swingers. On Brighter Than Creation's Dark, Cooley's sometimes misunderstood character sketch "Bob" is the most Hall-like creation.
The small, descriptive moments that Hall's songs privilege are often more triumphant than the big moments the Truckers also court. This is a band that made an entire album (2001's excellent Southern Rock Opera) about the demise of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the lingering ghost of regional icons such as George Wallace. And yet the band's definitive regional portrait was 2003's Decoration Day, an album that established its unimpeachable Southern bona fides when Hood opened a song in pitch-perfect vernacular with: "Something 'bout that wrinkle in your forehead tells me there's a fit 'bout to get thrown."
If Cooley is even more the Hall heir than Hood, it's fitting that the first Drive-By Trucker record to out this influence is also perhaps the first one where Cooley seems more prominent than his generally more prolific partner.
One apparent function of the band's Hall-style level-headed storytelling is a streak of sardonic anti-romanticism that separates them from much of the Americana/alt-country/classic-rock world. You can hear this throughout Cooley's "Self Destructive Zones," which, aside from Hood's heartbreaking opener "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife," is the most fully realized song on Brighter Than Creation's Dark.
The song's a first-hand death-of-hair-metal remembrance in which Cooley gently dismisses the genre's own mythos with "It's easier to let it all die a fairy tale than admit that something bigger's passing through" and then caps it off with the priceless imagery of "the pawn shops ... packed like a backstage party, hanging full of pointy, ugly, cheap guitars."
The man who once subversively attached a cribbed Eagles riff to the immortal line "Rock-and-roll means well but it can't help telling young boys lies" on Decoration Day's "Marry Me" similarly kills his idols at the end of "3 Dimes Down" by invoking Bob Seger's line "Come back, baby, rock-and-roll never forgets" to cap off a night he'd like to.