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MUSIC: An Interview with Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers

Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Photo: David McClister

The Drive-By Truckers will be wheeling into town this Friday, March 21, headlining a show at the House of Blues in Boston. For the uninitiated, the Muscle Shoals, Alabama band plays Rock and Roll with a southern twang. Don’t call it Southern Rock, though; this band likes to avoid labels.

Rock and Roll

Although they gained notoriety with their 2001 opus Southern Rock Opera, guitarist Mike Cooley admits he dislikes the term “Southern Rock,” acknowledging they’re sometimes stuck with the label. The double-disc “Rock Opera” was a groundbreaking album, one where the band shared their notion of “the duality of the southern thang.”

Founded in the mid-1990’s, the Trucker’s have gone through a number of personnel changes, parting ways with the likes of alt-country artist Jason Isbell and former bass player Shonna Tucker. They’re backed stars like Booker T. Jones and Bettye LaVette, supporting her on her 2007 comeback album, The Scene of the Crime. Over the years, the core of Cooley and front man Paterson Hood has remained.

English Oceans

Their new album, English Oceans (released March 4), has been hailed by reviewers as their best in years. “I’ll leave that up to the critics, I just hope we’ve gotten better,” Cooley noted in a recent interview with GoLocal. The album is a return to their roots – stories of dispossessed, often down and out characters who don’t always fit the usual redemption story.

In our interview with Cooley, he mentioned that they play around 150 shows a year and are embarking on a three month tour that will take them to Europe and back. It’s little surprise that their sound “crosses the ocean just fine. We’ve played some great shows there. The only thing different is the accent,” Cooley noted wryly, explaining audiences in the UK.

Music and Lyrics

The three guitar attack of the Drive-By Truckers is fueled by smart lyrics and keen storytelling, although for Cooley, the music comes first. “I may come up with a thousand guitar chords before I get to one that feels right. It takes a while to become a song with rhythm and melody.” The result is a space where the spirit of Neil Young and the ghost of Lynyrd Skynyrd do battle on a nightly basis.

As for the lyric writing process, Cooley shared, “I usually get an image in my head, a couple of lines, a train of thought... I try to empathize with people, even people I might not agree with. You really got to get to know someone to understand them, to understand the reasons they do what they do. I’m fascinated with human nature.”

Indeed, there are abundant characters in these songs, all living complicated lives. NPR Critic Robert Christgau, recognized as the “dean of rock critics,” noted “the South will never spawn a better songwriting band.” He’s right – and their body of work is nowhere near complete; it continues to evolve with each release.

Cooley stepped to the forefront on this release, penning half the songs on the album, and gaining a lot of critical praise in the process. “Sometimes, I look back at it and wonder what the hell was I thinking, but I can see it when I back away,” noted Cooley. Check them out at the House of Blues on Friday and you’ll see what he means.

The Drive-By Truckers play the House of Blues on Friday March 21. Expect to hear a lot from the new album.Blitzen Trapper opens at 8PM. Tickets available here.

Ken Abrams reviews Roots, Rock and Blues for GoLocalWorcester. He can be reached here.


Related Slideshow: College Guide 2013: Best Places for Live Music

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The Palladium

If you like punk and metal, the Palladium is your perfect night out. Having hosted acts like Fall Out Boy, Blink-182, and My Chemical Romance, the Palladium continues to feature the best of the genre (as well as some others—Moby, Bob Dylan, and Kanye West, to name a few). Ticket prices vary by performer, and all shows are general admission unless otherwise noted.

261 Main St, Worcester. 508-797-9696. www.thepalladium.net

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DCU Center

The DCU Center, home of the Worcester Sharks, also hosts many large-scale concerts—the standard set by its 1982 inaugural performance by Frank Sinatra. Ticket prices vary by performer and seat location.

50 Foster St, Worcester. 508-755-6800. www.dcucenter.com

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During the week, Jillian’s is the perfect place to chill—there’s a bar, pool tables, and a game room. On Fridays and Saturdays, it’s a cozy concert hall—beginning at 9:30, local bands from hard rock to reggae take the stage.

315 Grove St, Worcester. 508-793-0900. www.jilliansworcester.com/

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Beatnik’s came into existence as a place to “be you”—an homage to the mid-20th-century subculture from which it borrows its name. It has a unique but cozy atmosphere and great food as well as live music. If you’re over 21, check it out.

433 Park Ave, Worcester. 508-926-8877. www.beatniksbeyou.com

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Lucky Dog Music Hall

If you’re over 21, come check out this longstanding and highly praised Worcester music hall. Catering to rock fans, Lucky Dog has live music almost every night of the week, with 80s tribute band Flock of Assholes appearing every Thursday.

89 Green St, Worcester. 508-363-1888. www.theluckydogmusichall.com

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Ralph’s Rock Diner

Ralph’s has something for everybody—Cinemageddon on Sundays, poetry on Mondays, guest bands and DJs on Tuesdays, trivia and karaoke on Wednesdays, Metal Thursdays, and live music on Fridays. For Ralphs, too, though, make sure you’re over 21!

148 Grove St, Worcester. 508-753-9543. www.ralphsrockdiner.com

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Nick’s Bar and Restaurant

Why should you have to wait for the weekend for a night out? Nick’s hosts acts every night. Kick back with a beer and a snack from the new menu and listen to the best of Worcester’s live music.

124 Millbury St, Worcester. 508-753-4030. http://www.nicksworcester.com/

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The Hanover Theater

If you prefer a large and regal stage to a small lounge and Broadway tunes to rock, try the Hanover Theater. This venue hosts traveling shows as well as speakers—Rudy Giuliani, Tony Bennett, and Cirque Dreams Holidaze are all coming up in the next month.

2 Southbridge St, Worcester. 877-571-SHOW. www.thehanovertheatre.org

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JJ Sports Bar and Grill

Just outside of Worcester in Northboro, JJ’s hosts live music every Friday and Saturday and trivia every Tuesday and Thursday! Now that the World Series is over, there might not be as much to see, but JJ’s is also equipped with many HD televisions and a state-of-the-art sound system, so you can watch the game while you wait for the bands to play. 380 Southwest Cutoff, Northboro. 508-842-8420. www.jbag.biz.


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