Throughout Drive-By Truckers’ existence, they’ve had a very definite division of labor. Co-leaders Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood have split the songwriting, Hood generally projecting drama to Cooley’s quieter desperation, and both have always sung their own songs and their own songs only – until now. “English Oceans” (ATO Records), the Truckers’ 12th album, features Cooley singing lead on a Hood composition called “Til He’s Dead or Rising,” an experience Cooley calls “cool but also weird.”
“First time ever, for either of us,” says Cooley, calling from home in Birmingham, Ala. “We were thinking the same thing at the same time in the studio, that for whatever reason that one sounded more like me, the phrasing and delivery. Usually Patterson’s stuff is not in my vocal range, but that one just happened to be there, at the very top of it. The version on the record is my first take.”
“English Oceans” finds Cooley sounding just a bit more wild-eyed than usual, especially on the opening track “(Expletive) Shots Count” (which starts out with him barking, “Put your cigarette out and get your hat back on, don’t mix up which is which,” always good advice). But Cooley’s stock in trade is still more ruminative songs like the quasi-title track, “Made Up English Oceans.”
Inspired by the late Lee Atwater, a Republican political kingmaker who pretty much wrote the book on the modern era of dirty-tricks campaigning in the 1980s, “Made Up English Oceans” gets inside Atwater’s head with observations like, “Once you grab them by the pride, their hearts are bound to follow.” From first thought to finished song, finishing such a character sketch is a process that can take years.
“I don’t write that many songs, even though I’m always throwing down a line or two if an interesting way of saying something pops into my head,” Cooley says. “The whole process is hard work for me and I love it, but it doesn’t result in a song a day. I have to work long and hard and think a song through a lot before I ever consider it finished.”
“English Oceans” follows up an unusually long between-album gap of more than three years, a hiatus brought on by lineup shuffles and also encroaching burnout. Prior to that, the Truckers released close to an album per year every year since 1996. After 2011’s “Go-Go Boots,” getting some downtime was a must, although Cooley downplays that.
“It wasn’t a case of ‘I’m sick of this and I’m walking before I kill somebody,’ ” he says. “And I’ve been there before, so I know what that’s like.”
Cooley and Hood stayed busy during the Truckers’ time off, and both came through the Triangle separately to play solo shows. Now that the mother band is reconvened with a new album out, the circus is starting up again. They’ll probably be on the road more or less continuously through the rest of this year.
“The road is something the average person looks at and thinks, ‘I could never do that,’ ” Cooley says. “But we thrive on it. It’s like doctors. Things that would have most of us retching into a garbage can, they’re fascinated with. You have to have that temperament where you thrive on it or you’ll hate every second of it. I get tired of it, sure, but for the most part I still love it. What most people don’t see is how much uneventful boredom there is. It’s hurry-up-and-wait, smoke-’em-if-you-got-’em but that’s gonna kill you so you’d better quit that, too.
“I do kind of miss the old days in the van,” he adds. “The bus is more of a sensory-deprivation time capsule. We saw a lot more of the country and experienced the road more touring in a van, like seeing Mount Rushmore while driving from Minneapolis to Olympia. But to go back to exactly the way it was touring in a van would probably kill me now. I’m 47 now and I was doing the van thing from about 31 to 37, an age when most people have already gotten that (expletive) out of their system. It just took me that long to get around to it and I was not about to let it go by.”