Drive-By Truckers talk rock, learning to listen and living in the present tense

The Drive-By Truckers like to work ahead: the Southern rockers have usually finished making the album after the current album by the time the current album comes out. For example: The band this week released its latest, “The Big To-Do” (ATO), and already has the next record in the can ready for release later this year.

“We’ve always kind of worked ahead a little bit, just by nature,” Patterson Hood tells Listen, Dammit. “We spent so long writing ‘Southern Rock Opera’ that we essentially wrote, recorded and toured behind three albums while we were writing that project.”

That’s just one of many facts that spilled out during a wide-ranging interview with Hood and Mike Cooley tell Listen, Dammit. Here are three more:

1. It was time to rock. After a sprawling, stylistically varied 19-song 2008 release, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark,” the band was looking for a leaner, full-bore rock sound on “The Big To-Do.” “A lot of it is just restlessness,” Hood says. “It’s like, we’ve been doing this for a year, I’m kind of ready to do this for the next year.”

2. “The Big To-Do” is a present-tense record. The Truckers are known for historical explorations of a sort: 2000’s “Southern Rock Opera” reflected on the legacies of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bear Bryant and George Wallace, while “The Dirty South” in 2004 featured not one, but two songs about Buford Pusser, the ’60s-era Tennessee sheriff whose story inspired the movie “Walking Tall.” This time, though, the band was very much rooted in the here and now. “Old stories, old events, are always cool, they’re always there,” Cooley says. “But I kind of wanted this to be more about, this is where I am right now, and figure out where you’re going.”

3. Supporting roles can be invaluable. The Truckers served as the backing band on Bettye LaVette’s 2007 album “The Scene of the Crime,” and on Booker T.’s 2009 instrumental record “Potato Hole.” The Truckers emerged from those projects a better band. Cooley says collaborating as a group on other people’s songs reminded the Truckers how to listen to each other. “Everybody will tell you that when you start doing this: You’ve got to listen to each other. Nobody knows what the hell that means,” Cooley says, and once you figure it out, it’s easy to forget after spending a lot of time on the road. “We re-learned how to do that in a whole different way. And the Booker project was a whole different thing: It was an instrumental record, and we had never done that before. We didn’t have a vocal line or lyrics to key on.”

That proved a significant detail. “Doing both those records definitely made me a better player, each in very different ways,” Hood says. “The Booker record taught me things about the musical-composition end of songwriting. His attention to detail — because he didn’t have those lyrics. Lyrics had always been my strong suite anyway, so I could probably get away with being a little lazy musically sometimes, because I knew the lyric would hopefully sell the song and push it forward.”

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