In the 15 years since their debut album, the Drive-By Truckers have hauled past more detours and off-ramps than a river road during flood season. Most recently, the band bid farewell to bassist Shonna Tucker and pedal steel player John Neff; before that, they parted ways with singer-guitarist Jason Isbell. Through it all, old friends Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley have remained the band's heart, soul and head "Gangstabillies," to borrow from the name of that first album.
It's been a couple years since their ninth record, Go-Go Boots; Hood, the son of a mainstay of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section, put out a solo album in 2012. When they reconvened, the band recorded quickly, delivering a new album in just two weeks –"more or less pounding it out live in the studio," as Hood recalled. They'll release English Oceans in March. This early taste, the characteristically tenacious "Pauline Hawkins," comes from the last thing they recorded as they wrapped the sessions.
Hood tells Rolling Stone that the song was inspired by a new book by author (and Portland songwriter) Willy Vlautin.
"I had loved his first three novels and we had become pen pals in the last couple of years," he says. "The new book was called The Free and I read it in about three sittings. Wonderful book." He was especially moved by a character named Pauline Hawkins: "She had lived a tough life and had a brutal job, which caused her to be somewhat closed down in her emotions. I finished the book on Saturday and wrote the song on Sunday."
The band had been talking about the need for one more rocking tune for the album, and this fictional nurse came to the rescue. "This moment is all," Hood sings on her behalf, before getting lost in the band's thicket of guitars.