The lights at the Ryman Auditorium were low, the pews were full and Patterson Hood sauntered off the stage with a furrowed brow long before the rambling chords of his guitar ceased for the night. One by one, the rest of Drive-By Truckers followed suit: the keys went quiet, the instruments were laid by their respective amps and the lofty echo of "Grand Canyon" died down in Nashville's hallowed hall as the men who brought its din into being stripped it of its parts. Mike Cooley loped off in the direction of the dressing rooms only to have his son leap toward him before he met the curtain, and the guitarist-singer hoisted the kid up into the crook of his arm without breaking stride. After bassist Matt Patton exited, drummer Brad Morgan was left sitting on his own, the confident heartbeat of his kit cutting through the static discarded in the wake of his band mates, the feedback of the abandoned guitars metallic and strong against Morgan's snare. Eventually, Morgan stood up and turned on his heel. He walked off without his sticks, and the crowd at the Ryman gave a standing ovation to an empty stage.
This is how Drive-By Truckers wrap up their shows now. In the nearly 20 years they've been playing together, the rollicking rock and twang outfit has never stuck to a set list, and they don't intend to start now. For Cooley, it's about keeping the band and the audience on their toes in equal measure.
"It's so much more rewarding and fun to do it this way," he says, taking a breather in the Hank Williams dressing room at the Ryman before the show. "When you go by a strict set list, you'll start playing the same one every night whether you want to or not. A lot of our fans come to a lot of shows; some come to every show on the leg of a tour. You can't get lazy and start phoning it in every night if there's no list in front of you."
Hood appreciates the freedom this routine provides, especially because it allows them to work beyond the confines of the record they're currently promoting.
"That's one of the blessings in never really having a hit!" he laughs. "We don't have any one or two songs that we're known for. It's just this sprawling catalog that we can pick and choose from. We don't have anything that anchors us to any particular era of the band, so we can kind of do what we want at any time."
The one exception to the rule for this tour has been the majestic "Grand Canyon," a tune the guys have made their standard closer — and one of the best Hood has ever written. The song, which also serves as the final track on their 12th release, English Oceans, was written for Craig Lieske, a longtime friend of the band's who frequently toured with them and managed one of their favorite venues at one point: the 40 Watt in their adopted hometown of Athens, Georgia. Lieske passed away unexpectedly in January 2013, and Hood turned to steel strings to properly pay his respects.
"It's just one of those things where the antenna was pointed in the right place, and it just hit me, and I wrote it down as fast as I could," he says, recalling the moment where he rushed to grab a gig case from the bowels of the bus somewhere outside of New Orleans. Hood didn't write "Grand Canyon" on his own guitar — his was stolen (and eventually returned) on the road — but the fact that he borrowed Cooley's to commit the chords to memory before they were lost from his fingertips is a serendipitous step in and of itself. English Oceans is a split songwriting effort on the parts of Hood and Cooley, in that it's their first record to hold an even number of contributions from each of them.
"It was a very cathartic thing, writing it," Hood recalls of "Grand Canyon." "I wrote it to find some way of channeling horrific grief and sadness. It's still emotional in a way that's more uplifting. It's not like it brings me down; it's that moment in the show where I feel like he's in the room with us still a little bit, and it's an important song for us."
While "Grand Canyon" serves as their grand finale both on the record and the stage, English Oceans on the whole was a creative shift that marked a new era for Drive-By Truckers, with scores of accolades and their highest-charting effort to date following the record's release this past March. And though only a few months have passed since English Oceans dropped, Drive-By Truckers are re-releasing it on November 18, throwing in a bunch of live tracks along with a live DVD, Black Ice Vérité, which follows a particularly poignant performance at the 40 Watt in Athens during the worst storm Georgia's seen this century.
The 40 Watt show took place a month before the record came out, and about a year after Lieske's passing. It's unusual to revisit a body of work so soon after its debut with such immediacy and fanfare, but Drive-By Truckers have looked beyond "Grand Canyon," and English Oceans isn't just another album or a notch in the belt of their discography. The gritty sincerity with which they're able to approach their music and each other after two hard-fought, hard-earned decades together is represented here, and that's a distinction worth a second listen.
"I feel like we're finally at a point where we can actively get better," says Cooley, who notes "tender songs" and Drive-By Truckers' newfound softer side as points of progress on English Oceans. Last year, they put out a re-mastered version of 2000's Alabama Ass Whuppin', their first live record, and its notorious, nefarious rowdiness is a stark contrast to what Cooley considers to be the strong suits of English Oceans — and the show it inspires.
"We didn't really do pretty songs back then," he adds. "We didn't do quieter songs. Sonically, we've gotten way more dynamic. We can bring it way up or way down and anything in between. Back then, it was going off the rails all the time."
To say that times have changed from the Alabama Ass Whuppin' days would be an understatement. They party way less ("We're a little more sober, if not significantly!" quips Cooley) and bring their kids on the road, with fatherhood offering a new kind of common ground for Cooley, Hood and the rest of the guys. Cooley's sons are huge fans of Jack White's and stopped by Third Man Records before watching the Nashville show from the wings at the Ryman. Morgan held his baby in his lap during soundcheck, as drumsticks make for excellent toys while Dad's busy checking his kicker pedals. Meanwhile, Hood strategized about their Halloween show at the Georgia Theater in Athens the following night; he wasn't sure how the trick-or-treating schedule would work out, or if the kids' scooters would get in the way while they were setting up at the venue. The Truckers are older, wiser and swimming in a sea of new priorities that go beyond wrecking the stage on a nightly basis, and that informs their improved musicianship.
"For a long time, I didn't feel like we were proving that much year-to-year," adds Cooley. "I feel like the band just really flat-lined. I'm not blaming former members for that at all. I have my shit together better than I did then, and I'm actively working towards that. Being able to watch ourselves actually progress at this age, at this point, it feels good. To be able to still learn — you should never stop."
For Hood, Alabama Ass Whuppin' provided a learning opportunity and a blueprint for capturing their live sound in a way that would represent both their roots and showcase their growth in Black Ice Vérité and English Oceans' supplemental material. "Grand Canyon" is a powerful statement on its own, but to have the visual component to go along with it — footage of a stricken band eulogizing their friend on the stage he used to run — harkens back to the unhinged, unpredictable quality of their beginnings.
"The [Alabama Ass Whuppin'] tapes had been missing for a real long time," he says. "We had found the missing tapes, and that's what lead to us reissuing it. When we went back and listened to all that stuff, we were taken aback by just how immediate it all sounded, just how we bashed it all out. We wanted to recapture some of that. We thought that that would be a good place for this latest reinvention to begin. It was probably the most fun we've ever had, making [English Oceans]. For a band that's been around as long as we have, that's a good thing, to be that kind of revitalized."
It shows. After the Ryman, the Drive-By Truckers went home to Athens, where they celebrated Halloween in their hometown theater just down the street from where Black Ice Vérité was filmed. (Hopefully, trick-or-treating at the venue worked out as Hood had hoped.) They sported face paint and disheveled hair-dos as "zombiefied" versions of themselves for their Halloween costumes, a throwback to their Dirty South cover artwork with its sinister overtones. They played some old favorites ("Let There Be Rock") and new standards ("Shit Shots Count," "Primer Coat") before launching into the hypnotic hymn of "Grand Canyon" that elicited as many misty eyes as it did hollers and raised (and spilled) pints. They'll celebrate English Oceans with a proper live album from this particular tour next year, but in the meantime, Black Ice Vérité, the new live cuts and the journey that brought them there prove that Drive-By Truckers are very much a band that can walk hand-in-hand with the ghosts of their former selves. They can get lost in "Grand Canyon" and walk away from it proud and satisfied every night, but those steps offstage are heading in the direction of the next song they just can't wait to write.