Drive-By Truckers’ New Detour: How ‘Horrific Grief’ Rewrote the Band’s History
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.
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