Issue February 26, 2008

Drive-By Truckers traverse dark times, find Brighter days

Last year was hectic for the Drive-by Truckers. Key member Jason Isbell abruptly left the band after divorcing bassist Shonna Tucker. DBT reunited with original guitarist John Neff, then backed up R&B songstress Bettye LaVette on her Grammy-nominated album Scene of the Crime.

The Truckers wrote and recorded their own album Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, which debuted at No. 34 on the Billboard chart, and still managed to squeeze in a 52-date tour called “The Dirt Underneath.”

And that’s a slow year. Tucker hopes 2008 will be a less dramatic year for the band. “So far, so good,” she says. “We just want to get down there with everybody and get back to the rock show.”

When Isbell left, Neff was brought back to round out the band’s trademark three-guitar assault.

“Johnny’s got his own thing going,” Tucker says in her irresistible Southern drawl. “It’s always different when you have somebody leave or come in, but he was an original member of the band, so he’s always been one of us. He just took a break for a little while.”

The void also meant that Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley figured they’d return to a two-singer approach cultivated on their first three studio albums, before adding Isbell as a third vocalist on their fourth record, 2003’s Decoration Day. Surprisingly, Tucker had been silently waiting for her turn at the mic.

“Well, I’ve always written,” she says. “This is just the first time approached the guys with the songs and felt like they were Drive-by Trucker material. I’ve always written, but for the last five years I’ve kind of been in the back, in the shadows, because I’ve been focusing on being the bass player. It seemed like (it was) time for me to come out and introduce myself as a writer.”

The three songs she wrote and sang on — “I’m Sorry Huston,” “Purgatory Line” and “Home Field Advantage” — are easily the most tender and heartfelt compositions on Brighter. Hood’s voice reeks of whiskey, Cooley’s drowns in Pabst Blue Ribbon, but Tucker has the low, smoky growl more suited to rough-and-tumble delta blues than the country ballads and vintage rock on Brighter. “It wasn’t a conscious thing,” she says. “It just happened that way, I wasn’t trying to do anything or make it sound any way; it just came out soundin’ like it did.”

This Saturday, The Truckers return to Louisville, a frequent stop, to do what they do best — play live. Their concerts have been a well-kept secret among industry insiders for years now.
“We wouldn’t come (to Louisville) if we didn’t want to, not to mention the crowds are great as we get closer to the South and get closer to home,” Tucker says. “We wanna pack the place out and get the energy going.” She chuckles to herself, “(Our shows are) like going to the circus, baby; you’ve just got to see it.”

They also perform at 3 p.m. Saturday at ear X-tacy (1534 Bardstown Road, 452-1799), which will be broadcast live on 91.9 WFPK-FM.

Read our Q&A with Shonna Tucker at Notes (leomusicblog.blogspot.com). Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com

Drive-By Truckers
w/ Felice Brothers
Saturday, March 1
Headliners Music Hall
1386 Lexington Road
www.headlinerslouisville.com
$25; 9 p.m.