music (2006-37)

A Decade of Drive-by

At age 10, the Truckers wrestle with responsibility

Ben Harper knows what’s going on

by Mike Gibson

Founded in 1996 by longtime friends Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, Athens, Ga.-based southern/alt. rockers the Drive-by Truckers turned 10 this year. That’s old for a dog, and young for a human. But for a rock band it’s about middle age.

Small wonder, then, that the Truckers’ seventh and latest album A Blessing and a Curse (New West Records) seems laden with midlife concerns. There’s more introspection this time around, and fewer riffs on Dixieland mythology and odes to Southern rock than any of their previous releases, with the possible exception of 2003’s Decoration Day .

And while it would be perhaps heavy-handed to say that A Blessing and a Curse represents a mid-life crisis, for the Truckers it’s at least the musical equivalent of settling down.

“In our songwriting, we were all very concerned with family when we wrote the record, with what was going on in our own lives,” says singer-guitarist Jason Isbell, speaking on a break from the road in the middle of the band’s latest tour. “There’s not a whole lot of Southern epics, like there were in the past.

“As a band, (singer-guitarist Mike) Cooley has had a couple of kids, and Patterson (Hood, also singer-guitarist) has kids now. And when you have children, it makes you think about your own life, about lessons you learned and things you forgot to pay attention to when they happened.”

Isbell admits that the Truckers, like most other bands of similar longevity and standing, have lived their own version of the American rock-star dream, complete with substance abuse and the various debaucheries attendant to living on the road.

And true to form, Blessing has some songs about dissolution. Only now the songs are not so much the jaded, matter-of-fact records of hard living they often were in the past as they are cautionary tales, thoughtful and even rueful reflections on misspent youth.

One of three Isbell-penned tunes on the album, “Easy on Yourself” comes off as a warning to a good friend hellbent on self-destruction. But Isbell admits that the song is probably less a sermon than a self-admonition, softened in its impact by the remove of its second-person perspective. 

“I’m probably talking to myself as much as to anyone else,” he says. “The sort of life we live, lots of opportunities come up that might not be very good for you in the long run. So the song is kind of about growing out of that phase, that time of life where you feel like you have to imbibe everything all at once.

“Lots of creative people live like every day is their last one. But the truth is that it’s usually not.”

Since joining the band shortly before the recording of Decoration Day , Isbell has been one of its featured songwriters, along with fellow guitarists Hood and Cooley. Though the three men usually write separately, there’s a remarkable chemistry evidenced when their individual contributions are compiled and recorded under the banner of a Drive-By Truckers record. The result: not only is the whole greater than the sum of its parts, it’s far more cohesive than it has any right to be. Their approaches vary, up to a point, yet the songs are always harmoniously integrated, undeniably of a piece.

It’s hard to figure why that’s true. The 27-year-old Isbell grew up listening to ’80s pop radio, Tears for Fears and Crowded House and ’Til Tuesday, and even Michael and Janet Jackson. His guitar partners were more inclined to rock and punk. “They had the radio off at the same time I had the radio on,” Isbell says.

And though they all assimilated classic Southern rock somewhere along the way, Isbell says that Patterson Hood—the most traditional- sounding southern rocker in the group—listened to it the least of the three. It’s a weird chemistry, one that makes little sense when you write the formula out on a page.

What they share, Isbell says, is more a mindset, a like feel for the common theme that lies at the heart of most Truckers’ songs—that of wrestling with the fact of one’s own essential Southernness in an increasingly unsympathetic world. Isbell adds that all five members of the band grew up in Northern Alabama, and that shared cultural milieu informs everything the Truckers do.

“We’re all on the same page,” says Isbell. “Me and Cooley especially. More than once, we’ve written two songs that are different sides of the same coin, without knowing what the other was doing. We’ve got the same concerns.”

There’s also a significant age difference between Isbell and the other two principal songwriters, who are both in their early 40s. But that, too, makes little difference. Says Isbell, “There’s no real age gap, other than some of the musical influences. But we’ve connected all of those dots by now. We’re on a similar level. We pretty much all act like we’re 16.”

Who: Drive-By Truckers

Gaining Consciousness

by Leslie Wylie

Last time I saw Ben Harper, it was at Bonnaroo two or three years back, and I had the distinct sensation that something unpleasant was about to go down. The June sun was roasting the cheering, dancing crowd alive, deep-frying shoulders and transforming ice-cold beers into bitter, golden bathwater. Harper was up on stage, baring his ancient soul and, much to my delight, his fine set of chiseled brown abs, as The Innocent Criminals rocked out behind him.

Then things began to grow dark, as though a massive thunderhead, no, a great wad of celestial slime, was eclipsing the earth’s source of light. Squinting my eyes, I turned my head upwards. Suddenly, the sky turned purple and closed in around me like a giant strangling blanket, leaving me dizzy and gasping for air. Harper’s songs skidded into slow motion like a tape recorder with a dying battery, his soulful voice now muddled and several octaves too deep. I don’t remember hitting the mud, face-down.

When I came to, Harper was nowhere in sight. Darn it , I sighed. Dehydration can be such a drag.

Fast-forward to August 2006, the starting gate of Harper’s U.S. tour with reggae artist Damian Marley (son of Bob). On a conference call with Harper, I listen intently as he waxes articulate on his new album, his creative process, and his inspirations.

The conversation leaps from subject to subject, experience to experience: “I started with too many songs and ended with way too many songs…I was talking to Neil Young the other night…it was a creative choice…if you get heartbroken once, you can write a lifetime’s worth of pain…sometimes it just hits you, both the words and the music at the same time….” Most of what Harper says sounds as if he’s pulling it from some rolodex of wisdom that I suppose, in reality, might well be his 36-year-old heart.

He talks about working with the Blind Boys of Alabama on his last record, a double-disc gospel album called Both Sides of the Gun (Virgin), and describes the swiftness of its recording as an exercise in immediacy. “[The Blind Boys] are from the school where, when you sing, you’re making the record—you don’t get second takes,” he says. “You get a take, and you’re done. So when you’re on the mike, it’s for real, it’s for keeps, and there’s no looking back.”

The adjective “rawness” comes up a couple times, as do allusions to this country’s political shortcomings—the subject of a song on his latest album. “‘Black Rain’ was written in response to the lack of response from this current administration in New Orleans,” he explains.

When asked how the political sphere and his songwriting overlap, he answers, “I hope you can hear it. That’s the odd part about art, socially aware art, is that if the times aren’t politically charged, the music possibly won’t be. And in my life, they’ve never been more charged than they are now.” He adds, “I’m proud to be one of many voices of the silent majority. I’m just putting it out there as I see it.”

Calling a spade a spade is one thing, but Harper has a knack for communicating the fine print as well. His song-craft is bejeweled with the subtleties of human experience, those casual, overlooked moments that are just as significant in the scheme of things as grander themes—love, loss, rectitude. “If you ask anybody who knows me, I spend a good portion of the day jotting down parts of conversations,” he says. “I haven’t missed a word or a beat in 15 years.”

During today’s interview, Harper responds to each question with the kind of self-conscious grace that’s special to artists, beings whose identity and livelihood often depends largely upon their own awareness of it—and the integrity of their own consciousness. And consciousness, in its purest form, requires a great deal more than keeping one’s eyes open. It requires keeping the mind’s eyes open. 

A memory of the Bonnaroo blackout incident pushes its way to the forefront of my mind. Literally losing consciousness is a physical phenomenon, but social loss of consciousness is a pandemic. That’s why artists like Harper play such a critical function in modern-day culture, with its sometimes-precarious state of affairs.

It’s a job he doesn’t intend to quit anytime soon. “The challenge is which direction to go in next,” he says.

What: Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals w/Damian Marley


• Bonus music interview with Christabel and the Jons here .