Veteran Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers Survive Two Decades of Lineup Changes and the Hazards of the Road

The Drive-By Tuckers have been together for almost 20 years, but the band’s lineup hasn’t exactly been stable during that time.

“We’ve gone through a good number of bass players over the years, and a few guitar players,” says Patterson Hood, one of the group’s two leaders, along with Mike Cooley. “This band has been on the road for so long, I think it’s inevitable that people get burned out.”

Notable talents like Jason Isbell and Spooner Oldham have both done stints in the band, earning the group critical acclaim and devoted fans. But Hood says the latest incarnation of Drive-By Truckers is by far his favorite.

The new lineup is a scaled-down affair. Hood and Cooley remain in the front, playing guitars and trading lead vocals. Gone is the band’s notable third guitar slot, once held by Isbell. The band’s keyboardist, Jay Gonzalez, fills in on guitar when needed—Hood describes him as “a kick-ass guitar player.” Long-time drummer Brad Morgan remains, and Matt Patton has been the band’s bassist since 2012.

“Having one less person up there has made the arrangements a little more airy,” Hood says.

The group may be smaller, but the chemistry has never been better, Hood says.

“When you’re a kid, you have this idea of what being in a band would be like—it almost never turns out that way,” Hood says. But this line-up is exactly that teenage fantasy, he adds. “When we’re on the road, we end up hanging out in the same room, even though we’ve been together all day. That’s a rare thing. … We want this to be the one we take to our graves. I really enjoy what I’m doing right now. We have the best camaraderie.”

The chemistry is evident on the band’s 12th album, English Oceans, which was released in March by ATO Records. The album, recorded in just a few weeks, has a breezy, off-the-cuff feel to it.

“It was a fun record to make,” Hood says. “It was probably my favorite time in the studio in a long time, if not ever.”

The songs were not written under happy circumstances, however. Hood says the band had a bunch of songs ready to record when they suffered a loss in the Drive-By Trucker family. Craig Lieske, who was the band’s merchandise manager but whom they called their “ambassador,” died of a heart attack in January 2013.

The death inspired Hood to write “Grand Canyon,” a song about the loneliness of the road and of the relentless passage of time. “After that song, I rewrote all my other songs for the record,” Hood says. “I knew that song was going to be last song on the record, and all of a sudden everything leading up to it had to pass a different test.”

The recording itself took very little time. “We wanted to capture it as close to live as possible,” Hood says. “There’s hardly any overdubbing—we let it roll and got good takes and rolled with it. We worked around the clock for almost two weeks, but we knocked it out really quick.”

For the first time ever, handed one of his compositions over to Cooley to sing. Hood wrote “Til He’s Dead or Rises,” with a specific harmony in mind, but was having trouble singing it in the right key. After struggling through a few takes in the studio, Hood asked Cooley if he’d give it a shot.

“I was a little nervous about asking him—I didn’t know how he’d feel,” Hood says. But both were thrilled with the results. “He sings it a lot better than I did,” Hood says. “The point is to get it as good as you can get it. If someone else can get it better than I can, I’m all about it.”

The partnership between Hood and Cooley has deepened over the years, and the bond is central to the Drive-By Truckers. The two have been friends since they were teenagers, though there have been bumps along the way.

“We spent first 10 years fighting about everything, but for some reason we kept doing it,” Hood says. “We somehow figured it out. The payoff is we get along great now and have a lot of fun together. … I know that’s the big myth about bands, their best music comes out of shitty times, but that never really worked for us. Our better records tend to be ones where we’re getting along good.”