f you listen to the new "Decoration Day" album by Drive-By Truckers, and you're not hurting a little bit by album's end, then you probably weren't really paying attention. From a listener's perspective, this album is truly an example of no pain, no gain.
Because underneath its blanket of raw Southern rock - sans even a hint of that style's blissfully ignorant hedonism - these Truckers weigh down their song characters with oversized loads of emotional baggage. Along the way, brides-to-be get left at the altar, sons sadly follow in their father's weary footsteps, and life is never what you might term happy-go-lucky.
This group is blessed with an abundance of talent. Although lead singer Patterson Hood has contributed the lion's share of songs to the quintet's albums, both guitarists Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell also write extremely fine songs. For example, one of Isbell's pieces became the album's title cut, and his track "Outfit" may just be the best song of all, on an album already packed with memorable tunes.
It was Isbell who took time out from his daily life in rural Alabama to talk on the phone about the music of this talented, yet sometimes difficult to categorize, band. He may not be the group's primary songwriter, but this former college English major can certainly hold his own in the song writing department.
Egos are often the greatest barriers to holding talented groups together, but mutual respect keeps these three strong voices operating smoothly as one unit.
"I guess the way we do it is to pretty much let everybody do what they want to do," Isbell explains. "It's kind of a pretty democratic process, as far as the band's concerned. I think we have enough confidence in each other to know that if I bring in a song or if Cooley brings in a song for the band to record, then it's kind of taken as common knowledge that that song is going to be good enough to be put on one of our records. I, for one, am lucky in having a couple of guys writing songs where I don't ever feel like they're not great."
Bassist Earl Hicks and drummer Brad Morgan round out the group, but they don't write.
Both Hood and Cooley had been going through a particularly productive period during and after the making of the previous "Southern Rock Opera" release (The band released it themselves in 2001, and Lost Highway re-released it last year. The band split from the label for the new album, which is on New West) and already had a number of songs ready to go for "Decoration Day."
This fact helps explain why Isbell contributed only a couple of his own creations to this new one. But while his contributions are few in number, these two songs nevertheless pack a powerful punch.
"Outfit" is the better of the two, as it offers advice from a father to a son. Some of its lines are funny, such as one that says, "Don't sing with a fake British accent."
But it's also deadly serious in places, exemplified by the words, "Have fun but stay clear of the needle."
It comes off so honest and real because it was inspired by actual words of wisdom from Isbell's own father.
"In a whole lot of ways, that's the way my old man was," he says now. "That's pretty much all the stuff he told me growing up. Not all of it, but the stuff that rhymes, as they say. That's pretty much the way his general nature is. He tried not to put too much seriousness on me at one time, without also trying to break it up from time to time with a few laughs. There are a lot of things on there (in the song) that - as I got older - became more multi-layered, as far as advice goes. It started out as something that was really funny, and then when I got to be 17, 18, 19 years old, I started thinking, well, that also makes a whole lot of sense - besides just being something that he threw in there to make me laugh as a kid."
Isbell's dad digs the song, by the way, as well he should. "I wrote the song as a Father's Day present and took that to him," he recalls. "He's a big fan of the band and listens to the records pretty frequently. He likes the song a whole lot. He was flattered by it, I think."
Unlike Hood, whose father was a Muscle Shoals studio musician, Isbell's dad is not a professional musician.
"He and my mother, really, are the only two people in my family that aren't musicians or didn't play when I was growing up. It kind of skipped a generation because everybody else pretty much on both sides played - though not usually as a profession - pretty regularly. Almost on a daily basis."
Isbell received his education in traditional American music from these various family members.
"I grew up with a lot of country and gospel songs, coming from the older members of my family," he says. "At the same time, I inherited my dad's record collection. It was there that I picked up on a lot of the Queen, Zeppelin and Free, a lot of what has turned into the more admirable aspects of classic rock that aren't really overplayed on classic rock radio, but were really influential to me. The Derek & The Dominos record was, I think, probably the number one thing growing up that I listened to a whole lot of. And then when I got to be a teenager and started trying to write songs on my own, I listened to a lot of the old Jackson Browne records, Neil Young John Hiatt and those kinds of things."