- The Washington Times - Friday, February 20, 2009

“Last year was so busy,” recalls Mike Cooley, lead guitarist and longtime member of the Drive-By Truckers.

“The band is going to take things somewhat lighter in 2009. That’s always the intention, at least, but it rarely works out that way.”

Co-founded in 1996 by Mr. Cooley and fellow Georgia native Patterson Hood, the band wasted little time establishing itself as a torchbearer of the Southern rock movement. Three guitarists propelled the Truckers’ sound with twangy vigor while the songs themselves cast an unapologetic eye on wayward politicians and grizzled, downbeat characters.

As the decade drew to a close, the band buoyed its popularity by touring extensively, primarily in the Southeast and along the Atlantic seaboard.

“Richmond was one of the first towns to draw a crowd outside of our home,” Mr. Cooley says.

“The D.C. area caught on pretty quick, too. We used to play the Iota Club in Arlington, and we started packing that place in. From Richmond up to New York was our strongest region early on. It’s still one of the strongest.”

While the band’s audience continued to spread north, the musicians remained indebted to their homeland.

“Southern Rock Opera,” an ambitious double-disc album dedicated to the history and mythology of the South, was released to critical acclaim in 2001, receiving accolades for its sociocultural commentary and its raw, raucous sound. Viewed by many as the band’s magnum opus, it paved the way for a string of similar material, all of which paired the Truckers’ rock ‘n’ roll craft with unique lyrical insight.

The band continues to release timely music, drawing upon the talents of three songwriters — Mr. Hood, Mr. Cooley and bassist Shonna Tucker — for diversity and strength.

“Shonna’s writing has a unique quirk to it that fits in with what we do,” Mr. Cooley says of the bassist, who began contributing songs with the band’s 2008 release, “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.”

“It breaks up the routine, and that’s one of the ways we were able to get away with putting 19 songs on the last record. We had three of her own songs to space out what me and Patterson were doing. If it was just up to him and me, we might’ve had to shorten it a bit. It would have been too much of the same.”

Contributing to the band’s diversity is a partnership with Booker T. Jones, leader of Stax Records’ seminal soul ensemble Booker T. & the M.G.’s.

After serving as Bettye LaVette’s backing band in 2007, the Drive-By Truckers were asked to join Mr. Jones in the studio, where the soul veteran recorded his first solo album in years.

“We had only blocked off a small amount of time,” Mr. Cooley says of the project, “and we were hoping to get five to seven songs recorded. Instead, we ended up tracking 11 songs and cutting the entire album in four days. It was a whirlwind.”

The Drive-By Truckers will resume that partnership this summer, when the band is slated to appear alongside Mr. Jones at several midyear festivals. Collaborating with two soul icons in three years, Mr. Cooley says, has been an honor.

“Having everything work out is even better,” he continues.

“It’d really be a kick in the tooth if you had the chance to play with someone like that and they said, ‘Sorry guys, it’s just not working out.’”

In the meantime, the band plans to return to the recording studio in the spring. This time, though, the Drive-By Truckers will be working on their own album, which Mr. Cooley says will emphasize social commentary over political observations.

Another round of touring will follow the album’s release, resulting in a year that may not be as “light” as Mr. Cooley planned. He’s happy the Drive-By Truckers continue to fire on all cylinders, however — even if the band’s 13-year history has begun to take a toll on its members.

“I’m over 40, so it stands to reason that your hearing and your sight are going to slip a bit. They’ve held up surprisingly well, though. I can still hear what I want to,” Mr. Cooley says.

Laughing, he adds, “And I can blame rock ‘n’ roll for what I don’t want to.”

• Catch the Drive-By Truckers during the band’s two-night residency at the 9:30 Club tonight and tomorrow. Doors open at 8 p.m., and tickets to each show are $25.

Battling slumping sales

Following years of sinking profits, the music industry took another hit in 2008.

Album sales fell by 8.5 percent, with some genres experiencing losses of 20 percent and more. Meanwhile, ticket prices soared, enabling concert revenues to increase despite declining ticket sales.

As Americans continue to tighten their belts in 2009, several bands have embraced new distribution techniques to battle the slump. Radiohead famously enacted a “pay what you can” pricing scheme for “In Rainbows,” while the Damnwells offered the contents of the band’s most recent album, “One Last Century,” as a free digital download.

Television also has assumed an important role in the industry, with many bands receiving exposure through sitcoms and ad placements.

U2, perhaps the largest band to release an album in 2009, recently secured a weeklong residency on the “Late Show With David Letterman” to promote sales for the upcoming “No Line on the Horizon.”

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