Drive-By Truckers – Holding on loosely
“It didn’t work at all,” Isbell confessed. “We discovered that we’re not rich enough to just take a year off.”
Hood cops to the fact that most people wouldn’t consider their hiatus to be down time. “I made a solo record, and Jason toured extensively solo and I had to learn how to be a daddy,” he said. “And when we did hit the road, we ended up going out for way longer than we’d initially planned. So we were gone for three months straight while I had a new baby at home, and just about drove me crazy, and took its toll on Cooley and I as individuals, and it didn’t really stop until in December.”
So the Truckers are now in a place where family obligations weave into a lively pace of touring and recording. “If we took a year off, a real honest to God year off, it’d drive us all insane. We’d all be dead by the end of it,” says Isbell. “The five of us have done this because it’s cathartic, and it’s a release for us to work on these things. It’s very, very good for our well-being. It works better than anti-depressants.”
Given that context, Blessing was never destined to be approached in the same manner as its predecessors. Changes were made to the writing process; the first was that they were steering clear of the concept-album thing.
“Blessing is not conceptualized at all; we were definitely all about not having a plan,” Isbell acknowledges. The album’s title, Hood says, was furnished by photographer Danny Clinch last fall. Hood was killing an afternoon with Clinch in New York City following a photo shoot. “He pretty much took me around on his errands, because I didn’t have anything to do,” Hood laughs. “And in the course of our talking, about where the band’s at, about how much I’d loved being a dad but also the down side of missing [my family] and worrying about them, he was like, ‘Yeah, it seems everything y’all do right now is like a blessing and a curse. Hey, you oughta write a song called that!’ And I said, ‘Actually, that’d be a pretty good title for the record we’re about to make.'”
Last August, with just a handful of new tracks written, they hooked up with longtime producer David Barbe (“Kind of the sixth member of the band,” says Tucker) to cut tracks at Mitch Easter’s studio, the Fidelitorium, a reclusive compound in Kernersville, North Carolina. “You could pretty much live there,” says Morgan. “It was very secluded. Our guitar tech, Tim Facok, he’d just cook all day. He’d have two or three grills going outside all the time.”
Isbell liked the idea of shaking the band out of its geographical comfort zone. “I was really into making a record that wasn’t in Athens or Muscle Shoals,” he says. “Something that put everybody a little off-kilter, which I sometimes think makes you a little more creative. And I wanted a lot of live recording, and reactionary recording, where everyone in the band is in front of you.”
Tucker says the band has always loved recording in Barbe’s place, “but Athens is home to a lot of the guys, and you don’t get to completely break the home routine when you live a mile from the studio.”
To make the break a little cleaner, the Truckers decided early on to ignore the considerable backlog of material left over from the sessions that produced 2004’s The Dirty South and 2003’s Decoration Day. “The last three records, especially Southern Rock Opera and Dirty South, were tied to each other, really narrative-driven,” Hood observed. “We wanted to do something that was just immediate, to catch what was on our minds right now and to make a record set in the now.”
Adds Tucker, “The songwriters would just come in with something they wrote that night or something they’d been in the bathroom writing.” About half the songs were recorded within hours of being written. And for the first half of the record, at least, what was on their minds was rock ‘n’ roll.
The band’s three songwriters step up to the plate in order of tenure to kick things off. Hood goes full-throttle on the opener, “Feb. 14”, a broiling anti-Valentine. Cooley’s wandering-the-fields song, “Gravity’s Gone”, finds him flinging stones at the plights of various high-society posers while gleefully copping to his own: “I’ve been falling so long it’s like gravity’s gone and I’m just floating.” Isbell’s “Easy On Yourself” digs into the sticky dark part of human behavior that seems to creep up in a lot of Truckers songs.