by Randy Fox
Founded by two gifted songwriters — Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley (and featuring a third during the six years that Jason Isbell was a member of the group) — the Drive-By Truckers demonstrated a fierce loyalty to the Southern culture and tradition while also refusing to overlook its darker and uglier aspects. Although Hood was the more prolific songwriter, one of the highlights of every DBT album is the two or three contributions from Cooley. With a sharp eye for human nature, a sense of the sardonic and the ability to capture a perfect turn of a phrase worthy of classic country songwriters, Cooley’s songs go to the heart of his characters’ hopes, dreams and disappointments in such classics as “Zip City,” “Women Without Whiskey,” “Daddy’s Cup,” “Cottonseed” and many more.
Naturally, “Cooley-heads” are thrilled to finally see the man step out on his own with the release of his new album, The Fool on Every Corner, and a solo acoustic tour that spotlights dramatically re-imagined versions of many of his classic songs. Cooley will be making a two-night stand at The High Watt Feb. 8 and 9. The Cream talked to Cooley about stepping out on his own, songwriting, what’s next for his “day” job, and the fabulous Charlie Rich. See our chat below.
Even though Patterson Hood has done several solo albums, this is your first time to step outside the Drive-By Truckers. Was it something you’ve always wanted to do, or did someone have to talk you into the idea?
I’ve always liked the idea of doing a solo album, but as far as an album of new material, I just don’t write songs that fast. It’s not me. The band was off, so I had time to play some solo shows, but once I got into trying to figure out different ways to play [my songs] I really got into it. It seemed like it would make a cool album. Plus, I could release it about the same time Patterson’s releasing his and fuck him real bad [laughs].
It’s good to know the Ray Davies/Dave Davies band dynamic is at work in the Drive-By Truckers.
It used to be real, now we just joke about. It wasn’t funny when it was real. I actually thought it might help both albums to have them out at the same time, especially since mine’s not new material.
So you didn’t just revert back to your “demo versions” of the songs?
I wanted to come up with something different for as many of them as I could. When I write most anything, I’m just playing a rhythm guitar part — very similar to what I end up playing with the band. For these versions I did fingerpicking or whatever — making them more of a solo performance. I ended up really having fun, and every time I get ready for a new run of shows I usually find another way to approach a song that hasn’t occurred to me yet.
How’s the solo tour been in comparison to touring with a band?
I’m enjoying it. After the two shows in Nashville I’ve got a week out on the West Coast, and I’m really looking forward to it. And I’m sure I’ll do some more through the year. It’s something I have fun with, and as long as I don’t overdo it and burn everybody out, it’s something I can keep doing as long as I want.
One of the things that the Drive-By Truckers have built their reputation on is really strong songwriting. How do you feel you differ as songwriter from Patterson Hood or any of the other people you’ve worked with?
On any given day I can see differences, but I can’t always put my finger on them. There are certain kinds of songs, especially when it comes to telling specific stories, that Patterson does a lot better than I do. [For him] it is a story — beginning, middle and end — where mine are little more vague.
I hear a lot classic country songwriting sensibility in your songs. Do you think that’s a fair assessment?
MC: Oh yeah, I probably imitate more of that style of songwriting than anything else. It’s simple and it makes sense to me, and my voice kind of lends itself to those kinds of songs. I like the poetry of a lot of traditional country lyrics and then having that voice means everything sounds country. When I do a rock ’n’ roll song I sound like a country singer singing a rock ’n’ roll song.
I know Patterson has cited Tom T. Hall as a big influence on his songwriting, and that matches what you say about him writing complete short stories in a sense. Your songs also tell stories, but in a more impressionistic way like Merle Haggard. Would you say he was a big influence?
Yeah, probably guilty. Merle Haggard’s lyrics always blew me away. They blow everybody away. He’s as good as it gets. That’s a pretty simple thing to say, but if you don’t take a page out of his book you’re probably not doing it right.
One of my favorite of your songs is “Zip City” [from Southern Rock Opera]. I grew up in rural Kentucky, and that song perfectly nails that teenage desire to break away from where you grew up and the people who seem perfectly willing to stay there. It’s almost like you crawled inside my head when I was 17.
It’s kind of obvious that it would connect to a lot of people, especially for guys my age. But I was really surprised that so many people relate to it on that deep of a level. It’s a fan favorite for that reason. They see themselves at 17. I guess everybody that’s tried to write a song has tried to write that song. Bruce Springsteen only did it about a hundred times [laughs], or maybe more. I may have missed a few.
The one cover song on your album is the Charlie Rich hit, “Behind Closed Doors.” How did you decide to add that one to your live shows?
I was looking for some possibilities for some cover tunes just to spice up the show a little bit, and I was listening to that record and flagged that one. That’s the only cover I ended up doing consistently. I love Charlie Rich. That album was really, really big when I was a kid in the '70s. Of course, I didn’t like it much back then. I was a kid and didn’t get it. But then I rediscovered it and listened to some of his stuff and was just knocked out. He’s not a country guy at all. He did that one album and had a crossover hit, but he was a rock ’n’ roll, soul, blues, jazz monster.
Any plans for another solo album in the near future?
Not really. Everyone seems to like the album, but a few people have said they wished I had just taken those versions of the songs into the studio and released them like that instead of it being a live album. There are several key songs I didn’t get good versions of so I might do studio album at some point.
What’s next for the Drive-By Truckers?
We played New Year’s Eve with the new lineup, and I was really happy with it. [Note: Drive-By Truckers guitarist John Neff left the band in December.] It sounds good, so we’re going to leave it just like that. I don’t think we’re going to fill that spot any time soon if ever.
We’ve got some time slated to start rolling some tape in March. It will have been about four years since we started working on the last album, and we’re kind of itchin’ to enjoy that process again.
Any words about your solo shows in Nashville?
Nope, I don’t want to jinx ‘em!