"I was living in New York and a friend gave me Southern Rock Opera," explains Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn. "So I went to see the Truckers at Bowery Ballroom, and it was one of the top rock shows of my life. The first time is maybe always the best time when you see a band. I just couldn't take my eyes off them. They played all night and drank a ton of beer. It was just so cool."
No wonder the Drive-By Truckers' publicist quipped that they should be calling the band's tour with The Hold Steady the "Man Love Tour."
For a certain breed of rock fan—those who like their rock literate and loud—this tour is a wondrous fantasy, Hanukkah come early, OMFG. But for all the mutual man love going around, the two bands don't necessarily seem like a logical pairing—the No Depression cover boys and the Pitchfork darlings—yet they share some powerful similarities.
With every love affair, there is a beginning. This one started when Truckers frontman Patterson Hood met Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kulber at a DBT show in New York City. They became email pen pals. "As I became better friends with Tad, I started picking up more and more of their records, and the more I listened, the more I thought they were great," says Hood. "And they're all huge Truckers fans."
Eventually the two cooked up the idea that the bands should tour together—it's hard to know if flowers were exchanged. Their management was excited about the idea, and promoters were really excited about the idea. So, here we are: 24 co-headlining dates all across this great land.
Perhaps the strongest connection between The Truckers and The Hold Steady is a deeply held populist ethos that permeates their songs and sends them tirelessly traversing the country on tour after tour after tour. Both bands also have complex relationships to deeply held regional identities—the Truckers to the South and The Hold Steady to their former home in the Minneapolis suburbs—and the people they've encountered there. As Craig Finn puts it, "We both tell stories about the people we know, from the places we're from."
And both bands released big, complex, emotionally dynamic records this year. The Hold Steady came out with Stay Positive, the band's fourth album in five years. Eschewing the concept album format of 2005's Separation Sunday and making fewer references to their signature gaggle of lost souls, the record nonetheless confronts the future of those hard-partying kids as they grow older. "The characters in the songs are older, so it has a darker feel," says Finn. "Your problems in your 30s tend to be bigger than your problems in your 20s.... 'Stay positive' is a phrase you would only say in dark times."
The Truckers' latest, Brighter Than Creation's Dark, has a more complicated history. It's the band's first record since 2002 without songwriter Jason Isbell, and it's a return to their more story-song focused tradition, something the band veered away from somewhat with 2007's A Blessing and a Curse. Hood admits that the strength of this record is a result of renewed bliss in Trucker land. "As a band, we went through a dark period for a couple years, some personal stuff, and some internal stuff, and A Blessing and Curse kind of reflected that," says Hood. "But by the time we made this record, we had pretty much righted the ship. We really had a great time making it; it was kind of a magical experience."
Both Brighter and Stay Positive manage to progress the grand overarching narratives these bands have been crafting for years. For The Hold Steady, it's about how the freedom of youth—the scenes we ingratiate ourselves into, the personalities we adopt—can become a vise. It's about how those dimly remembered "killer parties" are simultaneously the best and worst times of your life. With Stay Positive, they begin to push that conceit to its logical conclusion: becoming the creepy old guy clinging to the same old scene, promising yourself over and over again that soon, any day now, you're finally going to do something with your life.
On the album's opener, "Constructive Summer," Finn repeats, "We're gonna build something this summer," as if to will it so. And then, right before one of the band's irresistible bridges, he sings, "Let this be your annual reminder that we can all be something bigger." If there's a line that perfectly encapsulates the album's tension between bleakness and perverse hope, this is it. Every year, you make the same promise to yourself. But maybe this will be the one when things change.
All of this philosophizing is accomplished over the band's signature bombastic palette—the perfect complement to Finn's speak-singing croak. This time they've gone even bigger: plenty of piano, soaring crescendos, splashy gang vocals and even the occasional synth—as on "Navy Sheets," a song featuring Hood on backing vocals.
For the Truckers, the world of their songs is a version of the South that transcends stereotype. This record tells some desperate tales—the Iraq war vet struggling to come to terms with killing a man; the tragically comic Lisa, who celebrates her birthday, night after night; the weary road warrior of "The Opening Act"—but does so with vigor and wit. Mike Cooley is at his swaggering, snarling best on the vintage "3 Dimes Down," and perfectly encapsulates end-of-the-night melancholy on the lilting, soulful "Checkout Time in Vegas"; Hood's "The Righteous Path" paints a picture of middle-class malaise much more convincing than anything we've been force-fed during this election cycle.
These two great records have helped make 2008 a very good year for both bands; and that's not an easy thing in the rapidly imploding music industry. Their continued growth can be partially traced to a vintage model for building a brand: Make a lot of records, tour tirelessly and live to serve your fans.
"The industry imploding has been good for bands that were never really embraced by the industry in the first place," says Hood. "You know, we never got radio play and we didn't get help or support from a record label—or at least enough worth mentioning—so having all of that taken out of the scene just means that there's less slick, processed crap to compete with when you're out there on the road."
Finn echoed that sentiment. "I always say we've done The Hold Steady in a way that they can't take it away from us. We can't get cancelled on TRL. We just exist. If we go out and play shows our fans show up."
When it comes to those fans, using the word "rabid" wouldn't be an overstatement. For both acts, the biggest factor in cultivating that devotion has been putting on a live show that leaves ears throbbing and hearts aflutter. They sweat. They play the deep cuts. The Truckers slug whiskey from the bottle, and Finn bounds around the stage like a madman.
They also inspire loyalty by inviting listeners back, again and again, into a world they understand. The Truckers have cultivated their own set of intriguing tropes—the hardworking man pushed to desperate measures to keep his family afloat; the stalwart, sometimes sad woman; the young idealistic musician (and his inevitable crash to earth). The Hold Steady, on the other hand, take familiarity to a new level.
"We used to catch flak from record label people for having, like, three songs on The Dirty South that dealt with Buford Pusser," says Hood, laughing. "And then here come The Hold Steady and they've got characters that not only reoccur on an album, but reoccur in album after album. And I love that. It's like on each of their records you find out what happens next with Charlemagne and Holly and all those people. They become more and more real the more songs they put them in."
Finn explained these references—the characters, the echoed lines—as a kind of code for the converted. "We're creating a lexicon among heavy listeners," says Finn. "Like if you and your friends have a word for something—you have your own little language. On Stay Positive, when I say, 'She's gonna have to go with whoever's gonna get her the highest,' it's a reference to "Hornets! Hornets!" off Separation Sunday. When I sing that line live, people go nuts, because they've been singing it in another song for years."
Both Hood and Finn are excited to bring the faithful together—two families rocking in harmony, celebrating this beautiful union. "It's amazing; we're in such parallel places in our lives and our music," says Hood. "We have almost the exact same size fan base; we sell about the same number of records and we play pretty much the same rooms, but there are enough different people in the fan bases that by doing the 'unified scene' thing"—as they put it in their song lyrics—"it enables us to move into rooms like the Ryman and do things that neither band could really do on their own."
Oh, the power of love.