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The Drive-By Truckers' rocky road turns brighter

By Brian Baker, February 2008

To say that the Drive-By Truckers had a tumultuous 2007 would be akin to observing that Donald Trump has a few semolians. Still, last year's departure of Jason Isbell from the Truckers' ranks had the air of inevitability around it; he had been working piecemeal on his own album for more than two years when he announced his exit from the band to concentrate on his solo career.

For the Truckers, who just released "Brighter Than Creation's Dark," Isbell's absence represented the loss of a guitarist, vocalist and valued songwriter.

But for bassist Shonna Tucker, Isbell's departure was both professionally and personally draining; it was the end of the pair's nearly five-year marriage that facilitated Isbell's split with the Truckers. Understandably not wanting to dredge up personal details, Tucker admits that the experience was draining for her on several different levels.

"To say the least, it was exhausting," she says. "That's a good word for it."

At the same time, the intense emotional upheaval of the end of her relationship with Isbell had an unintended impact on Tucker. She began writing songs.

"I've always kind of written, but since I've been in the band, I've pretty much just been the bass player, and there hasn't been time for that yet," she says. "Once the personal issues were resolved, that's when I was able to get (the songs) out. For a long time, it was almost too much for me to write down because it was happening to me. When it was over was when I could let it out. It took a lot of courage actually to take songs to these guys because I respect them so much as writers. I got the okay from (guitarist and secondary songwriter Mike) Cooley and (lead singer) Patterson (Hood), and I thought, 'Well, here's a start.' It's whole new world for me now. It was a big purging. So, I feel clean and ready to fill back up."

The process became even more alien for Tucker when she took her songs into the studio with the Truckers, as she had composed the songs with rudimentary guitar skills then had to switch back to her bassist role with the band during recording.

"I can't play guitar well at all, and we went in, and I had this bass, and I said, 'Oh, yeah, I gotta play bass and sing,'" says Tucker with a laugh. "We had to figure it out, so it was a fun adventure. It changed my life, actually. I learned a lot about myself and that I could do things that I didn't know I could do or at least I haven't done them in a long time."

As a result, the Drive-By Truckers' new album features a trio of Tucker's contributions, which also benefit from the bassist's first lead vocal appearances. In another first for the band, Cooley came up with seven songs that wound up in the final track listing. Hood filled out "Creation's Dark" with his compositions, giving the album a whopping 19 songs total.

"We've never recorded a Shonna song before, and we've got three, and they fit perfectly with the record," says Hood. "And we ended up recording seven of Cooley's songs this time and they're the best songs he's ever written, and I've got nine on there, and I'm as proud of them as anything I've ever written."

"Some of it is really pretty, and some of it is kind of primal MC5/Stooges influenced, and it all flows right with each other. There's definitely a big soul music and R&B influence in a lot of it, and I think that's always been in our music, but never been as noticed, and I'm glad of that."

Tucker is particularly happy with the soul undercurrent that runs through "Creation's Dark." Having been raised in the shadow of Muscle Shoals and knowing many of the musicians that helped craft that funk/soul sound of the '60s and '70s, Tucker has always felt an affinity for the style and loves its addition to the Truckers' sonic profile.

"That's where my passion lies is soul music," says Tucker. "Still to this day, I'm completely obsessed with all the players around here. I got to grow up around these actual musicians that played on a lot of those soul records that were recorded at Muscle Shoals. It's just my thing. I was happy to get to do it, it was a dream come true, but I assume because of my passion for it that I tend to play more that way if I get a chance to."

While the Truckers' soulful side has been evident before the new CD, it has never seemed so prevalent, and there are two logical reasons for it. First, the songs were conceived in the vicinity of Hood's production for and the Truckers' backing duties on Bettye LaVette's latest heart stopping album, "The Scene of the Crime," an incredible experience for all concerned.

"We got to do our sweet soul record," says Tucker. "So, that put us in a mood."

Perhaps more importantly, the band made the momentous decision to bring in legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham to lend some soul authenticity to the proceedings. Oldham's input was so critical that the band included him on a good portion of last year's Dirt Underneath acoustic tour. With the return of pedal steel guitarist John Neff to fill Isbell's void, the country/soul/rock vibe could not be denied.

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