Drive-By Truckers make music that is too rock for country, yet probably a little too country for straight-ahead rock fans. This is why the group is so dependent upon its loyal fan base for consistent support.
"They (the fans) seem to be really supportive of the directions we want to go in."
And lately, these Drive-By Truckers have been heading toward dark waters. Much of "Decoration Day" is pretty tough going, since its mood gets fairly depressing in points and rarely ever lets up. Yet it's also essential to realize that these are writers and observers, more than anything else, rather than chroniclers of their own sorry lives in song. Folks like Flannery O'Connor and Randy Newman did much the same thing before them, and they now merely carry on this great tradition of creating art out of the everyday life they see.
"People say 'write what you know,' and it really is the truth. Randy Newman was able to write a lot of those songs and a lot of his records from the third person point of view. He also did it from a first person point of view, but from a totally different character in a lot of situations. He could take on the persona of a redneck or whoever he wanted to be at that moment and write those songs from that point of view and still make it really believable. And still make it something he really knew about. In a lot of ways, a lot of songs I write personally for the band - and the songs I write in general or just sitting around the house - have a lot to do with superimposing my personal experience with emotions onto things that might have happened to other people. But all these things still happen. They still go on. I can give you examples of just about every situation on the record within about a quarter mile radius of my house."
Surprisingly, many of these same sorts of - for lack of a better term - plain country people, are also some of the group's biggest fans.
"A lot of the people who are really the most over-the-top and into what we're doing - the people I see really more than anybody else on a daily basis - are simple people. I guess a lot of folks would call them simple, but they're really as complicated as just about anybody else. They just have a little more time to sit around and think about it, so they work it out a bit better in their minds. The songs we do are definitely accessible to people here at home - people that live on a farm, people that cut meat in a grocery store and people who do all those kinds of things. It's very accessible to them, I think."
Isbell may play all the big cities in a rock & roll band, but in between recording and touring, he calls rural Alabama home.
"I just left a few minutes ago to go to the store across the street to get a pack of cigarettes, and when I left, my whole backyard was full of horses. Somebody's horses had gotten out because there was a big storm this morning that knocked his fence over. So the law had to come out and help round up all the horses and put 'em back. It's definitely a rural area."
Isbell enjoys this double life, if you will. "I like to disappear when I'm home in a lot of ways and keep my circle of friends - and the people I work with and see on a daily basis - pretty close. And then keep the rest of the world a little bit at an arm's length. I really do enjoy spending time in the big cities. I find that the most of the people, wherever you go, are the same kind of people. It's nice to be away from people, in general, for a little while. Just to be out in the country, where you can sit and not really worry about much of anything."
The members of Drive-By Truckers are not comfortable with being labeled a country band, since the music they make is so wide-ranging, multifaceted and just plain rocking at times.
"As far as the country thing goes," Isbell explains, "it's kind of like the difference between rap and hip-hop. You hear people call artists rap artists or hip-hop artists, but hip-hop is a way of life to the people who are involved in it. Hip-hop goes from whatever clothes you wear to the way you walk to the way you drive your car to the way that you listen to music to the way that you do everything. And to me, with all the different sorts of music that you have out there, country isn't so much a style of music as it is to just going back to the original way of country living. What they call country music in Nashville is not - by any stretch of the imagination - country music, 9 times out of 10. It's suburban music. It's bad music, but that's beside the point. We're a rock and roll band, but we do in a lot of ways have a country lifestyle. Just as a rap artist may have more of a hip-hop lifestyle. There are so many different styles of music and so many different forms of music that you can't help but be influenced by a little of everything as a musician. But the lifestyle that I personally have is probably a country lifestyle. Let's put it that way."
Drive-By Truckers is sometimes called a Southern rock revival band these days and lumped in with acts such as Kings Of Leon. But if this music is Southern rock, it's certainly not your father's Southern rock.
"It's rock, and we are Southern people. It is a Southern band," Isbell admits. "And definitely, the last record was a Southern rock opera. But when you listen to 'Decoration Day,' it probably doesn't remind you of The Outlaws too much. It's not drinkin' whiskey and raising hell music; it's drinkin' whiskey and trying not to break down and cry music."