Anatomy of a Playlist: Cooley
This post is the first installment in a series titled Anatomy of a Playlist. The only rule is that the playlist is in the interval of an album (approximately 45 minutes). Thus, a 45 minute playlist would be an album, 90 a double album, etc.
Last week, I had the pleasure of seeing Drive By Truckers play a free concert in Millennium Park (yes, the one with the bean). For those unfamiliar with their work, DBT rose to prominence in the early aughts with the unexpected success of Southern Rock Opera in 2002. Shortly thereafter, the group caught lightning in a bottle with the discovery of a 21 year old guitar player named Jason Isbell. Opera, along with the band’s next two albums, Decoration Day and The Dirty South, reflect the band’s first creative peak. After almost a decade of inner turmoil and lineup changes, they’ve rebounded with 2014’s English Oceans and last year’s excellent American Band.
Through all of the tumult that exists in the life of a rock band, DBT has been anchored by co-frontmen Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Hood, for all intents and purposes, is the band’s leader. He writes the majority of the songs, conducts the majority of the band’s interviews, and seems to be the guiding force for most of the band’s decisions. Now in his fifties, with a beard, fedora, and pot belly, he looks like Zac Brown’s angry older brother. He is, at heart, a storyteller; on stage, he embodies the persona of a fire and brimstone southern preacher. His songs tend to have clear plot points, such that each could be an episode in a television series about a Southern town filled with noble bootleggers, nosy lawmen, and crooked preachers. Between the importance of story to his songs and his raspy voice, his best songs tend to be acoustic ones (my personal favorite is the family genealogy story, “Ever South”).
While Hood is the mainstay, Cooley is a wild card. Unlike Hood, Cooley tends not to speak much about his art. When Hood is not at his best, his songs suffer. When Cooley is off, he doesn’t seem to write. Rather than tell stories, Cooley tends to paint pictures of people and places, using vivid imagery and a biting wit to get his point across. In the aforementioned television show example, Cooley’s songs would provide the characters and settings to fill in Hood’s world. The two songwriters complement each other perfectly, to the point that without Cooley, Hood’s songs feel hollow, and without Hood, Cooley’s feel aimless. That being said, I’ve always preferred Cooley’s songs. While I enjoy Hood, Cooley’s voice and melodic playing style always remind me of a rougher version of the 70s SoCal country rock that I grew up hearing around the house.
This Cooley playlist is 44 minutes long, or about the length of a standard vinyl record. Each of the 9 tracks reflects a different type of Truckers song, and is best enjoyed with whiskey.
“Where the Devil Don’t Stay”
Truckers Motif: Family Mythology
The first track off The Dirty South (my favorite Truckers album) is a tale of rebellious family history, much like “Decoration Day.” It doubles as Cooley’s hardest-rocking song. The majority of DBT’s best records begin with a fast Cooley record, and I didn’t want my playlist to be an exception.
“Carl Perkins’ Cadillac”
Truckers Motif: Southern Rock History Lesson
One of Hood’s most popular songs, “Ronnie and Neil,” tells the story of the early 70s rivalry between Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Cooley’s version is a catchy story of 50s rockabilly in Nashville. It’s a melodic rocker worthy of the rock stars he sings about.
“Sh*t Shots Count”
Truckers Motif: This song could be about any small town
Cooley is a master of opening lines; this song begins with, “Put your cigarette out, put your hat back one. Don’t mix which is which.” It’s a great, fun song about a dive bar.
Truckers Motif: Protest SongTruckers
DBT’s most interesting quality is their interest in what they call “The duality of the Southern thing,” in which they wrestle with the South’s competing progressive artistic and regressive social histories. Consequently, their songs oftentimes combine a liberal worldview with a voice that is stereotypically conservative. In addition to being one of the smarter protest songs that I’ve heard in the past few years, it’s a great example of Cooley’s ability to create compelling characters as he tells the life story of the NRA’s most influential leader.
Truckers Motif: Brutally honest family history
While “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” is a family myth, “Mary Me” is a comically candid telling of the narrator’s own family history. Cooley is a master of opening lines, and the vulgar “Well my daddy didn’t pull out, but he never apologized” is a perfect example. Later, the narrator starts his own family, as he proposes, “Well I”d rather be your fool nowhere than go somewhere and be no one’s, so marry me” in what has to go down as one of the great realist proposals of all time.
Truckers Motif: Degenerate Teenage Years
Truckers’ early albums told tales of their wild early years — Hood’s “Let There Be Rock” being a classic example. “Zip City” is my favorite non-Isbell Truckers song. It’s a roaring rock song about youthful indiscretion; call it a less charming “Born to Run.” When I first yeard it, I thought if half of this is true, then he was a complete degenerate as a teenager. I later learned that Hood claims that at least 90% is true, although Cooley remains characteristically quiet on the subject.
Truckers Motif: Can I keep this lifestyle up?
Truckers songs on their hard living range from tragic to comic. Isbell’s “Godddamn Loneley Love” is perhaps the finest example of the former, while “Gravity’s Gone” reflects the latter. The song mocks letting up: “So I’ll meet you at the bottom if there really is one. They always told me when you hit it you’ll know it. But I’ve been falling so long it’s like gravity’s gone and I’m just floating.”
Truckers Motif: Complex female character
Rock critic Steven Hyden once observed that Hood and Cooley, despite being two men who write fairly crude rock songs, nevertheless display a proclivity for writing authentic songs from a female perspective. “Birthday Boy” stars off crassly: “‘Which one’s the birthday’ boy, she said. ‘I ain’t got all night. What’d your mama name you? You can call me what’d you like.’” The second verse, however, shifts to the woman’s inner monologue, as she recalls the broken home and sexist small town that led her down this road. By the time the song ends with that same opening line, she sounds tragically exhausted. It’s a brillant portrait, fit neatly into a short song.
“Sounds Better in the Song”
Truckers Motif: The realist
The lone acoustic track on this playlist, this one shows Cooley at his most somber. The song title is a reference to “Freebird,” and one of the few admissions that there’s a price to be paid for seeking to become the biggest southern rock stars since their idols, Lynard Skynard, did some forty years ago.