The Austin Chronicle

Southern Soap Opera

By Jim Caligiuri, May 4, 2007, 11:32am, Earache!

The Drive-by Truckers played in my tiny living room during South by Southwest 01. It was an unplugged affair, of course, kind of like what went down this week at Antone’s as part of their Dirt Underneath tour, except they were a very different band back then.

Every time there is a change in the Truckers, and there have been a few since 2001, it causes an uproar among fans. There is emotional attachment between any band and its fans, but DBT fans seem to take change especially hard. First, guitarist Rob Malone just up and disappeared in the fall of 2001 during the Southern Rock Opera tour. His replacement, the cherubic Alabaman Jason Isbell, became a force in the band, writing some of its best songs and blossoming into an excellent guitarist. Producer, bass player, and longtime friend Earl Hicks left in December 2003, and was replaced immediately by Isbell’s wife, Shonna Tucker, lending a whiff of Fleetwood Mac’s Sturm und Drang to the proceedings. There was also some record-company drama when they signed to Lost Highway, who reissued Southern Rock Opera after it had been initially self-released, only to leave the Nashville label for their current home, the Austin/L.A.-based New West, without releasing anything else.

Jason Isbell was around town during SXSW. He played a solo showcase and is set to release his own debut, Sirens of the Ditch, July 10 on New West. Not long after the Fest came the announcement that he was out of the band. Isbell posted the following on his MySpace page: “I am not in the Drive-by Truckers anymore. Go figure. I wish them luck. I will not answer questions about it.”

Patterson Hood, who, along with Mike Cooley, has been the band’s driving force, drafted a long letter to the band’s website which stated, “The split, which I consider extremely amicable, is the result of a period of personal and artistic growth from all sides, which has left us with differing dreams and goals.” Something didn’t make sense. After talking to Traci Thomas, their Nashville-based publicist, no answers were forthcoming other than, “It’s like a divorce; things are messy.”

At the end of 2006, they announced a layoff of sorts. “This year is the first time since before SRO that we aren't out promoting a new album. We are all committed to taking some time at home to recharge, write, and spend some Family Time,” Hood wrote on their site, also revealing the Dirt Underneath tour as a way to get out from under the bombast of three electric guitars and back to the songs and stories they were in danger of losing.

What took place at Antone’s Tuesday and Wednesday was as intimate as that cinder-block rectangle can get – softly lit, surprisingly hushed at times, and almost rehearsed. With just Hood and Cooley as frontmen again, it recalled the early days of the band. Hood even pulled out “Nine Bullets” for the mid-Nineties fans. But there were also lots of new songs. Some stuck – Hood’s “Daddy Needs a Drink” – others didn’t.

Isbell wasn't replaced so much as absorbed by John Neff, who has been with them for a while, mostly on steel guitar, and special guest Spooner Oldham (Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, too many others) on keyboards. Someone requested “Decoration Day,” one of Isbell’s songs. “We ain’t doin’ that one, dude,” was Tucker's immediate response. It was nearly two hours of sit-down tunes and tales from Southern boys (and a girl), literally passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels, telling the truth the only way they know how. In the end, the soap opera may continue, but the music will always keep us coming back for more.

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