BIRMINGHAM — Mike Cooley can recall recording Southern Rock Opera — the album that in many ways put Drive-By Truckers on the music map — in a makeshift studio on Third Avenue North in downtown Birmingham.
Since the band was recording the double-album in the middle of an Alabama heat wave, and the space had no air conditioning, Cooley says they waited until the sun went down to set up shopand begin recording.
"We would be locking the door and leaving maybe an hour or two before they would open up the next morning," the Tuscumbia-native says with a laugh.
It was during that sweaty, boozy summer years ago that the band, known for its southern storytelling set to the tune of raw rock n' roll, wrote about the "three great Alabama icons" — George Wallace, Ronnie Van Zant, and Bear Bryant — and the city that won't admit defeat.
Historical figures permeate much of the Truckers' lyrics. The band isn't afraid to scoop up the underbelly of Alabama's past.
Patterson Hood, who hails from Muscle Shoals and has led Drive-By Truckers alongside Mike Cooley since the band's genesis in 1996, says the South's turbulent history continues to inspire much of his lyrics, along with any other issue he finds worth sharing.
"You kind of have to exercise the demon out, and that was a big part of the Southern Rock Opera record, and really what a lot of our stuff has been about," says Hood, who was eight years old when he began writing music. "It's kind of a way of coming to terms with our own history — our own past — and trying to find a way to learn from it, and move forward and not repeat it."
The early years
Hood and Cooley first crossed paths decades ago as students at The University of North Alabama in Florence, where they roomed together, then eventually began making music.
From the beginning, Cooley says, it was obvious the pair wasn't suited for corporate America. Music was in their blood.
"We were both trying to take the straight civilian route and go to college and get a real job — but who are we kidding?" he says. "We both knew we wanted to start a band."
After some years of musical trial and error, the Drive-By Truckers wheels began to turn and in 1998, the band — with a revolving group of musicians — released its first self-produced album, Gangstability. Three more quickly followed: Pizza Deliverance (1999), Alabama Ass Whuppin' (2000), andSouthern Rock Opera (2001).
Most of the Truckers' songs give a reverent nod to the band's rural roots — and the members' Southern pride is as strong as their accents. "I've always used writing as sort of my way of dealing with the darker things in my life," Hood says. "Whether it was on a personal level or something that was more political."
"Birmingham," a song fromSouthern Rock Opera, draws on imagery of Bull Connor's policemen hosing children down in Birmingham'sstreets, and George Wallace fighting integration.
"[During] the civil rights era, people were made to feel like they didn't belong [in Birmingham]," Hood says. "There were fire hoses, police dogs, church bombings, and all these terrible things that happened, and it created a stain on this beautiful, beautiful city."
"But the city won't admit defeat," Hood sings in "Birmingham." "Magic City's magic getting stronger, Dynamite Hill ain't on fire any longer."
When asked why he thinks it's important for Alabama to remember its past leaders and their shortcomings, Hood says: . "Because they existed. They affected the way life is in the South. Not only the lives we live, but how other people view us."
The road ahead
Recently releasing "It's Great to Be Alive," the Truckers' fourth live album, the band still has plenty of fuel in its musical tank.
"We're planning a really huge fall tour, and we're really excited about the stuff we're doing and the direction it's taking," Hood says. "It's kind of an exciting time for us."
With three back-to-back performances at the historic, newly-renovated Lyric Fine Arts Theatre in April, the Truckers are looking forward to once again serenading the city where some of its most iconic songs were produced.
"It's been a long, crazy road," Hood says with a smile. "We've been really blessed."