Concert preview: After downshifting, the Drive-By Truckers ready to rev the engines yet again

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From the October 31, 2013 edition

As 2010 drew to a close, the members of Drive-By Truckers found themselves at a crossroads.

Exhausted from months on the road and beset by internal tensions — both recurring themes for the long-running Southern rock crew — frontman Patterson Hood daydreamed about taking a lengthy hiatus to rest, recuperate and, in his own words, allow everyone involved the time needed to miss the band.

“Then of course we toured for another year after that,” Hood said in a recent phone interview, punctuating his words with a slight chuckle. “We were at a breaking point if we didn’t take some precautionary measures. I knew if we didn’t take time off something could happen that could make [a split] permanent.”

So following a tour in support of 2011’s Go-Go Boots, the musicians stepped back, with primary songwriters Hood and Mike Cooley taking time out to focus on solo projects (Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance and The Fool on Every Corner, respectively). When the Truckers finally regrouped, the band looked significantly different with the departures of bassist Shonna Tucker and guitarist John Neff. Then in January, longtime merchandise manager Craig Lieske died of an aneurysm the day after the crew kicked off a three-night run at The 40 Watt in its hometown of Athens, Georgia.

“I had an album worth of material written when we first started talking [about making a new Drive-By Truckers record], and then in January a close friend passed away suddenly and I ended up rewriting my half of the record,” Hood said. “Almost all of my songs on the record were written in the last six months. I liked the other songs, but I’m happier with the new ones.”

According to Hood, his contributions to the still-untitled album (Cooley, not usually known for his prolific nature, penned half of the forthcoming effort, which is expected out early next year) are of a more personal nature, born of a period of reflection that followed in the wake of Lieske’s death. Despite the heart-heavy circumstances, the singer described the resulting recording sessions as “an absolute blast.”

“We wanted to go in and make a record in two weeks, and we did,” he said. “There’s more camaraderie and spirit in the band than there’s ever been. It’s like being in high school and thinking about what a band ought to be.”

Though far from teenagers — Hood turns 50 next year, a birthday that recently inspired him to start going to the gym regularly because he felt a need to “proactively fight to stave off the decay and lethargy” — the band members have lost none of their youthful zeal, and Hood said they attacked the new material with renewed vigor. This was particularly true of one politically charged number where Hood torched politicians on both sides of the aisle.

“It’s kind of a non-partisan beating,” he said. “Not that I’m non-partisan (Hood is an avowed lefty), but the message of the song could apply to the asshole side regardless of its political leaning.”

The frontman’s politics have been shaped by a lifetime spent living as the opposition voice in the deep-red South — a trend he can’t quite shake. Even though he calls the liberal enclave of Athens home these days, his district is somehow represented by Tea Party favorite Paul Broun, a circumstance Hood terms “ridiculous.”

“I grew up in a dry county … in the buckle of the Bible Belt, and I’ve sometimes wondered how it would feel to not have that daily anger,” he said. “I like to think it might make me a better person on some levels, but I don’t know if it would artistically or not.”