Looking Bright For The Truckers

First things first: the Drive-By Truckers' seventh record, "Brighter Than Creation's Dark," due Jan. 22 on New West, is extremely long. Nineteen tracks long, can't-burn-two-seconds-more-on-the-CD long

First things first: the Drive-By Truckers' seventh record, "Brighter Than Creation's Dark," which came out in January via New West, is extremely long. Nineteen tracks long. Can't-burn-two-seconds-more-on-the-CD long. Long enough that Patterson Hood says it would have probably been a double album if the record company had been remotely OK with it. "It seems like it's telling a story," said Hood, "It's really not. It's more like it's implying one."

This won't be surprising to anyone who's been behind the Truckers, one of rock's most unapologetically ambitious outfits, over the past decade or so. Long records have been their thing ever since they began scoring big points with 2001's line-in-the-sand "Southern Rock Opera." While there's no overriding theme to "Dark," it feels lean and smoothly built. "We had more fun making this record than we ever had," Hood said, "And generally making records has been fun." And that's a surprise given the band's slightly nuts 2007.

The year started simple enough - with a break, their first in years. But the Truckers' concept of "break" involved band members producing several outside projects and, in the case of co-founder Mike Cooley, a new baby. The Truckers also served as the backing outfit on Bettye LaVette's Grammy-nominated "The Scene of the Crime" during their time "off." And while all this was going on, or maybe because of it, Cooley and Hood found songs coming at them at a lively clip.

"I used to write real prolifically, and just being so busy on the road, and being at home with the kid running around, I [wasn't as prolific]," said Hood, the band's gregarious co-founder. "I definitely still write in bursts, but the bursts were shorter and further apart."

But something clicked over the break. Hood shotgunned out around 50 songs over six months, and Cooley produced nine of his own ("an ungodly number for him," Hood laughs). Better yet, the burst came at a fortunate time: the band got "really, really attached to working with Spooner Oldham" on the LaVette record. "We said, 'We gotta get him to do (ours),'" Hood said.

But then, in early summer, the band split with third man Jason Isbell, who reportedly left to release his long-in-coming (and well-received) solo album "Sirens of the Ditch." Isbell and DBT bassist Shonna Tucker also divorced, though she got the band. By way of response, they regrouped and embarked on "The Dirt Underneath" tour, a mostly unplugged and sit-down affair.

"We thought touring and all of a sudden being different would have been uncomfortable, and we had all these new songs anyway, so we thought, 'Let's do an acoustic tour and use that as a chance to road-test the new songs," Hood said. "Let's give [the people] something a little different.'"

By the end of the nearly 60-date tour (and this is a break year, remember), the Truckers were playing eight or nine new songs a night. They took the songs, along with Oldham, into the studio in June for "Underneath," and everything snapped into place.

"(The record has) a lot of first and second takes," Hood said. "I kind of like the way a song sounds when everyone's struggling to learn it more than the take when it's all polished. Sometimes there's more raw inspiration in those early takes, and we always kind of gravitated to those anyway, for better or worse at times."

But that wasn't the end of 2007's twists. Pedal steel maestro and longtime friend-of-the-family John Neff officially joined, adding a pointedly country flavor to tracks like "Bob" and "Lisa's Birthday," and Tucker has made good on what Hood says is a long-running promise to write and sing. "Shonna's written songs as long as I've known her, but she's always been very private about it. This time she walked in the door with a four-track that she'd done in her living room of 'Purgatory Line' and "I'm Sorry Huston,' and she was like, 'If you wanna do something I'm hip to it.' We were like, 'F--- yeah!'"

The record also marks the end of the band's association with New West Records, but Hood says it's "a great time to be a free agent. I don't really see us doing a record deal the way record deals have tended to be with anybody at this point. We kind of work our own erratic way; our band is a hard band to manage and unwieldy and a little messy sometimes - we're not the easiest band to have on your label. But I feel like we have a lot of options."