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A 'Secret' from Drive-By Truckers

By Denise Quan, CNN
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Music: Drive-By Truckers keep on truckin'
  • The band Drive-By Truckers is the subject of a new documentary
  • "The Secret to a Happy Ending," chronicles three tumultuous years in the life of the band
  • Some call their music "Southern Soul"

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West Hollywood, California (CNN) -- The story of Drive-By Truckers is chronicled in the new documentary, "The Secret to a Happy Ending."

But for some fans, "DBT" and "happy" aren't words that necessarily go together.

Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, who co-founded the band in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, back in 1996, chuckle at the irony.

"We're fairly happy," says Hood. "It's important to have a sense of humor in this life, you know. The world's going to throw things at you that aren't always pleasant or pretty, but that's part of surviving."

This is a band that sees beauty in imperfections, turning the spotlight on parts of the American landscape that aren't so spit-shined. In the title track to the group's ninth studio album, "Go-Go Boots," a preacher's son contemplates offing his old man. In another cut, a has-been cop longs for the good ol' days; and in a song called "The Thanksgiving Filter," grandma sits in the corner while younger family members do their best to avoid her.

"Names were changed, storylines simplified, characters unified and plotlines streamlined," says the disclaimer on the front page of the liner notes. "It might have happened. Might even be a true story, but we're not calling it that."

What some have called it is "Southern Soul" -- moody melodies and haunting lyrics wrapped up in a big, messy bow -- a little bit country, and a little bit rock 'an' roll. Hood refers to the band as a "multi-headed animal" because of the Truckers' three lead singers -- Hood, Cooley and their sole female member, the cherubic Shonna Tucker.

CNN caught up with Hood and Cooley on the balcony at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, California, overlooking the stage they would take later that night.

CNN: You sing about a particular kind of rural, southern lifestyle -- but the stories are not unique to any part of the country.

Patterson Hood: The main themes in most of our songs are pretty universal. It's generally somebody attempting to do the right thing for the people he loves, and maybe not doing a very good job at it. Sometimes it's hard to know what the right thing is until after you've done something -- in some cases -- not too right.

CNN: There was a point in your early career where you didn't necessarily have a place to lay your heads at night.

Hood: We definitely took the band-paying dues to the extreme, I think. We spent a lot of years on the road, and for a lot of those earlier years, we were pretty much sleeping on people's floors.

Mike Cooley: We were in our 30's when we were doing this. You're supposed to be over that by then.

Hood: We might have hit it all with a little more focus because of being a little older out there.

CNN: You both have families now.

Cooley: I don't know if it's that much harder for us than anybody else -- people who have jobs of any kind and families. It's a balancing act, you know. It's challenging.

CNN: You also have longer stretches at home than a lot of dads.

Cooley: I do a lot more carpooling than I would if I worked a 40, 50 hour-a-week job.

Hood: Taking my daughter to school at the crack of dawn isn't one of my favorite parts, but at least it's time I get to spend with her.

CNN: "Go-Go Boots" is your ninth studio album. Did you envision it being like this when you were starting out?

Hood: I don't know if I had any concept of it lasting this long. Once our fourth album, "Southern Rock Opera," came out, everything kind of changed, and we started playing bigger rooms and getting more national and even international attention and stuff. It was really just recently that we've actually had the time to even think about, "Oh wow, we've put out a lot of records."

CNN: Your documentary, "The Secret to a Happy Ending," chronicles three years in the life of this band that were kind of tumultuous.

Hood: Not a good time.

CNN: Was it hard to revisit that time? Jason Isbell, who's no longer in the band, is part of the documentary.

(Isbell, who was then married to DBT bassist Tucker, now fronts his own band, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.)

Cooley: Yeah, some of it was a little hard to watch. It's more obvious how turbulent things were then, looking back. At least then it was so crazy that I wasn't even really noticing how crazy it was until we got to the end of that chapter.

CNN: There's a philosophy that the more strife there is within rock bands, the better the music turns out.

Hood: I think that's kind of crap. I don't really agree with that.

Cooley: It's a cliche. And like most cliches, I'm sure there's some truth to it for some people, but it certainly hasn't been the case with us. When you're going through the stuff, anything you write about is going to be crap.

Hood: When you get on the other side, you can maybe write about it.

Cooley: Go play the show, don't do anything, don't try to do anything. Do your hour-and-a-half, get back on the bus, keep your mouth shut. Everything will be better in a couple of months.

CNN: Then you go to your separate bunks on the bus.

Hood: You know, some people are in the military, and they live on things like submarines for stretches of time that make our tour seem short, you know. And they have kids, too.

Cooley: And they don't all have to like each other. And a lot of the time, very often they don't.

Hood: They're stuck with that person 24/7. At least I can genuinely say I genuinely like -- love and like -- everybody on that bus. And that makes it a lot easier.

Cooley: Yeah, it's necessary. That has to be that way.

Hood: I'm too old to put up with it, otherwise. If there was anybody that just didn't work with the rest of us, they'd have to go. I'm too old, I don't have the patience to put up with too much of that kind of stuff nowadays.

CNN: Do you think people in rock bands grow up a little bit later than most?

Cooley: What's tough about this business is there's a youthfulness that you have to convey, or at least be in touch with, at all times. But if you're going to survive, you've got to grow up at some point, too. There's a balance to it.

CNN: There are a lot of people who don't want to grow up, and that's why they're in this business.

Cooley: Yeah, not for long.

CNN: It sounds like you guys have found the secret to the "happy ending" you talk about in the documentary.

Hood: Well, in the movie, they say, "Knowing when to roll the credits." Maybe we won't call it an ending yet. Not quite ready to roll yet.

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