After nine studio albums and more than 12 years on the road, the Drive-By Truckers took some time off last year. For most people that would mean a little rest and relaxation, but not for these guys. The members spent the better part of 2012 working on solo albums, side projects and personnel changes. It's been more than a year since the group played New Orleans, but it will be at Tipitina's Sunday with a new lineup and attitude.
"I think we needed some time away from it in order to do it again," frontman Patterson Hood says. "It was really important for us to recharge, and if there was to be another Drive-By Truckers record, I think it was really important that we have a little bit of space [for] it."
Hood started the Drive-By Truckers in 1996 with pal Mike Cooley, two Alabama boys drawing equally from old punk rock bands and the 1970s Muscle Shoals sound. The band's three-guitar attack, a nod to Southern rock stalwarts Lynyrd Skynyrd, quickly won over audiences and critics. Over the years, a number of players passed through the Drive-By Truckers, most notably guitarist Jason Isbell and bassist Shonna Tucker, both of whom contributed songs that remain an important part of the band's catalogue. Isbell left in 2007 to pursue a solo career, and Tucker left at the end of 2011, just before the band went on hiatus. Most recently, guitarist John Neff surprised fans and bandmates by announcing his departure shortly before a string of New Year's Eve shows.
"It probably would have been nice to have more than 24 hours' notice that we were having to revamp the band for one of the most important weekends of our calendar, but hey, that's probably why I love this band the most," Hood says. "Because when the shit hits the fan, I know I can count on these guys to make it work and make it work in fine form."
With longtime member Brad Morgan on drums, Matt Patton from Tuscaloosa-based The Dexateens on bass and keyboardist Jay Gonzales now pulling double duty on guitar, the Drive-By Truckers rang in 2013 with a fire and fury reminiscent of their earlier days.
"It's really rocking right now," Hood says. "Jay's a monster guitar player. I think some of the fans were definitely a little taken aback by just what a really ass-kicking guitar player he is."
When the band is at its best, Hood says the music takes on a life of its own.
"It's like a big bucking bronco that I just try to hang on to," he says. "That's when it's being done right. I think when it's really good, it's a little bit out of control."
The personal projects stretched in different directions. Hood showed a softer side on his recent solo album, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, a collection of semi-autobiographical songs about love and loss and the damage done. He also released the single "After It's Gone" in collaboration with the Downtown 13, a group of musicians from his adopted hometown of Athens, Ga., protesting the development of a new Walmart in the area. Not to be outdone, Cooley put out an album last year, The Fool on Every Corner, a live solo-acoustic set of songs he's written and performed with the Drive-By Truckers through the years.
Hood says the Truckers are still on "semi-hiatus," but fans wouldn't know it from the band's schedule. After a three-night stand at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, an annual homecoming gig that raises money for Nuci's Space, a nonprofit mental health facility for musicians, the Truckers hit New Orleans, and then Hood and Cooley go their separate ways for runs of solo dates. They're also planning a deluxe reissue of Alabama Ass Whuppin', a live album from 2000. In March, the band regroups for an East Coast tour before heading back to the studio to work on a new record. This will be the first album to feature Patton on bass, and one of the few Drive-By Truckers records made without Neff. Hood says they're in no hurry to find a replacement.
"We have lots of friends that would be fun to play with, but I think the focus right now is really stripping it down and moving forward with what we've got," Hood says. "This has been a band that's always gone through changes and morphed itself a little bit from album to album, so I'm very curious to see where it goes now."