When Drive-By Truckers hit the studio last year, the Alabama-via-Athens, Georgia sextet was fresh from experiences that would profoundly effect its next album. The Truckers had been on a long road trip supporting 2008's stripped-back and country-flavored Brighter Than Creation's Dark, which had been largely written on the band's acoustic Dirt Underneath Tour. They had also recently wrapped up the whirlwind sessions that produced Booker T. Jones's Grammy-winning Potato Hole album.
Between the relative quiet of Creation's Dark and the jumper-cable inspiration of working with the legendary Booker T., the Truckers were ready to turn their amps up to 11 and loosen some shingles. Thus was born their incendiary new album, The Big To-Do.
"The rock part was definitely intended," says DBT frontman Patterson Hood. "We pretty much all decided, well before we started making it, that that's what we wanted. We really wanted to make a concerted effort at it being that way."
Given the meandering in-the-neighborhood-of-country nature of Drive-By Truckers' catalog to date, the time was ripe for the full-on roots-rock intensity of The Big To-Do. While they've delivered plenty of great rock songs over the years, they've merely hinted at their potential for an entire album's worth of blustery, twang-edged rock.
"We really have never made a record that did it to this extent, other than our live record, which is 10 years old this year," says Hood. "We always refer to that as our punk rock record. The first two records were kind of country-ish, and Southern Rock Opera certainly had a lot of big rock moments, but it also had a lot of winding roads about it."
The songs on The Big To-Do showed the same urgency in the studio they exhibited in the writing process. From the slinky "The Wig He Made Her Wear" to the scorching "Daddy Learned to Fly" and "Birthday Boy," these are songs that have been kicking at the Truckers' creative barn door — but not before a slightly fallow period for Hood, DBT's primary songwriter.
"I had to learn how to write on the road," says Hood. "We're on the road so much, and now we've all got kids. It used to be I'd tour, then come home and write. Now I come home and there's babies around, and I needed to be a good daddy and not be locked away in some room in the back of the house with the 'Do Not Disturb' sign out. It was tough, and because of that, I started writing a whole lot less for a while. I've always been one of those writers with a bit of a hit-miss ratio. My process is I write everything but the kitchen sink and go back and figure out what works and what doesn't. Writing less songs, I was having the same ratio, there was just less of the good ones to go around. It was a little traumatic. I've never had what I considered a dry spell before. Writing's always been my number-one thing."
The songs that ultimately comprised Creation's Dark helped clear Hood's internal logjam and set the stage for the flood that resulted in The Big To-Do. The Truckers' other two songwriters stepped up as well. Bassist Shonna Tucker contributed "You Got Another" and "(It's Gonna Be) I Told You So," while singer-guitarist Mike Cooley brought in "Eyes Like Glue," "Get Downtown" and the song that Hood calls the best song on the album, "Birthday Boy."
"It was written after we had already finished and even mastered the record," says Hood. "He figured he was too late to have it on this record, but we were like, 'No, no, no. Surely, we can make this happen.' We ended a tour, we went straight into the studio and cut it in one day, mixed it the next day, and mastered it a couple of days later and inserted it into the record. Up to that point, I had really felt like, as proud as I was of the record, there was one flaw with it, a missing piece of the puzzle. And as soon as I heard that song, I knew that was the missing piece. I was like, 'That's the missing third track.' I even knew where it needed to be in the sequence. It totally took everything to the next level."