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The key to the longevity of the Drive-By Truckers

From Southern rock band to ‘American Band,’ the Truckers have thrived and evolved

Singer-songwriters Patterson Hood, left, and Mike Cooley, center, of the Drive-By Truckers perform during the Americana Music Festival & Conference in Nashville in 2017. (Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the band De La Soul as Del La Soul. The article has been corrected.

The Drive-By Truckers turned 25 earlier this year — a considerable feat for any rock-and-roll group, much less one that had no expectations beyond its first recording session. With an extremely devoted fan base and a reputation as a kick-ass live act, it’s been many different bands during that quarter-century — an band, a Southern rock band, a protest band, a Muscle Shoals band, an Athens, Ga., band — but it’s always had the anchor of Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood at its core: two singers, songwriters and guitarists whose nuanced depiction of the American South has made it one of the most consequential groups of the 21st century, thriving despite the many challenges that have befallen the music industry.

At the heart of the band’s sustained success has been its ability to build distribution and publicity strategies rooted in online fan communities and social media. In the late 1990s, even as corporate media companies converged and consolidated, bands like the Truckers seized new opportunities to flourish outside those corporate structures, finding alternative paths to success. With each new album and each new tour, the group subtly adjusted those strategies to adapt to new conditions in the music industry.

In early summer 1996, Hood convened a group of friends at an Athens, Ga., club called the High Hat, where he ran sound. Working at local restaurants and gigging whenever and wherever he could find a stage, he’d saved up money to record a few songs with a loose group of friends, although most of those funds went to pizza and beer. Together, they pounded out five ragged alt-country story-songs, including “Bulldozers and Dirt” and “Nine Bullets” — which became the A and B sides of their first seven-inch record.

At that time, nobody, not even the musicians themselves, thought the Drive-By Truckers would even make a full-length album, much less earn a star on Athens’s walk of fame alongside Widespread Panic and R.E.M.

For years the group barreled ahead with no set membership. Whoever could make the show was a Trucker that night: Sometimes as many as six people would play, sometimes only two. The Truckers had little in common musically with the psych-pop Elephant 6 artists then bringing new attention to Athens (the collective included groups like Neutral Milk Hotel, Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control), but they shared a similar spirit — that a band could be whatever you made it, whatever you needed it to be. That approach allowed them to be versatile as they toured more frequently, their lineup shifting slightly with each new album but the core identity remaining in place.

Their early years helped model the very tactics independent musicians would later adopt as standard practice. In the late 1990s, their friend Jenn Bryant created and maintained the Truckers’ website long before mainstream bands knew what to do with the Internet. That allowed them to advertise tour dates whenever they went on the road. Along with their active Yahoo fan forum, it helped them coalesce a fan community, many of its members Southern expats who recognized something of themselves in the Truckers’ vivid tales of ne’er-do-wells and troublemakers.

Even before the Truckers convened to record their third studio album, Hood was already making plans for what they understood was a ridiculously ambitious project. Examining the long shadows of Southern icons like former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Lynyrd Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant, “Southern Rock Opera” had to be a double CD packaged in a miniature triple-gatefold cardboard to mimic the self-indulgent vinyl double albums of the 1970s. No matter that the music could all fit on one CD. The packaging had to match the elaborate concept.

When no label would agree to release the album as they envisioned it, the Truckers opted to do it themselves. Though this is not unheard of now, it was less common at the time, especially for a band courting a national audience. Even among indie labels, distribution was typically based primarily on accounting and calculation of profits, but the band understood there were gains to be made that weren’t financial. They realized they could attract attention, churn up curiosity among critics and bind their growing fan base around a signature album.

To fund “Southern Rock Opera,” (released in 2001) the Truckers came up with the idea of forming something like a company and selling shares to their fans. In return, those fans would get copies of the album, free tickets and merchandise, and even private house shows. In other words, they were doing a Kickstarter campaign nearly a decade before that company crowdsourced its first project.

The strategies by which the Truckers built their audience eventually became commonplace among musicians looking to cohere a far-flung community of fans and to create albums that were too left-of-center or commercially untested to get funded by mainstream labels. It’s common practice now for both new and established acts — including Amanda Palmer, De La Soul, Belly and Hurray for the Riff Raff — to use Kickstarter or GoFundMe to raise capital for records or tours. And self-releasing records has become a viable option for many artists.

That infrastructure helped the Truckers sustain their early success as they expanded their musical palette and endured almost constant membership changes throughout the 2000s. In the 2010s, however, they survived by redefining themselves and their community, even alienating many of their fans with an album of explicitly political songs, 2016’s “American Band.” Their songs had long dwelt on rural poverty and the extremes Southerners would go to escape it, so there was always a political bent to their music, even if the politics was filtered through character, story and setting.

“American Band,” however, erased many of those filters, as both Hood and Cooley composed songs that dealt explicitly and angrily with a range of issues, including gun control, mass shootings and racial violence. Their subsequent albums — “The Unraveling and “The New OK,” both released in 2020 — further explored this more direct strain of songwriting. Even as it earned praise from critics, “American Band” prompted accusations that the band was exploiting “wokeness” for new fans, especially when it displayed Black Lives Matter banners onstage or played shows wearing “p---y hats.”

But “American Band” alienated many of the Truckers’ fans, primarily listeners who either hadn’t picked up on the political nature of their earlier songs or had simply ignored the larger implications of their lyrics. At several shows, disapproving fans even staged walkouts in protest. (Never mind that they’d already bought tickets and given the band their money.)

Again the Truckers defied the conventional wisdom of the music industry, whittling away their fan base even as they redefined themselves as the Dance Band of the Resistance: rallying listeners around causes at a moment when young Americans were growing more politically active, when the stakes of resistance had never seemed higher. “American Band” had been written amid the backlash to the Obama administration, and while the Truckers released a follow-up only during the final months of Donald Trump’s presidency, songs like “Thoughts and Prayers” and “Surrender Under Protest” observed and documented a growing political activism on the left.

That shift from Southern band to “American Band” may be the most crucial move of their long career, not only redefining the Truckers for a new historical moment but allowing them to survive at a time when rock-and-roll had faded, when guitars had been replaced by synths and sequencers, and when Garage Band had become better known as a tool for editing podcasts than a vibrant genre and origin story for music groups. From their first notes together to their current tour, the Truckers have insisted, however, that rock-and-roll remains an effective, even meaningful, vehicle for dissent, resistance and longevity.