“Don’t know why they even bother putting this highway on the map
Anybody that’s ever been on it knows exactly where they’re at
‘Cause hell’s on both ends of it
And nowhere’s in between.
This highway’s mean”
The length of U.S. Route 72 that runs west from I-65, across the Wheeler Reservoir and Shoal Creek into Florence, isn’t anything to write home about. I’m sure there are many stories to be told if you grew up in one of the small towns along the way, but it doesn’t offer much to a passerby who isn’t in the market for a used car or a new Church of Christ. Don’t get me wrong, this is pretty country…green and relatively unspoiled land, but there isn’t anything on the surface to make one want to pull the car over and get their hands dirty in local culture.
Once in Florence, you can head down the Lee Highway and across the O’Neal Bridge into Muscle Shoals, Alabama (the town made famous in the 60’s and 70’s by record producer Rick Hall), but unless you have a good grasp on the history, the Shoals is just another town that 13,000 souls call home. Fame Studios is still there, as is the building that once housed the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, but other than that I wouldn’t call this part of North Alabama a destination — no more than I would my own hometown in Northern California where most people stop to get gas (and maybe a taco) on their way somewhere else.
So what were we doing on a highway with hell on both ends of it? Why did we fly 1,300 miles from Denver to Birmingham, only to drive another 150 miles to our rented house in Killen? Well, to answer that question I would have to point you to a trilogy of albums by the Drive-By Truckers. If you listen to Southern Rock Opera, Decoration Day and The Dirty South for the next decade, you might understand why I felt at home in this part of the South — a place I had never visited before. As we drove along the Tennessee River, the voices of Patterson Hood, Jason Isbell and Mike Cooley were my tour guides through this place ‘where the Devil don’t stay‘. Each Church of Christ made me think of a young Cooley trying to escape to Zip City. I could almost see Isbell and his father fishing next to the Wilson Dam. When we passed through Rogersville, I was on the lookout for a young Hood getting pulled over ‘with a half-ounce of weed and a case of Sterling Big Mouth‘ — long before those tornados hit his hometown.
Drive-By Truckers have been my favorite band since I first heard “Decoration Day” in 2003. I feel like they are a part of my family. And that is why we traveled across the country. Hood, Isbell and Cooley hadn’t shared a stage (for an entire show) in about 7 years, but they were going to do so for One Night Only on June 15, 2014. They were coming together in support of a friend, Terry Pace. Pace had suffered two strokes in March, so the guys decided to get together for a hometown show to raise money for his medical expenses. The venue would be none other than the 700 person capacity Shoals Theatre in downtown Florence — a theatre that held as big a space in the Drive-By Truckers legacy as any living person. Tickets sold-out instantly, but we were able to pick up a few. The plane tickets, house and rental car were booked immediately after.
There were 3 of us on this trip — a fellow Drive-By Truckers fan, a Jason Isbell devotee, and myself. I prepped my fellow travelers with the “Muscle Shoals” and “The Secret to a Happy Ending” documentaries so they would have a better understanding of the place where the Tennessee River gave birth to a sound that attracted musicians from all around the world. I built on that education by paraphrasing the ‘duality of the Southern Thing” while we traveled north from Birmingham — and even more so as we drove the backroads around the property we rented. I spoke about cancer as we explored the TVA complex. The story of “Uncle Frank” came out when visited the Wilson Dam. And David Hood and Roger Hawkins were a topic of conversation as we took photos in front of the Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. Then we had a couple beers at the Marriott bar while marveling at the ‘Hard Rock Cafe’-like dedication to the music that came out of the region. We had traveled all this way to see a benefit concert, but we augmented that experience with local flavor. You see, a passerby might not want to get their hands dirty, but mine were already filthy from years of listening to Truckers records, so I was more than happy to go beneath ‘the green, green grass under my feet‘ to get to ‘the dirt underneath‘. I doubt we even scratched the surface, but it was still an incredible experience to be living and breathing the air that gave voice to all those songs.
There really is no way of getting lost when we all have GPS on our phones, but we did lose track of time as we were driving aimlessly around the area. So it was with great haste that we made our way back to Killen to slam a few local beers (brewed by Good People) while our designated driver got herself all prettied up for the show. Having never stepped foot inside the theatre, I wanted to get there early to get a good seat, so we found ourselves back on the road to Florence around 5:00pm. We were in line around 6:00pm and we were inside not long after. The front rows were reserved for VIPs (including Terry Pace himself), but we were able to get settled in, right across from David Hood, in the first GA row. And that’s where we were when Steve Richardson introduced the band just after 7:00pm.
We really didn’t know what to expect from a performance billed Hood, Isbell, Cooley. Would the rest of the Drive-By Truckers be there? Would it be an acoustic set? Would they be performing their solo material? The answers came quick when the three voices of the Southern Trilogy took the stage — alone, with a guitar to each of them. Hood and Cooley came in center, as Isbell entered stage right. The three of them sat down next to each other on stools…and the storytelling began.
Patterson was first up, explaining that they would “talk about a lot of shit before the night was over” before introducing “Tornadoes” with a quick trip down memory lane. He grew up going to the movies at the Shoals Theatre, including all the Disney classics, before it closed down. He told himself he would be in a rock band one day and he would play there. When he finally had that band he booked the show, only to have tornadoes rip through town the night before.
The show went on it that mode for the next 3 hours. Each of the songwriters took turns throughout the ‘in the round’ set. My knowledge of the area only increased with each story, but each one made me realize that as much as I felt like I knew North Alabama through their lyrics, I really was an outsider in their town. So many references (to people, places and events) were lost on me, yet everyone in the audience seemed to nod their heads and clap their hands in recognition. This could have made me uncomfortable in so many ways, but it made me feel more at ease. I knew seeing Isbell back on stage with the guys would be something special, but the familiarity they had with the crowd made it something beyond words. Imagine a living room show by your favorite artist, only it’s in their living room with all their family in attendance.
Patterson introduced Jason when it came time for him to present his first contribution and he looked a little apprehensive as the audience greeted him with a roar of applause. He admitted to being pretty uninteresting when he met the guys. He was only 21 years old and he didn’t have any real stories of his own, so he stole the ones his parents told him in confidence. One of those stories turned into “Decoration Day”, which he then performed. The apprehension died along with all those Hill Boys. From that point on, Jason Isbell was right there in step with his old bandmates. It literally brought a tear to my eye to see them in sync like not a day had passed since they were recording together.
It only took one chord for everyone to recognize “Heathens” and that made Patterson a happy man. “Eyes Like Glue” was the perfect Father’s Day song, as Cooley’s admitted (through lyrics) to the struggles of raising a son with an honesty that isn’t hurtful. Hearing Isbell perform “TVA” mere miles from the Wilson Dam was a bucket list entry I had forgotten to make. “Puttin’ People on the Moon” took us a few miles east, and a few decades back, to the NASA of the Regan-era. I would have thought “Goddamn Lonely Love” would have been too painful to play in this setting, as it harkens back to the end of an era for the band, but Jason reminded us that he doesn’t have any happy songs — ‘when I’m happy I don’t want to write a damn song…I want to keep on doing whatever it was that made me happy…I know it wasn’t writing a song” — to which Patterson reminded us “those people who write the happy songs are the ones who kill themselves“.
I could literally fill pages with a transcript of what went down in that theatre on that Sunday night. I could talk about how “Outfit” was dedicated to Jason’s dad, who was in the audience as well. And how Hood apologized to his own dad for not being able to write a better song. I could talk about how that song was the first to find the audience singing along as loud as the artists. I could talk about how that audience didn’t settle down until the Craig Lieske tribute. I could recite the story of how Jason wrote “Cover Me Up” for his wife, and how that song sent chills down my spine. I could talk about The Band and missed opportunities and dead friends and the incredible encore, but there is a recording out there if that is what you’re looking for. There is really just one other thing I’d like to say before closing this out…
An extremely personal part of the night came after “Women Without Whiskey”. Jason just shook his head and looked over at Cooley with a sadness in his eyes. You could tell that it made him so happy to be playing that song with his old friend, but you could also see the nostalgia take over. At the end of “The Secret to a Happy Ending”, when it becomes evident that Jason can no longer continue on with the band, he says something about missing the songs. I think the quote is “I can always call the guys, but I can’t call the songs“. The reasons for his departure weren’t as clear back then as they are today, but now we know alcohol was a big part it. So when he looked over and thanked Cooley for playing that song, there was true gratitude mixed in with that sadness. Cooley had just let him take a walk with a ghost from his past.
“Thanks for playing that song. Man, that’s a good song. I could just sit and play it at my house, but it just wouldn’t be the same. I’d just be sitting there, playing that song. It would get real weird. My wife would be like ‘What the hell are you doing? Have you started drinking again?‘
Cooley agreed that it would be strange. Everybody laughed. And the night went on from there — through all the albums and up and down that mean highway outside — from Kendale to Space City to the Grand Canyon and beyond. But no matter where those songs took us, they always brought us back to the three singer-songwriters on the stage. The three southern men who ‘make better dads than they did sons‘ might have taken different paths once they passed that county line, but they are always ready to bring it back home when a friend is in need. On this particular Father’s Day, they did so for a friend named Terry Pace, and I’m sure they made their own father’s proud in the process.
Carl Perkins’ Cadillac
Eyes Like Glue
Puttin’ People on the Moon
Goddamn Lonely Love
My Sweet Annette
Women Without Whiskey
Daddy Needs a Drink
Self Destructive Zones
Cover Me Up
The Living Bubba
Danko / Manuel
Never Gonna Change
Let There Be Rock
Keep On Smilin’