Mike Cooley is on the road again. Alone.
“I wouldn’t want to tour by myself all the time,” the musician said. “You know, I understand that comics, it drives them crazy after a point because they tour by themselves all the time. That’s why they die to get into television or something.”
He wouldn’t want to do it all the time, but on occasion, Cooley does enjoy taking a break from fronting Drive-By Truckers alongside bandmate Patterson Hood to play a quick string of solo shows. This November, he hit a few such dates out West before heading back to play a few down South this month, including in Pensacola.
Looking ahead to his return to Pensacola State College’s Ashmore Fine Arts Center, Cooley said he appreciates the intimacy solo shows offer.
“It’s something I do once or twice a year, and it gives me a chance to do the songs a different way,” he said. “Sometimes I get ideas for writing new stuff—getting into a quieter thing and forcing myself out of what I’m used to. It’s fun.”
For more than 20 years, Drive-By Truckers has laid down a raucous, soulful soundscape that depicts a Southern United States in all its rich complexity. It’s a world painted in vivid prose and set to music that ranges from a rage to a whisper. It’s a world that flirts with descriptives like Southern Gothic but then coyly avoids any genre pigeonhole.
Cooley said the Truckers never set out to be a particularly Southern band. They just wrote what they knew.
“It was just who we were. It was just what we were familiar with,” he said. “It’s what’s been around us all our lives. It’s our family; it’s our schoolmates; it’s our coworkers; it’s the boss you had, the first job you had, you know?”
While much of the Truckers’ catalog deals with Southern subjects and stories, Cooley said that over the years, he’s learned that the band’s songs speak to a rural-urban cultural divide that crosses regional and even national boundaries.
“The more you learn, the more you learn every place is the same. And it’s not just America. I’ve seen it in Europe,” Cooley said. “Cities are cities. Rural areas are rural areas. And people who inhabit them are who and what they are. The set of values and the differences in those set of values are the same. The only thing that changes is the language and the accent.”
While the Drive-By Truckers have never shied away from political material—2001’s double album “Southern Rock Opera” prominently featured George Wallace—the band has in recent years put out work with an unmistakable message. Among other issues, the most recent album addresses race relations and gun violence.
Cooley points out that the “American Band” album came out in 2015, prior to the election of Donald Trump and what he views as further societal erosion. Even as the band wrote songs that touched on issues that would develop into flashpoints, he never fully saw the craziness coming.
“I kind of feel stupid for not seeing it,” Cooley said. “Now, I look at it, and it’s like the writing was on the wall as plain as day. Where we ended up was not some freak turn of events. It was almost inevitable I think.”
The issues that America appears to be wrestling with worry Cooley. He wonders if the country is still “maybe, kind of the voice of reason a lot of the time when the world seemed to be going crazy.”
“Up until now, we’ve been the ones kind of taking the lead away from crazy, and now we’re kind of leading the charge toward it,” Cooley said. “That’s what bothers me the most.”
Looking toward the future, the musician expresses a skeptical optimism about the long-term and a feeling of hopelessness for the near term—“If you’re bothered by what you see now, hold on, it’s gonna get a lot worse before it gets better, no doubt about it”—and wonders when he’ll be able to stop writing protest songs and return to telling stories.
“Family, your life, where you are in your life. And stories, there’s always stories. It’s not always easy to think of the ones that are going to make the best songs or the ones to write down, but stories, stories of people, real people,” Cooley said. “I’d hate to lose sight or just lose all ability to just tell those stories and to talk about life and family and growing, loving and losing, things that are real, things that are real and universal.”
WHAT: A solo show with Mike Cooley of the Drive-By Truckers
WHEN: 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 11
WHERE: Pensacola State College, Ashmore Fine Arts, 1000 College Blvd.