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, they’ve been many different bands during that quarter century: an alt.country band, a Southern rock band, a protest band, a Muscle Shoals band, an Athens, Ga., band — but they’ve always had the anchor of Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood at their core, two singers, songwriters and guitarists whose nuanced depiction of the American South has made them 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 that are 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, they 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 & 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’ walk of fame alongside Widespread Panic and R.E.M.
For years they 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. They 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 the Truckers 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.