Utter - No. 2

Page 17

nonfiction by KELLY MARTINEAU

Cooley’s Law of Gravity

The singer, legs astride stage left, was all gaunt angle—square chin, bony shoulders, even his white flying V guitar. But his music, while pointed and direct, tumbled out in a rounded twang to a bumbling beat. From the moment Mike Cooley began singing, backed by his band the Drive-By Truckers, I strained to catch every word, like his girl waking up “sunny side down,” the narrator “too proud to flip her over.” As the pedal steel swirled among the lyrics, I felt in my limbs that curious blend of calm and energy when a song sounds exactly as it should. The Drive-By Truckers rocked and rambled through the three-minute song during a short set for the 2006 South by Southwest (SXSW) festival. While his band mates bobbed and wheeled around the stage, Cooley stood nearly still. Mike Cooley is one of two founding members of the Drive-By Truckers, along with fellow Alabama native Patterson Hood. DBT plays a particularly diesel blend of rock and country, exploring the myths and misconceptions of the South. Cooley and Hood both write and sing lead for the band, which boasts a prolific discography, including eleven studio albums since 1999. Patterson Hood’s music originally kindled my interest in the Drive-By Truckers. His sprawling narratives, delivered in a molasses drawl, stir empathy for his downtrodden, blue-collar narrators. Many music writers refer to Hood as the front man of DBT despite Cooley’s prominent role, but that’s just because Hood is a talker. He seems comfortable in the spotlight, taking the lead in interviews and onstage. He also revels in the details of DBT’s sound, often contributing a song-by-song explanation to the album liner notes. I myself mistook Patterson Hood for the front man at the SXSW show. Introducing the band and delivering the onstage banter, Hood bookended the set with his songs, including “A World of Hurt,” which explores the idea that anything worthwhile can cause pain. Like most of his music, the song resonated with me; I recognized Hood’s need to moderate excess emotion, to shape it into something meaningful. Hood’s songs won my heart that day, but it was Cooley’s “Gravity’s Gone” that engaged my mind. The song rocked with a resigned melancholy, echoed in the chorus, “But I’ve been falling so long it’s like gravity’s gone and I’m just floating.” Emphasizing the rhyme of fall, long, and gone, Cooley drove the meter so that the final word hung in the air. The guitars and pedal steel echoed that lilting fall. “Gravity’s Gone” replayed in my head for days, the chorus repeating that clever sonic tumble. I began listening exclusively to Cooley’s songs. As writers, Hood and Cooley both explore the underbelly in their music—outlaws, excess, and the challenge of living in the “dirty South.” In contrast to Hood’s candid and impassioned style, Cooley writes with more restraint, employing clever twists of language that shine a light on characters who usually stick to the shadows. Such phrases snag my mind, forcing me to listen closely. In “Cottonseed” on The Dirty South, Cooley takes on the persona of a once powerful crime boss. He owns his crimes with taut phrases like, “I put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cottonseed.” This man feels no remorse, only pride in his