In the thick of a brutal heat wave that had gripped the South in September 2000, Drive-By Truckers were packed with their instruments and recording equipment inside an un-air-conditioned building that had once been the first mortuary in Birmingham, Alabama. The property was now a uniform store owned by one of the musician’s relatives, so the band was the evening till six in the morning. Drummer Brad Morgan recalls the sweltering heat, which had climbed to well over 100 degrees. This was the band’s third attempt to capture the songs that would appear on Southern Rock Opera (to be released, most inauspiciously as it turns out, on the day of the September 11 attacks a year later) – there had just been something missing on their first two attempts.“It was a big warehouse, but the vibe was in there all night long,” Morgan recalls. And it’s exactly Morgan’s ability to distill this vibe in key musical moments that makes him such a great drummer.
There’s only one way to acquire this skill, and that’s through years of experience playing with other musicians. But while the feeling of locking into the vibe is instantly recognizable, as it was to all those present that night in the Birmingham warehouse, it’s not easily defined with words.
The rhythmic lines now drawn across the face of any Drive-By Truckers tune appeared precociously on Morgan’s snare case at a young age. At the time the 11-year-old drummer was too small to lift his instrument entirely off the ground, so he partially dragged it to wherever he needed to play. It was the first hint of a determination that would lead him from a sixth-grade band class whim to purchase a CB700 kit the following year, to practicing upwards of eight hours a day by the time he was 15 and happily jamming away with his older sister’s friends.
During Morgan’s early years of drumming, two seemingly negative factors contributed to the development of his raw southern pocket – he lacked self-confidence in his playing, and he began his rhythmic journey in the age of hair metal and glam, when there was a serious drought of inspiration for a young drummer to latch onto. Morgan made two wise decisions at a point where most newbies might have thrown down their sticks and walked away: He decided to focus on what he was able to play instead of ruminating on his rhythmic shortcomings, and he looked for inspiration in his surrounding community instead of searching popular culture outlets.
“I never thought I was any good,” Morgan says, “so I never could try to sound like anybody. But then I got into songwriters. I was able to apply my limited skill of playing to songwriters because sometimes they were simple songs. And if you play with a lot of people, you learn more than just sitting around the house playing.”
In his mid to late twenties Morgan became immersed in a vibrant music scene in Athens, Georgia. “Half the bands couldn’t fill a club, but they could fill a party, so we had ten bands [play at every show].” On off nights the drummer would jam with his musician friends in their living rooms for upwards of 16 hours a day, drumming, drinking, and recording. Within a few years Morgan was touring and recording constantly with a local group called Drive-By Truckers.
Less than a decade later the band would receive an unexpected phone call asking them to do a record with Booker T. Jones. Two weeks later Drive-By Truckers were recording Potato Hole with the legendary organist. It would take them only four days to complete the album. The recording session was followed by a tour with the veteran musician, and the album they recorded together won a Grammy. The kit that Morgan used throughout the entire experience spoke for itself. “On the record I only used a kick and snare,” Morgan says. “By the end of it I was like, ’I don’t even use toms. I don’t even need to take them on tour.’”
That same year Drive-By Truckers would enter their go-to studio in Athens, Georgia, and lay down 25 tracks in 25 days. Morgan estimates that at least half these tunes were first takes. “We don’t sit down and rehearse the songs. We just go in and while they’re getting their sounds in the control room we’ll go over it, and everybody knows the changes if there’s anything tricky. Patterson [Hood] and [Mike] Cooley will cue – [there’s] a lot of body language. Or sometimes it’s a simple ’playing it on guitar and singing it one time,’ and then we’ll lay down most of it. It’s just capture the feeling of the song – that’s what I love about this band. It’s not so ’play the drum part 50 times.’”
And it’s the consistency of subtle rhythmic inconsistencies in relation to the song that color the delivery of a craftsman like Morgan – imperfections become character instead of detracting from the song, and it allows the listener to relax. The tunes captured at this particular session would be appear on The Big To-Do, and the remaining tracks account for nearly 70 percent of the music on their newest release, Go-Go Boots.
Sometimes when Drive-By Truckers record together in the studio the music takes on a life of its own. On “Ray’s Automatic Weapon” the outro was improvised during recording. “That’s the first time I’d played it, and that was the first take,” Morgan says. “That whole ending of it, when I’m doing that [marching] thing on the snare, I was trying to figure out a way of getting out of the song.”
It’s counterintuitive that a band called Drive-By Truckers would write or arrange so many tunes prior to boarding airplanes, but that seems to be a trend. Hood wrote “I Do Believe,” the opening track on Go-Go Boots, on the way to the airport, and Morgan pounded out his tom groove in the studio the very next day. DBT’s other primary vocalist and guitarist would present “Birthday Boy” (the single off The Big To-Do) to the rest of the band on their way to San Francisco International Airport. “And then we were going home and cutting it the next day,” Morgan says. “So we just listened to it that one time in the van.” But the process is effortless for the drummer. “The songs are easy to do as long as you’re feeling the song. There’s no trouble to it. Don’t try to overplay, just emphasize and help the song, and that’s what I’ve always done.