One of the alternate titles for the Drive-By Truckers' latest album was "Human Bovine Knievel."
It's a lyric from the song "The Opening Act," and singer and guitarist Patterson Hood favored the phrase during an impasse over what to call the record "Brighter Than Creation's Dark."
"We had the easiest time making this record and the hardest time naming it," Hood says by phone from home in Athens, Ga., on a break from the group's current tour. "There were only about three or four names that nobody in the band hated, and that was one of the ones."
Easy albums are an uncharacteristic luxury for the group, which is full of strong personalities. The Truckers have endured record-label woes, interpersonal conflicts and songwriting dry spells, but "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" took barely two weeks to record and was mostly the result of unanimous decisions. (The title, Hood says, was the exception: It was decided by a majority vote.) The Truckers' seventh studio release also represents a sudden and unexpected creative spurt. Although the albums have come steadily since the band's 2001 breakthrough, "Southern Rock Opera," Hood and co-founder Mike Cooley found neither had much to say after releasing "A Blessing and a Curse" in 2006. That quickly changed once the hard-touring band finally took a break.
"It was like the songs just started pouring out. I wrote 50 songs in six months last year," Hood says. "I just had to get home and get off the road. I'd been on the treadmill for so long, it had worn me out mentally and physically, and when I sat down to write, all I could write about was how tired I was or how frustrated I was - things I didn't really want to write a song about."
All that songwriting coincided with another change in the band, when singer and guitarist Jason Isbell left for a solo career. Isbell was in his early 20s when he joined the band after "Southern Rock Opera," and he wrote some of the best songs on 2003's "Decoration Day," 2004's "The Dirty South" and "A Blessing and a Curse."
"Over the course of five years, he got older and had really come into his own as an artist in his own right and not just as a part of this crazy democracy thing we've got," Hood says. "It was really understandable that he was ready to have his band."
Isbell's departure came as a shock to Truckers' fans, but what looked like a blow turned out to have a rejuvenating effect on the rest of the band, which also features bassist Shonna Tucker, drummer Brad Morgan and steel guitarist John Neff.
"While on paper it made for a big void, we had grown as artists, too, during that time, and I think it made for a lot more space for us to inhabit with what we're doing, and it freed up room for Shonna to step up and do some stuff," Hood says.
The bassist makes her debut on lead vocals on "Brighter Than Creation's Dark," singing three songs that she brought to the band. Hood says the group knew Tucker wrote songs, but she had declined to lend any to the previous record.
"She's as private a person as you can be and still do this, so I didn't know when it was going to happen," he says.
After working up the new tunes last year on a brief semi-acoustic tour, the band hit the studio and recorded 17 songs in 10 days, most of them in one or two takes.
"We've always gravitated toward the earlier takes as opposed to the takes where we actually know the song," Hood says. "The early take is kind of pure inspiration, whereas later it's more perspiration. That's what live albums are for."
As the track list grew, the album never quite seemed finished - like making a mix tape that expands until you find the right combination of songs. Ultimately, it took 19 songs for the album to feel complete.
"We would have been happy with a 12-song or 14-song record, but as we listened back to what we had done, it became apparent that this record was its own thing," Hood says. "And rather than try to tame it or cut it down, it was like every song was a piece of the puzzle. Some of the songs may seem, if taken on their own as a single, almost unfinished, but when taken with the song next to it, it leads into something."