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Drive-By Truckers' "Gravity's Gone"

Trucker Mike Cooley talks about his sunscreen

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The Drive-by Truckers have always harbored a bit of Replacements envy, particularly Patterson Hood. But "Gravity's Gone," the ultimate anthem to the down and out, actually comes from Mike Cooley. A wry, off-the-cuff meditation on life's smirking injustice, it can be summarized by the wistful last lines: "What used to be is gone and what ought to be ought not to be so hard."

The melancholy twang is tart, like something once sweet that's soured—hope, perhaps? Cooley begins the song in a fog of self-reflection, wondering "about a reason for the things I told her/ She woke up sunny-side down/ and I was still thinking I was too proud to flip her over." It's followed by a terrific observation on compensation of sorts: "Cocaine rich comes quick/ That's why the small dicks have it all."

That would be enough to make it a great song, even without the wonderful chorus about falling and never hitting bottom. The second stanza, though, concludes with bits of advice worthy of Mary Schmich's famous 1997 column, "Wear Sunscreen," which Baz Luhrman turned into a hit single two years later.

"You'll never lose your mind, as long as your heart always reminds you where you left it," Cooley sings. "And don't ever let them make you feel saying what you want is unbecoming. If you were supposed watch your mouth all the time, I doubt your eyes would be above it."

Cooley spoke to me about "Gravity's Gone" and the Truckers' new album from his home in Alabama.

INDEPENDENT: I understand you wrote "Gravity's Gone" over a long period?

MIKE COOLEY: It's something I kept coming back to for over a year or more. I think I came up with the chorus, or most of it, at one time, and just thought it was cool and didn't know really what it meant. I'd just kept going back to it. Every time I'd think about writing, that'd be one I'd go back to. And then the verses started popping out and taking shape.

You say you'd been coming up with lines: Did you know they were for this song?

At a certain point, I think I was kind of consciously thinking of them to go with that chorus. A lot of them, when we were on one particular tour, every day or two another one of those kind of funny lines popped into my head, and I'd hang on to it.

It's reminiscent of the advice from that famous column, "Wear Sunscreen."

I don't live by any of that crap, but I try to bestow it upon others as much as I can [laughs]. I'm usually talking to myself, that's my dirty little secret. If I ever sound like I'm preaching or trying to make someone smarter than they are, I'm talking to me.

It has a quality about the lovable loser, like some of the songs by the Replacements or Townes Van Zandt.

A lot of times it takes me a few years after I write something… [Cooley tells a squealing kid to hold on, he's on the phone.] It takes me a few years before I really know what I'm talking about. In that particular case, a lot of it came together while I was on this tour that I wasn't having much fun with [laughs]. I was on the road a lot harder and longer than I wanted to be, and I didn't feel like we were really reaping the benefits. [Editor's note: Could this be the Dirty South tour?] But the whole thing in the chorus is kind of like, if I derail my career, at least I'll have my feet on the ground. I'd rather be at the bottom with my feet on the ground than the bottom with no where to land. So it took me a while to figure out what I was talking about, but I think that was it.

I suppose there's an aspect that you couldn't write as well as you can if you knew what it was you were saying.

Oh, exactly. You would probably say it badly if you knew exactly what it was. You wouldn't be nearly as clever because you wouldn't have anything to figure out later.

I guess it's one of those themes that has an appeal because a lot of us are fuck-ups.

Yeah, I like to stick with that because I think it's honest. That's kind of who I am.

It reminded me a bit of "Carl Perkins' Cadillac" with a kind of wistful yearning for something fleeting or a day gone by.

I wasn't really thinking about it at the time, but they were very similar. I had kind of reached the same point in my career, as he was in the second verse of that song. Like, "Well, I'll be, here I am. I made it. Great. Now what do I do?"

So I understand you took a little hiatus before working on this new record.

We were off the road for most of four months. We did a show here and a show there, but we didn't tour at all. When we actually started coming in and working up these songs, it had been several months.

How'd it feel?

It was great. We were getting ready to do a tour, and putting together the whole Dirt Underneath thing, and had [Muscle Shoals keyboardist] Spooner Oldham in there, so it's a new sound. We were actually excited about touring again. That was the cool thing about it. We used that tour to work up the songs and we played mostly ... or at least half the show was brand new stuff.

You road tested them?

Took it on the road first, what a concept [laughs].

The old-fashioned way.

Yeah, and a lot of the times you'll get a certain amount of resistance and people will tell you you shouldn't be out playing new songs before the record comes out. It seemed like, Why not? They're mine, I'll play them whenever I feel like.

How is the new album coming along?

We're pretty close to finished. Everything's tracked. I'm going back tomorrow [to David Barbe's studio in Athens] to do a few more days of working on it. Maybe redo some vocals, add some parts here and there. But it's pretty much there. I think we're going to trust our mix.

Correction (Aug. 9, 2007): Our astute commenters (below) pointed out two errors, which have been corrected in the text.

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