Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood co-founded Drive-By Truckers in 1996, but their friendship began years before, when they were roommates at the University of North Alabama. Though distinctly different singers and songwriters, the two seemingly united with a common goal: just make unadulterated rock 'n' roll, man. And from about 2001 to 2007, Jason Isbell joined the crew with the same goal.
Since their debut record, Gangstabilly, released in 1998, the Truckers have released a total of 13 studio albums, a number of live albums and a couple of compilations, too. As you might imagine, trying to whittle down their career into a list of their best songs is impossible, but we took it upon ourselves to take a shot.
Check out our picks for the Top 10 Drive-By Truckers songs below:
"Let There Be Rock"From 2001's 'Southern Rock Opera'
Southern Rock Opera is epic. The double-album finds the Truckers viewing the world from the eyes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and "Let There Be Rock" might be the quintessential take on the ambitious feat. The track is full of Hood's rock 'n' roll memories, ranging from dropping acid at 14 years old to seeing the Bon Scott-fronted AC/DC.
"Gravity's Gone"From 2006's 'A Blessing and a Curse'
While the meaning behind "Gravity's Gone" is in the ear of the beholder, as is the case with most Cooley-penned songs, its lyrical depth is unmatched. The song follows a character who is longing to hit rock bottom, but somehow is remaining incredibly self-aware on the journey. As Cooley sings, "And don't ever let them make you feel like saying what you want is unbecoming / If you were supposed to watch your mouth all the time, I doubt your eyes would be above it."
"Nine Bullets"From 1999's 'Pizza Deliverance'
There doesn't seem to be any hidden subtext in this track from the Truckers' second studio album. Hood's intensity is on full display as he lists all those in his life who have earned a bullet from his roommate's gun — which has nine slugs in it — including "the lady down at the laundromat, who goes through my dryer pulling one sock out," "my boss man, riding my butt again / Sorry, sir, but you'd better clock out" and, of course, "one just to put me out of my misery / I better aim that sucker true." Hood and company have crafted a near-flawless alt-country ballad, and that's why "Nine Bullets" makes our list as one of the 10 best Drive-By Truckers songs.
"3 Dimes Down"From 2008's 'Brighter Than Creation's Dark'
We don't know exactly what Cooley is singing about on this track from Brighter Than Creation's Dark, but we know one thing: It's a rocker through and through. When the record was released, Hood said of this tune, "The second verse may be my all-time favorite on a Drive-By Truckers album." We won't spoil the fun by reciting the lyrics here — crank up the volume and take it for a spin.
"Grievance Merchants"From 2020's 'The Unraveling'
In the long career of the Drive-By Truckers, Cooley has put together thousands upon thousands of words that will exist for eternity as inimitable songs in the grooves of their records. But on The Unraveling, Cooley may have written his best yet with "Grievance Merchants," a song that is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, and sadly, it doesn't seem like it's going to lose its significance anytime soon: "May the price of freedom finally be their own / May our thought and our prayers keep them company."
"Made Up English Oceans"From 2014's 'English Oceans'
We're on a bit of a Cooley kick here, aren't we? If you've seen the Truckers live in the last several years, there's no doubt you've seen Cooley's hand start moving fast as he sets the rhythm on his acoustic guitar for "Made Up English Oceans."
When English Oceans was announced, Cooley explained how this particular track focused on the career of Lee Atwater, a GOP operative who was part of the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan and George Bush: "He was the guy that Karl Rove and all of the modern dirty tricksters looked to," he said. "He was one of the granddaddies of it all. That song is from his point of view, fictionally of course. It's him making his pitch, telling what he understands about young, Southern men."
"Sinkhole"From 2003's 'Decoration Day'
Inspired by Ray McKinnon's Oscar-winning short film The Accountant, "Sinkhole" finds Hood telling the story of his family's farm in northern Alabama. It's an unexpected, though unsurprising, political song, as the narrator fantasizes about killing and burying the local banker who is foreclosing on the homestead. The song was recorded in one take the first day the band was in the studio, and that energy comes through loud and clear with every spin. Needless to say, it's one of our favorite tracks from the Drive-By Truckers.
"Never Gonna Change"From 2004's 'The Dirty South'
There's no hiding what Isbell is singing about in this absolute rocker. "We ain't never gonna change / We ain't doin' nothin' wrong / We ain't never gonna change / So shut your mouth and play along," he belts out in the chorus.
In the liner notes for The Dirty South, the songwriter keeps things simple as he explains the inspiration behind this track: "This one's pretty self-explanatory. It centers around a North Alabama man who refuses to live in fear. There are quite a few of those," Isbell writes.
"Goddamn Lonely Love"From 2004's 'The Dirty South'
With nearly 11 million spins on Spotify alone, it's safe to say that "Goddamn Lonely Love" is one of the most beloved songs written and recorded by the Drive-By Truckers. With a slow, almost dirge-like pace that keeps Isbell focused on the lyrics, the band saturates the track with organs and guitars and other sounds credited to producer David Barbe, culminating in the unforgettable repeat of the gut-wrenching truth, "All I got is this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love."
"Hell No, I Ain't Happy"From 2003's 'Decoration Day'
Opening with a beer being cracked open, "Hell No, I Ain't Happy" easily tops our list of the Top 10 Drive-By Truckers songs. It's a tune that needs to be cranked to 11, and one that is always a fan favorite at the Truckers' live shows.
Hood recalls the inspiration for the lyrics in the liner notes for Decoration Day, noting, "One night in Northern Florida, we passed a car driving the wrong way down I-10. At the time we were deep into the recording of Southern Rock Opera, which dealt with dying on the road. This near brush with fate helped me to get past my phobia of getting creamed on the highway." Whatever the inspiration, we're forever grateful for Hood and company laying this one down.