Patterson Hood gets down and digs into his Gibson SG Special at a February 16, 2011 show at Penn State York University's Pullo Center. Photo by Adam Chlan.
Drive-By Truckers front man Patterson Hood has never made any bones about being a rocker. From his rock-approved beard to the 1969 Goldtop Les Paul (known as Estelle) to his penchant for recording on analog tape, Hood is a vintage-natured rock star in an age of polished studio trickery. His songs are filled with big guitars and even bigger characters, and despite being pigeonholed by some as “southern rockers,” it’s been a successful enough formula that the Truckers have remained in a near constant state of activity since their 2001 breakout record,Southern Rock Opera.

Perhaps that’s why the feel of the band’s latest release,Go Go Boots, was so unexpected. Quieter and more reflective than previous efforts, the high-flying leads are traded in for tender shuffles and haunting slide work, courtesy of fellow Truckers Mike Cooley and John Neff. A dose of Muscle Shoals soul—the music of Hood’s upbringing—is added for good measure. But gone is the Goldtop, replaced by a stripped-down SG and a parlor-sized Baxendale acoustic.

Of course, you can’t mess with success too much. Distorted guitars still lurk in the corners of the mix, and Hood continues to weave together characters full of bad thoughts and worse decisions—though it’s apparent the band learned a few things from recent side projects backing R&B luminaries like Bettye LaVette and Booker T.Go Go Bootslargely leaves the hard rock behind, and still manages to groove in a way that we haven’t heard before—a remarkable accomplishment for a band that has been together for over 20 years and put out close to a dozen full-length records.

You wrote in a letter to fans, “If The Big To-Do was an action adventure summertime flick (albeit with some brainy and dark undercurrents), this album is a noir film.” Go Go Boots definitely sounds different in tone and style, but the tracks for both albums were recorded around the same time. Did you know how you wanted the tracks to be split up as you went into those sessions?

Yeah, pretty much. We had a pretty specific record and sound we wanted to make withThe Big To-Do, but we had these other songs that didn’t quite fit. We still felt really strongly about them, so we decided to go ahead and record everything—and just kind of separated them out.

We knew early on while cutting songs that they would be on the second record. It was actually kind of fun working that way, because it enabled us to take a longer amount of time on the record—more than we’ve ever really had the ability to take before. Last year, whenever we had time off from the road, we’d go in and just kind of piddle with it—working with it for awhile at a pretty leisurely pace. I think it suited this type of record a lot.

Go Go Boots is certainly a lot more laid back than its predecessors, and has a lot more of that Southern soul vibe. Is that a by-product of growing up in the Shoals of Alabama?

Certainly. This record definitely addresses the music of our upbringing in a more direct way than we ever have before. That’s something that we’ve always wanted to do, but it’s really just now that we’ve gotten to a place where we can do the music justice. There are elements as far back as our first record—a song like “Sandwiches for the Road” probably would have fit really well on this record. But it takes a certain amount of discipline as a player to be able to really give that music justice.

We were also influenced by the side projects we’ve done. While working on the Bettye LaVette record [2007’sThe Scene of the Crime], we kind of had to learn a new way of playing in order to do that record. Likewise, when we did the record with Booker T. [2009’sPotato Hole], we learned so much from him, even with the really brief period of time we had. It was like a graduate level course in song construction.

A big part of this album’s beauty is the grooves that you guys fall into—it seems effortless for a lot of the record. You and Mike Cooley have been together forever. How have you guys grown together as musicians in that time?

I love playing with him. We’ve played together for 26 years, and didn’t get along for many of them. We actually get along great now, but the first 10 or so it was pretty rough going a lot of the time, and it can still turn on a dime. [laughs.]

Does that tension make for better music?

It’s not a bad kind of tension. We obviously have a lot of respect for each other— otherwise it wouldn’t work. We’re just both very strong personalities, and we’re about as different as could be, but we have a huge respect for the differences because we’ve realized that it makes us a better band. And at the end of the day, I love his songs and I love what he brings to the table on my songs. His playing is very—I won’t say undisciplined, because he’s an extremely great player—but he plays with a certain wild abandon and bravado that I find very appealing to the songs that I write.

It also makes for a really nice contrast having John Neff on one side and Cooley on the other. Neff is an extremely tasteful and disciplined player, and the two of them really never clash musically. It’s pretty amazing how well they play together—because they both bring such different things to the table—and I really consider myself lucky that I get to stand between them.

Hood (center) and Neff (left) hang back while Cooley (right) takes a solo at a March 18, 2011 show in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Michael Bialas.