Backwoods deals, country roads and trampled pride — Mike Cooley’s songs are emblematic of quiet Southern truths, and his solo work reflects those interests.
The veteran Drive-By Truckers guitarist has been performing solo stage shows for the last year, consisting mainly of reworked Truckers songs and his own pieces.
Though Cooley has performed onstage for more than a decade, he’s always been the quieter part of a larger group — putting himself front and center has created a new set of challenges for the performer.
“If you’re playing with an entire band and you think that everyone’s looking at you, you’ve got a f------ up ego,” Cooley said. “If you’re playing solo, they all really are.”
Though Cooley has worked out some of his performance anxiety, his first solo album is raw and clear. Recorded over three nights in Atlanta’s The Earl and Athens’ own The Melting Point, “The Fool on Every Corner” features Cooley at his most stripped-down, his self-deprecating asides and rambling stage banter showing a singer not fully comfortable with his own stage presence.
But Cooley’s nervousness doesn’t diminish the power of his musical talents — his acoustic versions of classic Drive-By Truckers songs give the lyrics and guitar work a chance to shine outside the mix.
There’s a weariness to Cooley’s best songs, an acknowledgment that life is hard and must simply be shouldered. Cut down to their barest elements, his words sound more worn than ever. Cooley’s songwriting is an intensely personal thing, revealing honest moments deep inside his tired psyche.
“It’s really all about finishing [a song]. It’s not even about what I’m looking for or anything,” Cooley said. “It’s whatever I can drag out of myself and put in front of an audience.”
Along with reworked Drive-By Truckers songs, Cooley has experimented with new pieces for his solo shows, including the single “Drinking Coke And Eating Ice.” Encompassing Cooley’s thoughts on recent American history through a story about a girl the song introduces a new direction for Cooley, one he plans to pursue on future Truckers albums.
“It’s not the best song I’ve ever written by any stretch, but I thought it was pretty cool,” Cooley said. “I’ve written some other stuff along the same lines to play with the band…this was about giving something new to the fans.”
Cooley turned to solo work to bridge some gap time with the Drive-By Truckers, which hasn’t released an album since 2011’s “Go-Go Boots” and the departure of bassist Shonna Tucker. Cooley and singer Patterson Hood have both been playing solo since, and even a few private shows together. They’ll reunite with the rest of the band late this summer to record a new album.
Though Cooley assures fans that the Drive-By Truckers will be back in the studio sometime this summer, he’s finding new enjoyment in standing onstage alone. It allows him to get a little closer to an audience he may not have found otherwise.
“I want to connect with the audience as they are,” Cooley said. “And hopefully they’ll shut up long enough to let me play something.”
MIKE COOLEY, T. HARDY MORRIS
WHEN: April 25, 8 p.m.
WHERE: Georgia Theatre
This show is part of the Americana Music Festival. Here is the full schedule of the festival.