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Published: 2012/12/13
by Brian Robbins

"Ditchin’ the Pick": Drive-By Trucker Mike Cooley on Playing Solo and Acoustic

I’m always listening for a “Whipping Post!” moment – some call-out from the crowd that ends up preserved for posterity on an album.

Yeah, well … he got a little difficult. There was one segue that we ended up not being able to use when he’s yelling, “You got me through my twenties, man!”

And I’m like, “Ohh- kay … I don’t need any more information than that.”

My hero is the guy who hollered out to you after “Eyes Like Glue”: “Play what you want to play!”

Sometimes I make the mistake of asking what they want to hear. I kind of like it if there’s a general consensus on a song – it eliminates me having to decide what to play next. But sometimes you just hear white noise (laughs) – about ten different titles all jumbled together.

That’s when I just say, “Okay – okay, I’ll just pick something.”

That’s the cross to bear for having written too many good tunes…Do you still get nervous before going on?

Yeah, especially with this solo thing. You’re by yourself; you don’t have your support group – that’s really what a band is – and there’s always that fear of “What if I bomb? What if I get out there and I can’t do anything?” You know it’s not going to happen, but it’s still there, you know? “What if I just fall apart?”

But I’ve gotten better about that; that’s been part of my goal – at least to do it until I get comfortable. Although I don’t think you ever want to get 100% comfortable; I think those nerves work to your advantage.

Sometimes I get nervous with the band these days – and I didn’t in the past. Maybe I’m feeling there’s higher expectations or something. Nothing bad … and nothing like playing solo. It only lasts for, like, the first two songs.

If there is someone who’s been an obvious influence on your fingerpicking style, I can’t tell you who it is from watching you.

No, it’s kind of what I came up with on my own. I had someone who was teaching me some stuff when I was a kid and they were showing me one of the standard songs – that Merle Travis/Chet Atkins-style, Nashville-style, fingerpicking thing – and I never could get it. But I got the concept of it. And over the years it kind of evolved out of mostly a combination of laziness and incompetence – if I pick up a guitar at home and there’s not a pick within arm’s reach, I wouldn’t get back up to look for one.

I really started falling in love with the way it sounded. A lot of the people whose sounds I really liked turned out to be using their fingers, you know?

My way of approaching it is just from doing it and doing it. When I started working on playing these solo shows, that’s one of the first things I figured out: ditch the pick. Strip things down and try to find an approach to playing these songs that would make them interesting without the band. That was the obvious path that jumped out in front of me: ditch the pick.

Jeez – there’s the obvious title for a tour right there: “The Ditch The Pick Tour.”

Yeah – really! (laughs)

The songs like “Marry Me” that are flat-to-the-floor rockers with the Truckers were originally written on acoustic, though, right?


But the arrangements you’re using now are pretty much for this solo setting?

Pretty much. And I have to have all the songs written down with a note off to the side because I’m putting them in different keys; maybe using a capo – which I don’t do with the band. Some of them I drop down a step so I’m not pushing my voice so hard. It sounds good with the band, but it sounds kind of silly if you’re pushing real hard with just an acoustic guitar by yourself.

There’s a moment in the beginning of “Three Dimes Down” where you allude to something you’re thinking about … and then later in the song – after you pull off the segue into Bob Seger’s “Rock & Roll Never Forgets” – you say, “I can’t believe it worked …”

I was going over those lyrics in my head as I was playing that intro … I extended the intro even longer than normal so I could go through them. And then I said to myself, “Yeah, I think I can do it.”

You really hadn’t pulled off that segue before?

Hell, no! I didn’t believe I knew the words – and they still might not be right.

I always figured where the guitar quotes Seger’s tune on the original Trucker version of “Three Dimes Down” that you’d pulled that off somewhere in the past.

No … and I went back and forth for days when we were finishing this live album: “Oh man – I can’t do that … aw, fuck it; let’s leave it.” And for some reason it works.

Well, there – history in the making, boys and girls. And why the cover of “Behind Closed Doors”? I mean, it’s a great tune, but what made you choose to play it at these shows?

I’ve always loved that song; I love Charlie Rich. When I was getting ready to do these shows, I was listening to a Charlie Rich album and I thought, “Hey that’d be good.” I was actually looking for something to cover; something to spice the show up a little bit; throw something out there that they weren’t expecting me to do. I’ve always got my ears open in case there’s something else that comes along.

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