In the 2014 film Boyhood, there’s a great scene where Ethan Hawke’s character gives his son a painstakingly curated mix CD of post-breakup Beatles tunes that he dubs The Black Album. His explanation: “When you listen to too much of the solo stuff, it kind of becomes a drag, you know? But you put them next to each other, and they start to elevate each other. And then you can hear it. It’s The Beatles!”
Many of us have taken our own stabs at the perfect Black Album over the years, but the point is always the same. There is no favorite Beatle. The band was great because it consisted of four amazing musicians working together, each bringing their own style and personality to the table, with the result adding up to far more than the sum of its parts.
But The Beatles aren’t the only great band with an abundance of songwriting talent that has since been scattered to the winds. Case in point: Drive-By Truckers, one of the best rock bands, indie or otherwise, of the last two decades. Since their formation in 1996, each of the band’s first nine studio albums featured contributions from at least three songwriters — most notably co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley as well as Jason Isbell, Shonna Tucker, and Rob Malone.
However, following the departure of Malone after 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, Isbell after 2006’s A Blessing and a Curse, and Tucker after 2011’s Go-Go Boots, Hood and Cooley found themselves as the sole songwriters on 2014’s English Oceans. Meanwhile, Isbell went on to achieve solo success with 2013’s Southeastern, and Tucker formed the band Eye Candy to perform her own compositions, resulting in 2013’s A Tell All.
Recently, the band and its former members have shown signs of thawing their acrimonious relationships, with Isbell joining the Truckers onstage in January to perform “Heathens” at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. On the other hand, Tucker’s departure has always appeared amicable, with Hood announcing her exit in glowing terms by writing, “Her charm and spark will be irreplaceable and her part in our last decade of this band’s history is indisputable. We will share in our fans’ missing of her.” (That said, it’s still unclear how ex-spouses Isbell and Tucker currently feel about each other, though I bet it isn’t good.)
It all got me thinking about an alternate universe in which the band never fractured. Would English Oceans be improved by Isbell and Tucker’s contributions? Or would their period-specific solo work just muddy the waters? In an effort to find out, I put together the playlist below, featuring tracks from Drive-By Truckers’ English Oceans, Isbell’s Southeastern, and Tucker’s A Tell All.
Before diving into this playlist, it’s important to remember that this isn’t intended to be a greatest hits collection. My goal is to approximate the actual record this line-up would have made based on their previous work. That means the song split is meant to mirror that of previous Truckers albums, with Hood getting the bulk of the tracks, Cooley and Isbell getting a roughly equal share, and Tucker getting a track or two. I’ve also stuck to songs that would have been written during the period between the Truckers’ Go-Go Boots and English Oceans; tried to pick a good mix of rockers, mid-tempo numbers, and ballads from each songwriter; and attempted to arrange them in an order that holds together as an album.
So, with all that out of the way, I give you my version of English Oceans by Drive-By Truckers, featuring Jason Isbell and Shonna Tucker!