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On the Edge: Mike Cooley

Drive-By Truckers: (from left) Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, John Neff, Jay Gonzalez, Mike Cooley

photo by Andy Tennille

Had Keith Richards Been born in Alabama, he’d sound a lot like Mike Cooley. As lead guitarist for the Drive-By Truckers, the revered Southern rock ’n’ roll band, Mike is a commanding presence onstage and on the Truckers’ nine studio albums, playing with a coolness and fluidity that validate his Burt Reynolds-inspired nickname, “The Stroker Ace.” 

While Mike is a rock guitarist through and through, he is also steeped in classic country. And he displays those country roots on his first solo album, The Fool on Every Corner, a live record culled from three different solo acoustic shows—two in Atlanta and one in Athens, Ga. 

Stripped down and vulnerable, the performances are defined by Mike’s supple playing and a drawling voice that some of today’s contemporary artists would sell their soul to come by naturally. 

“That’s what my voice sounds like, that’s just the tone it has. It’s the way I speak,” he says. “I couldn’t fake it if I tried. No British accent here, ya know?” 

Ironically, for all of the country sounds on The Fool on Every Corner—a collection of reworked Drive-By Trucker songs originally sung by Mike, with a Charlie Rich cover thrown in for good measure—Mike says he initially shied away from the genre. 

“When I was a kid, I was running from it. I lived in the country, in the rural South, and I couldn’t appreciate it. Back then, country music was dark, man. It was for grown-ups, and so I didn’t relate to it as much. Now it’s as bubblegum as anything else. But some stuff’s not supposed to appeal to kids,” explains Mike, who says he had to go through a few rites of passage before he could connect with the message of country. “After about a dozen or so really hard-ass hangovers, you start liking country music. And that had a lot to do with it.”

But it was Merle Haggard who was ultimately Mike’s gateway into country. 

“Of course, everybody loves Merle. That was somebody that I did like as a kid. I don’t know what it was, because he was country as cornbread,” he recalls. “But there was something about him, and Johnny Cash, that was real and that I knew was there even then.” 

As influential as the music became for Mike, however, so did stories of old Nashville—tales of artists butting heads with out-of-touch record executives. The songwriter documented one such legend in “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” a hushed fable on The Fool on Every Corner, but a defiant rocker in its original form on the Truckers’ album The Dirty South

“It’s a funny story and a classic music-business story. They took [Carl Perkins] to the Nashville studio and tried to give him the Nashville treatment. They had Carl Perkins not writing his own songs or playing guitar on his record,” Mike says incredulously. “That pretty much tells you how many geniuses used to run around up there.” 

In support of The Fool on Every Corner, Mike will be launching a mini-tour, and he hopes to return to the studio sooner than later with his steady gig with the Drive-By Truckers. 

“We’ll probably do some recording this year. We haven’t planned anything, but I have a couple of new things I wouldn’t mind hammering out with the band,” reveals Mike, who says he uses the old-school country he once shunned and even soul to come down from the high-volume buzz of a Truckers tour. 

“Over the years, when I come home from tours, it’s more country or older soul. You don’t want to come home from a tour with DBT and listen to rock ’n’ roll,” he says, laughing. “I’m done, man.” 


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