Mike Cooley was born too late. Had he come of age in the era of Willie and Waylon, there’s little doubt he’d have given the greats a run for their gambling chips, blessed as he is with a booming voice reminiscent of Cash, a distinctive guitar style, and above all, the songs to contend with the legends. This is not to say he hasn’t had at least one lucky break – as a founding member of Drive-By Truckers, he’s had the privilege of playing in one of the greatest rock and roll bands America’s produced in the last thirty years. Unlike his foil and fellow Trucker Patterson Hood (the Mick to Cooley’s Keef), Cooley is not a prolific songwriter. So when whispers of a solo album began rippling through the message boards, speculation abounded.
Recorded by David Barbe over the course of three solo shows during a Truckers’ sabbatical in March 2012 (a sabbatical which, it turns out, more closely resembles the touring schedule of the average American band) The Fool On Every Corner is a live album of Cooley’s greatest hits, featuring just one new song – the understated and sketch-like “Drinking Coke and Eating Ice” – and a raucous cover of Charlie Rich’s deceptively bawdy country ballad “Behind Closed Doors.”
The solo setting wisely puts the focus on Cooley’s nimble fingerpicking and his insightful, clever, often risible turns of phrase. Cooley holds court in the Truckers as the philosophical good ol’ boy who plays the mean guitar, which makes it easy to take for granted how frequently astute and sensitive his lyrical observations are, but here, his band’s (often misunderstood) associations with Skynyrd notwithstanding, he emerges more Townes than Ronnie.
Where his partner Hood tends to write highly detailed slice of life pieces in the second person, Cooley is often more elliptical, writing in riddles that frequently take a beat to sink in: “Who you see in dreams at night seem to spend their afterlives trying hard to live the last one down,” “Jesus made the flowers but it took a dog to make the story good,” “I’ll be leaving knowing surviving you don’t make me stronger than the weakest man who’s ever turned you down.” No one writes like this anymore, and Cooley, every bit the equal of Prine or Kristofferson, ably carries the torch.
The most interesting renditions here are the ones in which Cooley creatively re-imagines rockers as acoustic pieces. These are not merely strummed ‘unplugged’ versions of Truckers songs, but old songs approached in new ways, restructured specifically for the occasion of a solo set of music. Southern Rock Opera’s boogie-based “Guitar Man Upstairs” is torn down and reassembled as a ragtag country blues, while “Three Dimes Down” transforms from a sleazy Exile On Main Street-style romp into a stark acoustic number that recalls Paul Westerberg’s more plaintive solo material. “Carl Perkins Cadillac” is recast as an elegy, while “Where The Devil Don’t Stay” surprisingly conjures the dark, brooding Dylan of “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” “Marry Me” – still Cooley’s finest song – dispenses with an original riff cabbaged from the Eagles’ “Already Gone” but retains the song’s irresistible swagger, even without the benefit of a guitar pick.
How much you enjoy The Fool On Every Corner will depend greatly on what you expect from a live album. Those anticipating an authentic ‘put you right there’ sort of document may not mind the sound of audience members tunelessly shouting along to every song, or punctuating any mention of sex, violence, drugs, drinking, or rock and roll with drunken howls of approval. Most, however, will find the crowd noise – which is inexplicably high in the mix – very distracting, and may find themselves wishing Cooley had just cut these tunes in the studio instead.
Still, as a showcase for Mike Cooley’s songs, The Fool On Every Corner is a home run, and anyone not already familiar with Cooley’s work should make it a point to get acquainted with one of the last (and best) of a fast dying breed. words/ j jackson toth