Here he is, the last part of the holy trinity that comes to mind when I think of Drive-By Truckers. While Patterson Hood seems to be the guy in charge and brings the raucous, outlaw edge. And Jason Isbell, before his sacking and as a solo artist, is all about exquisitely crafted song writing, the third piece of the puzzle brings the vintage, world weary side of country. And that’s even more apparent in Mike Cooley’s only solo release to date, The Fool on Every Corner.
Recorded live in front of what sounds like a pretty intimate venue, this really seems like the best, and only way, to present the music of Cooley. No backing band, no elaborate production, no frills. Which is perfect. Cooley writes the kind of songs that are presented best when presented simply. Just Cooley, his lyrics, his voice and his guitar… Or banjo.
Loaded Gun in the Closet eases The Fool on Every Corner in. The gentle guitar picking and soft, almost closed jaw vocals of Cooley are a jarring, but great contrast, to this dark story of abuse and tragedy.
When you call a song Cottonseed, you’d better build it around some down home, cotton pickin’ banjo, and Cooley really delivers here, with the story of a man with a, “45 underneath his coat and another one in his boot”.
I’ve never doubted Cooley’s bonafides as a true country music disciple when I’ve listened to Drive-By Truckers. In fact, I’ve always found his contributions to be the most traditional. But hearing him here, especially on songs like Guitar Man Upstairs and Cartoon Gold, without a band, without the rocking solos and without the amazing controlled chaos of that band, his love of the old world of country is undeniable.
The only time the small venue and faithful live crowd setting works against The Fool on Every Corner is on the apparent crowd favourite Marry Me. I really don’t need to hear some over eager, probably drunk dickhead in the crowd add his own tone deaf backing vocals.
There’s a sincerity and weight that comes with the voice of Mike Cooley. Very few singers could get away with a line like “The price of being sober is being scared out of your mind” in Shut Up and Get on the Plane. In the wrong hands, and most hands would be the wrong hands, it would sound self conscious and obvious at best, unearned and clichéd at worst. But when delivered by Cooley, it sounds like a legit life lesson, learned the hard way.
While it might be made up primarily of songs Cooley had already recorded with Drive-By Truckers, The Fool on Every Corner is in no way redundant or inessential. Stripped down to their bare essentials, every song here has new life and new reasons to listen. It also highlights just how strong these songs are when they still sound so interesting and complex, even though they’re nothing more than Cooley, his lyrics, his voice and his guitar… Or banjo.