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Mike Cooley eats sushi in a Manhattan restaurant and talks about music with his bandmate, Patterson Hood. The young women at the next table keep shooting them glances.

Cooley and Hood play in a rock band, the Drive-By Truckers, but it's a safe bet the eavesdroppers have never heard of them.

Rather, the women seem entranced by their deep, Alabama drawl -- as if hearing a foreign language for the first time.

"It's like, 'Look at that redneck in the window,' " Cooley says, chuckling, after the women pay their bill and leave.

Such an encounter once might have annoyed, rather than amused, them. Hood used to view rock 'n' roll as his ticket out of Alabama. Now they embrace their roots, and the Drive-By Truckers' music is richer for it.

"To see a band that presents itself as a bunch of loud rednecks and have it not be a shtick is a shtick in itself," Cooley said.

The quintet offers both a three-guitar and three-songwriter attack. Their songs are often finely etched portraits of Southern rural life. "My Sweet Annette" is about a boy who leaves his fiancee at the altar to elope with her best friend.

Check your stereotypes at the door, though: When they sing about a brother and sister jailed for incest in "The Deeper In," it was inspired by a real-life case from way up north in Wisconsin.

Their idea of rural life isn't necessarily quiet. "If (music fans) are open to the idea of a big, loud rock band, they're probably going to have a good time," Hood said.

Two years ago, the band managed the near impossible with "Southern Rock Opera," releasing a two-disc concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd to nearly unanimous praise.

Their new album, "Decoration Day," is more focused, though downcast, colored by divorce and other romantic trauma caused by too much time on the road.

Entertainment Weekly magazine cited the Drive-By Truckers as one of "10 Bands on the Brink."

Cooley and Hood have been there before. They were together in the 1980s in a band called Adam's House Cat that nearly won a prestigious Musician magazine contest for best unsigned band in the country.

When the band failed, Hood felt bitter and left behind. By the time the Drive-By Truckers formed in the mid-1990s, "I had gotten out and done different things, and I learned to appreciate some of the things that we had been running from," Hood said.

Both Cooley and Hood play guitar and write songs. So does Jason Isbell, who joined the Drive-By Truckers in 2001 and, at 24, is a decade younger than his colleagues.

On his second day in the band, Isbell wrote "Decoration Day," a song about a family feud, and it became the new album's title cut.

They say the competition is healthy and prods them to better work.

"It is fun to come in with something terrible every now and then and play it with a straight face -- to see how long it takes" for anyone to speak up, Cooley said.

Pouring some of their personal turmoil into songs may have cost them a big chance to get ahead in the industry, however.

When "Southern Rock Opera" began getting attention, the Drive-By Truckers signed to Lost Highway Records, the well-respected home of Lucinda Williams, Johnny Cash, Nelson and the Jayhawks.

But "Decoration Day" was never put out by Lost Highway. The Drive-By Truckers negotiated a release, buying back the rights to the album for the cost of making it. The disc came out this summer on the smaller, independent label, New West Records.

Hood said he wasn't sure "Decoration Day" was the record Lost Highway had anticipated.

"I know they wanted it to be shorter and more concise and probably more upbeat," he said. "We could see that it wasn't going to be a priority to them."

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