In the mid-’90s, Brad Arnold was driving a tractor mowing field tanks in Southern Mississippi, and writing on the job. “When you ride around in a tractor, you don’t really push the gas you just sit on the throttle and there’s this tone,” says Arnold. “It’s weird, but I’d be on that tractor every day just singing with the tone of its engine, and writing songs.”
By 1996, Arnold brought the songs he wrote to his band 3 Doors Down’s first recording sessions. Dubbed the “Escatawpa Sessions,” for their Mississippi hometown, many of those tracks would land on the band’s debut The Better Life five years later.
Now, more than 20 years after its release, Arnold says it’s hard to believe two decades have passed since the release of an album that changed their lives forever.
“When I think all the way back to ‘The Better Life,’ in some ways it seems like it was yesterday, and in other ways it seems like it was a different lifetime ago,” says Arnold. “It was 20, 21 years now and a lot has happened, not only from our experiences and the different things that we’ve gotten to experience and the thousands of shows we played, but the industry as a whole and how it’s changed.”
To celebrate the band’s 2000 debut, they’ve released a remastered 20th anniversary edition of The Better Life, also featuring the original “Escaptawpa Sessions,” seven demo versions and three previously unreleased tracks, including “The Better Life (XX MIX),” “Kryptonite (2000 Acoustic),” remixed by Chris Lord-Alge, “Be Like That (2000 Acoustic),” and “Wasted Me (with harp).”
Accompanying the release of the album is the band’s two-part mini documentary, The Better Life, on YouTube, featuring Arnold and guitarist Chris Henderson, chatting about 3 Doors Down’s last two decades with television personality Bobby Bones.
“It was cool to go back and think about the different instances and go back and see the different articles and shows and answer some of those questions you haven’t thought about in a long time,” says Arnold. “It was cool to see 20 years of thoughts, in articles and pictures, all in one place.”
A defining album for 3 Doors Down, exploding with “Kryptonite,” the harsher high school reflections of “Loser,” and heartfelt dreamers’ ballad “Be Like That,” The Better Life certified seven-times platinum in the U.S. and became one of the first “best rock albums” of the 2000s.
“They say that you have your whole life to make your first record, and then you have two years to write your second,” says Arnold. “For me, that was a really big thing. Thankfully, I had enough left in me for our second record. Our first record was written over the course of five years, and it was written through life experiences and never rushed. We never tried to write a bunch of songs.”
By the time the band released The Better Life they were already a band for several years but had only written around 20 songs. “We’ve never been a band that wrote a ton of songs,” reveals Arnold. “For each record that we ever put out with 10 or 11 songs, we probably wrote 15 or 16 songs for it. It’s not that we couldn’t write songs. We just wrote fewer songs that we felt had more substance.”
For Arnold, the band’s 25-plus career seems very chapter-like. “It’s weird going back and listening to the recorded versions of these songs that we play live all the time,” says Arnold. “It’s important to go back and revisit these songs every now and then so that they don’t change too much live, because they grow. Somebody once told me ‘always leave yourself some room,’ and they were talking about not recording something you can’t play live. I always kept that in the back of my mind, of leaving myself some room so we can go out and play it, because you got to keep in mind that you’re going to be playing it for a long, long time.”
Arnold adds, “In doing so, you leave yourself room to elaborate and change it, but you don’t want to do that too much, because people want to hear the song they heard on the radio.”
The hardest thing for a writer, says Arnold, is having something to write about. “Once you have a topic, you can go with it,” he says. “It’s hard to sit down and write a song that should capture some kind of emotion when you’re in an emotionless state. Emotions catch you when you’re daydreaming. Those are what make the best song.”
Now, Arnold has some new songs drifting around that the band may work on releasing soon. On his farm in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, throughout the pandemic with no pressure to release an album, Arnold has had more time to write… on a tractor.
“I’m really thankful to have this time now, because it’s put me right back where I was when we wrote that first record—outside,” says Arnold. “Right now with what the world’s going through, I’m finding myself on a tractor again, just sitting there, writing songs.”