Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers on the band’s 10th album. And Trump.
Drive-By Truckers! I was happy to talk to the band’s Patterson Hood, as he wrote one of my favourite songs of the last decade, “The Part of Him”! Like a lot of what I’ve been posting in the last few days, this was originally posted for hmv.com/ca. It was written around the release of the band’s 2016 album, American Band, a fine record in its own right, and one that released just as Emperor Trump was ascending to his throne. This is discussed.
This year marks the 20 anniversary of Drive-By Truckers. Hailed by some as the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the U.S. today, the quintet is celebrating its two decades with an eleventh studio album pointedly titled American Band.
As with all but three previous releases (which featured contributions from guitarist Jason Isbell as well), co-founders Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood share songwriting credits, with Cooley barn-burners like “Ramon Casiano” and “Filthy and Fried” alternating with Hood’s more subdued, folkier-leaning songs, like “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” and “Sun Don’t Shine.”
What’s different from past releases are the songs’ lyrical punch. To borrow a phrase we’ve become all too familiar with in this contentious election year, the new record “doubles down” on the group’s left-leaning politics with scathing attacks on the forces dividing the U.S.
We talked to Hood about the new album, which comes out Sept. 30, The Clash and Kendrick Lamar, and the Lynyrd Skynyrd episode of Cameron Crowe’s Showtime TV series Roadies.
SC: There was a quote from your bandmate Mike Cooley recently, where he said “We’re having so much fun, there aren’t bad nights, there just aren’t any bad nights anymore.”
PH: I hope he didn’t jinx us! The band’s been consistently on fire for a pretty good while. The last several years have been really consistent, and then getting better and better anyway. This is a good time for the band.
SC: With the political content front and centre on the new album, does it become tiresome being a spokesman for political issues?
PH: The issues are tiresome. I don’t mind talking about it to the best of my ability. I’m not as tired of the questions as maybe some of the things that are causing the questions, or the things that inspired some of these songs. I’m very concerned about some things happening right now in our country and the world, for sure.
SC: You wrote one the songs on the new album, “What It Means,” two years ago, and that’s about the killing of Trayvon Martin.
PH: That was the first song I wrote for what became this record. I didn’t even think of it in terms of it being a Drive-By Truckers song or on a record. I was just trying to write it to get it out, because it was what was eating at me, and I knew if I could write about it, it would make me feel at least temporarily a little better. So I wrote the song, thinking I’d probably record it on my acoustic guitar with my phone, throw it on the internet and move on. At the time we had a pretty new record we were still touring behind (2014’s English Oceans), and I wasn’t really thinking in terms of making another Truckers record quite so fast. And honestly, I hoped the song would be dated and old news, and by the time we make another record hopefully things will have gotten better. Obviously that hasn’t been the case.
Drive-By Truckers, “What It Means” (lyric video)
And I played the song for the band and the band embraced it and made it their own. And then Cooley responded by playing his brand new song at the time, which was ‘Ramon Casiano’ (based on the story of a 15-year-old boy who was shot and killed in 1931 by Harlon B. Carter, who went on to head the National Rifle Association) and from there the floodgates opened. I started writing these other songs, and he started writing these other songs, and it came apparent just from following the songs what kind of record we were going to make.
The times are shitty but the songs are pretty good. I think it’s probably the best mess of songs we’ve probably ever made on a record. It’s pretty consistent start-to-finish. We had a pretty magical time recording this record.
SC: It’s somewhat of a consolation that times of crisis, if that’s what these are, can inspire some great art. You’ve mentioned The Clash’s 1979 album London Calling, which came out of Margaret Thatcher’s England, as a touchstone for the new record.
PH: London Calling was definitely a touchstone when we were discussing this record and how we wanted it to feel to a listener. We all grew up huge Clash fans. My complaint with political songs is that it comes off too much as preaching to the converted or comes off too much – I don’t know, the guy with the guitar, going ‘kumbaya’ or something. The Clash were able to turn pretty complex political issues into really rockin’ songs that sometimes you can even dance to. ‘Rock the Casbah’ is a great pop single but it’s also a political statement. That’s an art form in itself.
The other touchstone was some of the music in the hip-hop community, particularly Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels, and some of the things that they’re saying and doing. Obviously, we can’t rap (laughs) we’re not going to do that, it would suck. But to try to find a way in the realm of what we do to address things similarly was certainly a goal. I think (Lamar’s) To Pimp a Butterfly is the London Calling of our time. I think that when we look back on years from now as this era that record’s going to stand out as capturing a moment.
SC:Have you seen the Lynyrd Skynyrd episode of Roadies (Cameron Crowe’s Showtime series about the road crew of a fictional rock band)?
PH: I never saw the show. I can only imagine. They’re an interesting case. When I was growing up they were a pretty ubiquitous force, they were everywhere when I grew up. I was in the Muscle Shoals (Alabama) area, so they were literally there, they recorded there. My dad (musician David Hood) was friendly with them. His partner produced some of their earliest stuff, the album that became known as First and… Last. So I was always interested in the mythology. I got pretty knowledgeable about the mythology around them, both the truth and the fiction, and that was a big part of making Southern Rock Opera (Drive-By Truckers’ 2001 concept album), telling or using some of those stories for the story we were telling. We weren’t literally writing about them.
So yeah, I’d be interested in seeing it. I think Crowe wrote the liner notes for the 1976 live record, One More from the Road. So I’m sure he knows what he’s doing.