“I’m honestly pretty beat and haven’t had a lot of time decompressing,” Drive-By Truckers singer Patterson Hood confesses after the thump ‘n’ bump rockers finished a three-day stand at Athens, Georgia’s legendary 40 Watt Club. Never mind that he’s in full promo grind for DBT’s The Big To-Do, Hood is producing “some music for these street musicians from Ghana… or this guy who’s recorded these street musicians in Ghana.”
And so it goes for Hood, a man who may be the truest voice of the modern South currently making records. If their double record Southern Rock Opera earned his band—featuring fellow songwriter/founding member Mike Cooley and third writer/bassist Shonna Tucker—a coveted four star review in Rolling Stone by chronicling the rise and fall of the region in the ‘70s through the metaphoric saga of Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Big To-Do captures the stories and realities of Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Mississippi, Tennessee—anywhere trailer parks and punch-it-out living happens.
“I’ve always loved music that has a sense of place,” Hood explains. “The Queens aspect of the Ramones, the Jersey Shore part of Bruce Springsteen, the Athens, Georgia, part of R.E.M.—that early stuff that has such a strong sense of this place.
“The picture of the train trellis with the kudzu hanging off it—that’s within a mile of my house. That is a very dear place to me… and I can hear it in the songs. That [local grounding] has always interested me. I mean, my favorite era of Tom Petty is where he sang about where he came from; it didn’t necessarily sell the most, but it really struck me.”
The “where” certainly informs the Truckers’ work. From the raggedy post-cowpunk of their 1998 debut Gangstabilly, which delivered on all the influences that made the South what it was, to 2001’s epic Rock Opera epics “Ronnie & Neil” and “Wallace,” through 2004’s The Dirty South’s Buford T. Pusser trilogy, this is an aggregation that’s not afraid to embrace where they come from.
“Our sense of place has grown,” allows Hood. “People are pretty much the same but there are still cultural practices and morality that reflect places. Those differences are there, and that makes me curious… ‘cause even with the Internet and a certain homogenization, you have to see the good with the bad.
“Because of all that, [the South]’s getting less racist. That’s the thing about most great levelers; there’s good and bad to it. And what drives me is the dualities. That duality is 90 percent of it…”
His voice trails off, as if not wanting to anchor his band to a personal truth.
“Cooley’s writing has a pretty grand sense of place and a pretty broad duality to it. He might not think about it or be aware of that, but it’s there.”
Duality and contradiction have been a prominent part of Hood’s life since he was a small boy living outside Muscle Shoals. “I come from such a judgmental place, I think I rebelled against it by growing up and not judging… Even when I write, I just try to tell the story and recount the facts that intrigued me rather than drawing a conclusion.
“I felt so judged, growing up in a Bible Belt town, but my dad was a musician. He was the only person in his precinct who voted for Jesse Jackson that year. My dad was in a business they considered to be the problem. He played on rock records; he was on black records. They’d whisper because he hung out ‘with black people.’
“They sure didn’t know he knew Keith Richards! When the Stones came to town, they kept that quiet so they wouldn’t get shut down.
“Figure, I went to elementary school in 1970, which was just a year or two after they integrated the schools. It was a dry county. They didn’t get electricity until Roosevelt where I’m from.”
Taking things as what they are rather than deciding the good or bad of it has opened up a lot of ground for the ragtag band that seemingly draws on Neil Young, bare-knuckled Stones, Skynyrd, Petty, vintage Elvis Costello and a jangling Clash. That straight-up rock squall has prompted CNN.com to call DBT “the greatest rock band in America,” and fans to embrace the sinewy guitar-driven, chug-a-chug beats.
But there’s a secret ingredient. Beyond the tableau reality, the lashing three-guitar attack (“People make such a big deal about that, but really,” Hood protests, “everything we do is in service of the songs”) or the yowled lyrics, the X-factor comes from the electricity that is music played live.
“Anyone within driving distance,” comes Hood’s shocking admission. “Once a month, some B or C arena act would play Huntsville… and it didn’t matter if I liked the band or not, I was there. Lotta bands that were AOR [album-oriented rock] of that time: Styx, Ted Nugent, REO Speedwagon, Billy Squire…
“I saw Eddie Money, I swear, five times. Kansas… they opened three tours there, because Huntsville was a rehearsal town. A B-level band could afford to rent the arena for a week and rehearse their show. That was how some of the bigger acts came through…
“And you know, I didn’t care for their records, but it was a show! I wanted to be there… for the experience. When I finally got to see a band that I thought was great—Bruce Springsteen, the Pretenders—it was amazing.”
If Gangstabilly and 1999’s Pizza Deliverance weren’t Exile on Main Street, they were most certainly fueled by that white lightning and stray sparks kinetics of the live experience. And while DBT have been deemed No Depression’s Band of the Year in 2001, considered true road warriors, that live component is more than a means to an end.
“I didn’t wanna leave my family; my grandma and my great uncle still live in our hometown.” Hood begins, considering the root of his band’s creativity. “But I really wanted to make a go of it. I knew we had to move to a place where music is part of the daily living.
“You gotta have a gig to come home to if you’re gonna have a band that’s trying to make it touring… ‘cause you can make up the shortfall, but also you can recharge. I knew we could always come home to the 40 Watt, that Athens had that.
“But figure I was 30 when I moved to Athens, Georgia. It was the first time I could tell stories about my dad… and the fact that I could walk downtown and there were all those clubs where you could hear live acts… I suddenly lived in a place where I could see Vic Chesnutt play! You know, it was like ‘Wow! Something like that is happening locally?’
“There are no labels here, no music business—just a community that’s an artistic hierarchy. It’s not based on record sales. There are points for originality. That’s why it can nurture Vic Chesnutt, what R.E.M. started out to do, Pylon… and that makes a difference.
“If the 40 Watt wasn’t here, my house would be on the market the next day.”
The road isn’t a muse, but it offers a place to connect, to bring the songs alive. And sometimes it can be the trigger to know a song is supposed to happen. For Hood—who grew up knowing not to tell the other kids he didn’t go to church—it brought “The Wig He Made Her Wear” into clear focus not once, but twice.
“The genesis was hearing the story… and being in such an odd place when I did,” explains the gruff-voiced songwriter/rocker. “We were on tour in Norway… and a woman in a town 35 miles from where I grew up murders her husband. But it’s more than that initially: a well-known preacher in town is murdered, his wife is missing, the kids are missing… It’s pretty sensational. Sensational enough that it’s on the news in Norway.
“Normally that sensational stuff turns me off, I find it distasteful, but this was so close to home. I felt like I knew the people even though I didn’t know ‘em personally. Figure 45 percent of the people in my hometown belong to the same kind of church—and it’s very conservative.
“So, it was too close to home and it was so far away all at once. It got my attention, and it captured my imagination. All the questions: ‘Why’d she do it?,’ ‘Why’d she kill him in cold blood?,’ ‘Is she gonna get the death penalty?’
“That life becomes a pressure cooker. The effects of religiosity on people has been something I’ve tended to write about on a fairly regular basis. But this… this was such an extreme. Though even after all that, I was paying attention, but… it wasn’t a song… yet.”
As the details trickled out, Hood was aware, but not obsessed. He knew the people, he understood the drives. Then a random occurrence happened.
“I was in this crappy hotel room in Hernando, Mississippi, with my wife and kids… we’d gone to visit friends… and the crappy TV in the room was on… It was Court TV, which I never watch… and… it’s… her!
“They had her on the witness stand, which people rarely do with defendants, and they’re making the case that she endured such psychological abuse, she snapped. Suddenly, they pulled out the wig and the boots he, this preacher, made her wear when he wanted to have kinky sex… and there was an audible gasp in the court room.
“The second I heard that gasp, I knew… I knew I was gonna write about it, and I knew she was gonna get off. A month before all people were talking about was, ‘Is it gonna be the electric chair or lethal injection?’ Suddenly, it’s a whole new deal.”
Inspiration and gestation are two very different things for Hood. Knowing he’s going to write about something is one thing; the moment when it’s ready to happen is another. The secret is being open.
“It was like that story was following me around,” he shares. “But I’d say I wrote the song in probably an hour. I made an outline of what I had, a couple key images… I checked a few facts, and then I finished it out.
“It’s strange. For me, the actual writing is almost like someone playing a record. I may think about a song for a couple of years, but then it just pours out. I will pick up a pencil and just write it down. If I miss a line, I usually don’t get it back… It’s gone.
“But I’m lucky. I’ve written so many songs, I can usually tune into ‘that station’ when I need to… I can concentrate once I know it’s there. And it’s been like that since I was eight years old, you know, the songs were just… there. I probably had ‘em in my head before that, but it just didn’t occur to me to tune into it, or to write ‘em down.”
Hood pauses, thinks about what he’s about to share. “You can pinpoint the exact month I started songs… My grades went down 15, 20 points across the board. I was so busy thinking about and writing songs, nothing else registered… and I pretty much dreamed my way out of college, too.
“But the one thing I can say: there were times when I was playing guitar, times when I wasn’t playing guitar, times when I was dreaming of being a rock star—and times when I was trying to do anything else because I didn’t think I was good enough… but I was always writing songs.
“And that’s what’s driven me… and Cooley… and this band. Everything was in the service of the songs. We added the third guitar player because Southern Rock Opera was about a ‘70s Southern rock band, and the authentic way to do that was a third guitar player.
“But we followed the songs… and where they take us. I mean, Cooley and I had been together 12, 13 years and were a complete business failure when we came up with the notion of Southern Rock Opera. We’d tell people we wanted to do a double album like that, and they’d tell us we were crazy… and the ones who wouldn’t tell us, you could see it on their faces.
“I was in my mid-30s. All the people who’d started out doing this had moved on to other things. But we believed in it… and we ended up having our biggest success with something so ill-advised. You think about that, you know?”
Southern Rock Opera solidified the Truckers’ place as a live band to be reckoned with, the true voice of the populist South and social commentators who could find bigger truths in personal moments. It was the subtle undertow that got listeners.
“We never set out to make an accessible record, nor have we set out to make an inaccessible record. It’s weird, certainly, but maybe in a more accessible way than some of our other records… because we’re always trying to grow what we do, based on a good bunch of songs.
“We don’t have any guidelines beyond let the record be what it’s supposed to be based on the songs. There’s a very strong populist streak that runs through this band. We knew we wanted to make a record that was a little more immediate… and we had the title The Big To-Do from before we even finished the last one [Brighter than Creation’s Dark]. Shonna came up with it, and we knew.”
Certainly the state of the working class—“This F***ing Job,” “Get Downtown”—and erosion of musical landscapes and relationships—“After the Scene Dies,” “(It’s Gonna Be) I Told You So,” even the morbidly funny “Drag the Lake Charlie”—offer a intensity in the recognition that challenges where you are. It is the lash of the guitars that sting you, but it’s the words that burn long after the songs are over.
“People along the way thinking we were good, thinking we said something,” he surmises. “That makes them come to see the band and maybe buy a t-shirt. We deliver, say something that they wanna hear—they come back. That seems like the best way to feed my family doing this.
“Health insurance is killing my ass,” he continues. “But it’s the people-to-people aspect that makes me feel… solid in this… and the idea of growing the songs, the music. That is what drives us. That is what sets us apart… ‘cause I don’t think we get those gigs with other people because we’re the most technical musicians.” The Drive-By Truckers have served as backing band on Bettye LeVette’s chart-topping blues album Scene of the Crime (Hood co-produced) and Booker T’s Grammy-winning Potato Hole.
“I think people call us because we’re this live rock band who slug it out on the road every night. The way we come at a song is completely different. It’s as a whole, and it’s about attacking the songs for what they are and what we can make them.
“In the end, that’s really all you can do.”
Hood isn’t just philosophical. He’s sincere about what drives DBT. In most hands, it would be a cliché, but for Hood, Cooley, Tucker, et al., it is a challenge, a reason to keep pushing. With The Big To-Do, it’s about turning the pilot light down and burning a little hotter, brighter—and the end result does just that.