Drive-By Truckers Do America

Drive-By Truckers
left to right: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez. Photos by Danny Clinch

“Most of these people believe that this was enshrined in the constitution to defend against a tyrannical government, but most of these people are also defense hawks — they want America to swing the biggest military dick in the world.”

Drive-By Trucker Mike Cooley is on the phone. It’s a Friday morning, and there’s been another mass shooting. The internet is having a panic attack and cable news has a content-boner. It caps off a week of protest and turmoil, screaming and kicking. The continent is in the grip of drought as it enters its ninth month of record-breaking heat. It’s 2016 and society seems to be fraying at the edges. America feels like it’s about to tear itself apart. Race, class and religion are pushing 300 million people in 300 million different directions. It is Friday in America.

“If they had their way they would cut everything and give it to defense and then a little bit more,” Cooley tells American Songwriter. “So on one hand they believe they have to keep their guns to defend themselves against this tyrannical government while on the other hand ensuring that they don’t stand a snowballs chance in hell of being successful. And this organization has them so brainwashed they can’t see how ass-brained stupid that is.”

Cooley’s Southern drawl and even demeanor underscores just how much thought he’s put into all of this, his delivery more charming professor than firebrand rock singer. The band are preparing to release American Band, their eleventh studio album and their most politically charged to date. American Band finds the Truckers firing on all cylinders, delivering one of the leanest, punchiest records of their two-decade long career. Bold and uncompromising, American Band is the Truckers-as-documentarians capturing and commenting on the Great American Fissure as it unfolds.

“I talked to Patterson the other day — read something, sent him a text —  and said enough has happened since we mastered this that we could write this entire album again with completely different events. It just never stops.”

*******

It’s Thursday in America. A couple of days have passed since any new horrifying violence has gripped the national consciousness. The day is still young and the nation still shaky from, well, everything. Rhetorical battles are playing out across lunch tables everywhere, mudslinging memes and manipulative videos are pouring into our newsfeed nationwide. Families are fighting, old friends are unfriending as opinions become fighting words and fighting words are all we’ve got left, apparently. Disaster has not struck today. Or rather, has not struck yet today. It’s Thursday afternoon, and Driver-by Trucker Patterson Hood is on the phone.

“Whatever you’re doing you need to do it, but I’ve got to get back to my phone call, honey. I love ya, but I gotta get this done.”

It’s evident from the noise pouring through the phone that the Hood home has been invaded by neighborhood kids, like some scene out of a sitcom. It’s in this moment that something becomes clear, as much as American Band is a political statement in the grand rock and roll tradition, it is also a document of parents worried about their future, trying to ensure a world that is safe and stronger and equitable for their kids. When Hood describes his ancestral journey from the shores of Ireland to Ellis Island down through the Appalachians in “Ever South,” it’s not just self-congratulatory genealogy. Hood is relaying that most important of reminders: In America we are all immigrants, and there is no place for xenophobia when it is capable of so much good.

“The day that I wrote that “What It Means” song, that guy had just landed that [space probe] on that comet, that had just happened, and that’s why it was in the song,” Patterson says. “It’s like, okay, we’re capable of so much better than what we are doing. We can do that, we can do some really cool shit, why can’t we quit shooting black boys that are walking down the street?

“Why can’t we get passed this 17th-century mentality? Can’t we evolve a little quicker in that respect? That was kind of the point from which this record sprung from – we’re capable of so much better. Can’t we do a little better than Donald Trump? Does it have to be that bad? That’s were Cooley and I were coming from in the writing part of this record.”

It’s a lesson that’s easy to forget, but one that is essential to our mutual survival, the sort of lesson a dad should pass on to his sons and daughters. Which goes back to one of the larger motifs that make American Band such a vital document — for all the fire within the lyrics, the tone of American Band is always fatherly, never paternalistic. Problems are identified, dissected and discussed but unlike so much of the political discourse in America circa 2016 there is no all-caps screaming, no meltdowns, no name-calling. (Okay, there’s a little bit of name-calling, but Cooley is a master of the sly, Southern zinger, and it wouldn’t be a DBT record without his quick-witted character sketches-cum-punchlines). American Band is worried, American Band is scared, but above all American Band keeps its cool as society waves matches at the tinder pile.

“As curmudgeonly as I can come off sounding I’m really not that curmudgeonly,” Hood says. “I’m a generally kind of optimistic guy — truly, in most ways — with a really dark, fatalistic, black sense of humor. It’s my river that runs through it [laughs]. I’m no Pollyanna but I’ve certainly got an optimism — I do think the world is slowly, inch by inch, getting better. But for every two steps up there’s a least a step back that occurs and that’s maddening and frustrating.

“I grew up in Alabama, as anyone that’s ever heard of us knows, during one of the darkest moments in time for our state. I grew up watching all of this, more aware than a kid should be about what my dad was doing and how that all kind of fell. I’ve used that as a source of such optimism and hope that we were turning corner on this racial bullshit – not that racism was over but that we were turning a corner – and the last eight years has been pretty disappointing watching that – now my yard has been invaded again.”

******

“No, I’ve never been worried about [offending listeners],” Cooley explains the next day, one rotation around the sun and one massacre later. “I think [listeners that would get offended] are in the minority. I think there have been people out there that have maybe missed the point, because a lot of these things have been in our material, they just have never been on the surface. They’ve never been right out there and as plainly spoken. They’ve always been part of a larger picture or part of a larger story in the context of a fictional character. I think there are folks that missed the point and maybe thought we had different leanings, so this is making it clear.

“I think people became fans because we didn’t seem to care about whether or not anybody liked it, I think that was part of what drew people to it, so why stop now? [laughs] Honey, this is what you loved about me when we met. Why is it all of a sudden a problem?”

The same could be said of the music on American Band. All politics aside, the Truckers have delivered their tautest, most focused record yet, packed with thrilling riffs and clever melodies — it is exactly what we loved about them when we met. American Band is an album with a sense of purpose, a sense of pride, a sense of identity. It is not merely a collection of songs but a conversation with the audience, a colloquy between bass and drum, keys and guitar, singer and listener. The songs never wander, the band never loses the plot, after 20 years and 12 records — including last year’s live It’s Great To Be Alive! — the band is sharper than ever, an all but unheard of feat in contemporary rock.

“In some ways it was easier than usual [to write], because I knew where I wanted to go,” Cooley continues. “I want to be true to myself too. I always strive for empathy with those I may seem to disagree with or seem to be calling out. And I tried to do it with this too and not so on the offensive, but attacking none the less.”

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