Patterson Hood On The Songwriting Life


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I started writing songs when I was eight years old. At least that’s when I started writing them down. That’s when I became aware that those sounds in my head were actually songs trying to get out. It was the beginning of a life-long quest to get those songs onto tape and out into the world. A 41- year odyssey that has led me to the life I lead and affected nearly every waking hour along the way.

Sometimes a song may start with an idea or a thought or a concept that I toss around in my head, or percolate for a period of time; sometimes days and sometimes years. I may have some inkling of what the future song is going to be “about,” and sometimes not. Often the actual writing of the song happens very fast. There have been ideas I tossed around for years but then wrote the actual song in a little longer than it takes to play it through or roughly the length of time it takes to actually write it down. Many of my better songs have happened this way.

Playing in Drive-By Truckers, I am one of two (sometimes three) principal writers in the band. My long-term music partner, Mike Cooley, is an excellent songwriter. I have the utmost respect for him as an artist and musician and he has written some of my all-time favorite songs. I push myself really hard to play well enough to do justice to the songs he writes and to be worthy of the trust he places on me in regards to performing his songs. I also want my songs to be worthy of sitting next to his on any album we make together. We have never had much of a competitive relationship with each other, as much as an inner-competitiveness to be as good as we can be and not let the other down. No one wants to write the worst song on the album and we all want to make as great an album as absolutely possible.

When I first began writing songs, and for many years into it, I knew that very few people would ever hear the songs I wrote. I was able to write purely for my own amusement and enjoyment and was free to follow my songs in any direction they wanted to go without having to think about how it would be accepted or received. That still was true even in the early days of playing in this band and that mindset was very helpful when it came to doing preposterous things like writing a “rock opera” about the post civil rights South and the rise and (literal) fall of a mythical arena rock band. After that album, Southern Rock Opera, received so much attention, I knew that whatever I wrote next would be scrutinized in ways I had never encountered before. I knew that it was inevitable to deal with this, but also didn’t want it to inhibit my writing or future output as an artist.

In many aspects of my life, I’ve been prone to over-thinking things, but in the songwriting process, I still work really hard at following gut instincts and trying to let the songs lead instead of the other way around. I still want to feel free to follow a seemingly ridiculous idea to fruition. Sometimes it works and sometimes not, but often the point is in the trying.

Sometimes after the percolation process, the actual song will start with a guitar chord progression or a riff or a line or a title. Sometimes the chorus will come first. Sometimes it’s literally like my antenna is picking up a song from somewhere in space. I just try to write it down as fast as I can before it’s gone. At times this happens without me even having a guitar or instrument to play until after the song is written and I then have to learn how to play it. (“Grand Canyon” on DBT’s latest album is an example of this method of writing, as it was written while riding down the road on the way to a show). I wrote for years before learning how to play guitar and it actually took me a long time to play well enough for it to not limit what I wrote.

As much as our band gets written about for guitars or for our shows or even our work ethic, we have always considered ourselves to be a songwriter band first and foremost. Our priority has always been and still remains to write the best songs we can and play them in the way the song calls out to us to be played. I’m still in constant search for something new to write about or some new way to write about something: a new song and a better song, a new tale to tell and a better way of telling it, a new notion and the best way to articulate it. It’s been an incredible and rewarding journey and I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without it.

This article appears in our September/October 2014 issue. Buy it here or download it here. Or better yet, subscribe. Photo of Patterson Hood by Andy Tennille.

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