The Righteous Path: A Conversation with Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers

Drive-By Truckers Shonna Tucker, Mike Cooley, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, John Neff.

Singer/songwriter/guitarists Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley had already been struggling to make music together for more than a decade when they formed the Drive-By Truckers in 1996. As the 1999 live album Alabama Ass Whuppin’ documents, this early incarnation of their band — which also featured drummer Brad Morgan, the only other founding member who has remained amid several lineup changes — was an explosive unit that specialized in bitterly funny slice-of-life alt-country-rock, mostly about working-class or sub-working-class characters (many of them non-fictional), all from the South.

The 2001 double-album Southern Rock Opera was the watershed release that earned the band widespread critical praise and a national fan base. A loose biography of Lynyrd Skynrd that uses that iconic Southern rock band as a kind of metaphor for the region (with its myriad racial, political, and economic struggles) as a whole, the album brought all the Truckers’ strengths together, marrying Springsteen-like characterization and narrative detail to crunchy guitar riffs as hard as anything in the AC/DC catalogue.

The seven years since have been a blur for the band: Four more remarkably strong albums, the entrance and departure of third singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, and a punishing touring schedule. The group had intended to spend 2007 taking it easy. Instead, they made a Grammy-nominated record with soul singer Bettye LaVette, then played an acoustic tour, revisiting neglected old songs and road-testing new ones. Most of those new songs turned up on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, the 19-song, 75-minute album that came out in January. Less geographically specific than their earlier records, but no less ambitious, the album has been widely hailed as their best since Southern Rock Opera — the kind of accolade that will probably haunt them for the rest of their careers. They celebrated, naturally, by hitting the road. They play the 9:30 Club tonight and Saturday night.

Patterson Hood, like most of the band, grew up in Northern Alabama. His father, David Hood, is a session player whose bass and trombone can be heard on many mid-to-late-1960s hits by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Percy Sledge. Patterson writes and sings the majority of Drive By Truckers songs, having penned a dozen of the new album’s nineteen. I caught up with him last night in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on his break between soundcheck and the show. (Proof, as if any more were required, that he’s an incurable workaholic.)

Congratulations on Brighter Than Creation’s Dark — it’s one of your strongest records. One of the surprises here is [bassist] Shonna Tucker, who on her third album as a full-fledged member of the band suddenly writes and sings three songs — three really good songs. Where you and Mike surprised when that happened?

Not too surprised. I figured it was inevitably going to happen when she was ready. She was working on a couple of things back [in 2005] when we were doing A Blessing and a Curse. We’d hear her in the back room working on things, and then we’d ask her about it, and she’d say, “I don’t know. I don’t think it’s ready.” We were just waiting for her to do it at her own pace. She’s been writing songs for years. Her songs are great. But she’s had her hands full. [Tucker’s ex-husband, Jason Isbell, announced his departure after five years with the band in April of 2007.]

There’s no shortage of songs, ever. But the timing was right this time. She pretty much came on the first day and played us demos that she had four-tracked in her living room by herself of “The Purgatory Line” and “I’m Sorry, Houston.” We were all just kind of blown away — we were like, “Hell, yeah!” And then she wrote “Home Field Advantage” at the studio, actually during a dinner break. So we got a bonus.

It’s astounding, how much her voice feels right at home with the band.

I love her harmonies. I’d been wanting her to do more harmony singing for a while anyway. So I was glad the time was right for her to step up and start doing it — it’s really added a whole new dimension to our sound. I sure like the way her voice mixes with mine and with Cooley’s.

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The dynamic of you and Mike Cooley as dual frontmen is a fairly unique feature of your band. It’s hard to think of another group that has two equally strong, full-time singer/songwriters. You two have been playing together for more than 20 years —was that always the deal, that you two would both write and sing your own material?

You know, it’s funny, because we played together in Adam’s House Cat back in the 80s and early 90s, and in that band, I wrote all the songs. I think Cooley might’ve occasionally sang a song, like a cover or something that he might pull out once in a blue moon, but for the most part, I wrote and sang everything. And I was always telling him, “You ought to write.” He’d say some crazy shit, and I’d say, “You should write that down. You should write a song.” They way he spoke sometimes, to me, sounded like lyrics. And he’d always make some kind of remark like, “Ah, the band’s already got a songwriter.”

By the time we started this band, he’d already been writing songs. In this band, it was always an open door: “I want to do as many of your songs as you want to do.”

Hell, I love his songs. He usually writes my favorite songs on the records anyway. Some of my favorite times of the night are when I get to be a guitar player and sing backup vocals on [his] really great songs.

He’s got seven on this album, I think.

Yeah, that’s a record for him. And they’re all so strong, too. Each one of them is kind of a key point on this record.

Right now is a good time. Everything is kind of clicking on all fronts for us. The tour is going real good. People have liked this record. It looks like it’s going to be our best-selling record. It’s funny, because in some ways it’s probably the least commercial thing we’ve done. But it’s really caught on with people.

The title, Brighter than Creation’s Dark — I know it’s a lyric from “Checkout Time in Vegas,” but it’s a mouthful. Some of other titles you considered, like “The Home Front,” definitely sounded more T-shirt-ready.

Urban Bovine Kenievel? [Laughs.] That one came in second.

Well, that’s a very funny line, but song it comes from, “The Opening Act”, is quite somber.

Yeah. I love that. My favorite movies are serious movies that are funny. I think that sometimes the most painful truths are best delivered with a little bit of humor, or at least a sideways glance. Especially on that song, there’re moments that kind of split that difference: “Is that supposed to be funny, or is that not supposed to be funny?” And if it’s not, why am I laughing at it?

To me, that’s how that song succeeds, maybe: the way it blurs the lines.

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Since you brought it up, what are some movies that fit that description for you?

Well, Dr. Strangelove is just the best. What’s darker than world apocalypse? And yet it’s one of the funniest films ever made. Some of the humor is really highbrow, and some of it’s really lowbrow. It’s all there.

Ray McKinnon’s short film The Accountant inspired our song “Sink Hole” a few years ago. It’s an Academy Award-winning short film this Georgia guy made, and it’s just phenomenal. It’s about two brothers trying to save their family farm —in some of the most hideous, horrible ways imaginable. It’s a really funny film, with a very biting social commentary going on, not necessarily under the surface, but on the surface. It captures a lot of what I hope our records capture, when they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

I was trying to figure out how you — more you personally than the band, necessarily — manage to pull off that balance of humor and pathos, and I think of big part of it is your candor. I don’t mean only in the songwriting, but just in the way you present yourself to your audience, in your postings on your website and liner notes and all of that. It isn’t confessional, and certainly isn’t the least bit self-pitying — you’re just incredibly open about whatever emotional state you’re in, whether it’s joy or misery, in a way that seems almost at odds with the job requirement of someone who earns their living as a performer. You don’t seem to have much a façade at all. As the band gets bigger, do you think you might need to put a little more distance between yourself and your fans?

I don’t know. That’s a scary question. Some of the artists I love the most who kind of have their entire careers built on being real people — there’s still a certain amount of persona involved. There just has to be. Bruce Springsteen has to go home sometimes and kick his shoes up and laugh about that guy, that role he’s played, even though I would use him as an example of one of the most down-to-Earth, untarnished-by-all-this-shit rock stars.

Neil Young would be another example: He’s a rich rock star who lives on a ranch bigger than some states, but he’s also extremely down-to-Earth. And his songs have retained that, even though he hasn’t been an ordinary Joe, and he probably wasn’t, [even] when he was an unknown guy with a guitar.

You read the Dylan Chronicles book, and it makes a really valid case for why maybe you shouldn’t let people you don’t know [get] too close. I think he got a little too close and one time, and he had to retreat. I can understand that. But I don’t know if we’ll ever really have that level of fame either, so it may be a moot point. Which is okay with me — I kind of too old to be a rock star now.

I’m pretty content if I can maintain and maybe build on this fan base we’ve got. If I’m able to continue doing it, I’m pretty happy. I find making records to be really rewarding, especially right now, while it’s going right. Most of my big ambitions involve records I want to make. [Laughs.]

You haven’t made a secret of the fact that the period immediately preceding this record was a rough patch for the band, with Jason leaving and general exhaustion from something like five or six years of nonstop touring. And yet somehow you came back with what’s arguably your strongest record, both on the strength of the new stuff and the songs that were left over from earlier albums: “Goode’s Field Road.” “You and Your Crystal Meth.”

This record was a fertile period. There were a lot of songs to choose from.

I am really glad we finally found a home for “Goode’s Field Road.” I wrote that particular song back when we were still working on Southern Rock Opera. Of course, I knew when I wrote it it wasn’t for that record. So had I kind of earmarked it for [later], and then there was, like, a four-year period before we got along to recording it for The Dirty South. And then we cut it, like, three different times while we were making that record, and we just never had it. I’d listen to it and think, “It’s okay, but I like the song better than I like this performance.” So it sat on the shelf for two more records.

We kind of locked in to what it is on this record almost accidentally. The take on the record is, for practical purposes, a jam session. We started playing that riff — or whatever it is the song becomes — and I just starting singing it, and everybody kind of lit up: “That’s kind of cool; let’s roll the tape.” It was unplanned and just kind of natural.

There’re a lot of mistakes on the version on the record, and we intentionally left them on because we just liked them. Some of the mistakes we actually incorporated into the song when we learned how to play it live. It’s like, “Okay, remember when we forgot to make this change? Let’s keep doing that.”

You produced and played on Bettye LaVette’s Scene of the Crime album last year, which has been nominated for a Grammy now. Did you choose the songs for her to sing on that?

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Hell, no! I’d never choose a Don Henley song! [Laughs.] I had nothing to do with that, nor did did anybody else that wasn’t Bettye LaVette! I personally pitched her, I think, 50 songs, and she shot down every single one of ‘em. Andy Kaulkin from Anti Records — it was his idea to put us together — he pitched her 60, and I think we might have cut two of ‘em.

Some of the shit she turned down was just off-the-hook cool, but she didn’t want anything to do with it.

Well, now you’ve got to name some of the songs she refused.

“House Where Nobody Lives,” a Tom Waits song off of Mule Variations. Neil Young — [sings] “Dead man, lying by the side of the road” — is that “Don’t Let It Bring You Down”?

I wrote four that I pitched, and that she didn’t want anything to do with. Of course, we ended up writing that song together [“Before the Money Came (The Ballad of Bettye LaVette)]. I still can’t believe that happened. Nick Lowe’s “Homewrecker” would’ve been great. As far as the record ended up almost telling a story, that particular one wouldn’t have fit, so as a producer I’d have pulled that one myself. But I’d love to hear her sing it. I mean, God damn, that’s a great song.

The Tom Waits song probably could’ve fit the structure of the record pretty well. And that Neil Young song — Cooley would’ve made it fit.

The other big one was “This Is Love” by P. J. Harvey —

That would’ve been amazing!

I pitched that one to her. I wanted to build it on an Sly and the Family Stone kind of funk riff thing, just kind of tear it down from its original structure. Almost like a “Superstition” Stevie Wonder thing with the clavinet — I was going to get Spooner [Oldham, the legendary session player who is on about 250 songs you would recognize, going back to the 60s] to play the clavinet on that. I had this arrangement worked up that was just smokin.’

I’m ready to buy the box set from those sessions now.

It never happened. She came in, we played it for her, and she’s like, “Hell, no! I’m not doing that shit!” [Laughs.]

Well, by now, plenty of people have heard the story of the Bettye LaVette album that your father, [Muscle Shoals session player] David Hood, played on in the 70s, and then it didn’t come out for 30-plus years. But now she’s had this late-career resurgence. You and Mike started playing together in 1985, and it wasn’t until Southern Rock Opera in 2001 that your band finally started to get some profile. So you guys and Bettye have that in common.

I think that’s one of the things Andy realized. It’s fun to bad-mouth record company people, but every now and then you meet somebody who’s the real deal. And that guy is brilliant. For him to have the foresight to see that pairing — he completely visualized how he thought it would be, and I think that’s pretty much what he ended up with. And that was without knowing any of us! He had never seen us live. He had our records and was evidently a fan, but he’d never seen us, and we’d never met Bettye. But he heard something in our music that made him think that we had that in us. And of course, we did!

We had been wanting to do something like that for so long. That’s, like, a dream project for all of us, to get to work with a soul legend and make a soul record; to put our stamp on that kind of record. Hell, that’s the family business for me, and yet I’d never done it! I was a kid when that was happening. So it was a dream come true. You’ve got to be careful what you dream, though. [Laughs.]

[Andy] saw a certain kindred spirit. He knew we had survived by being this we’re-not-going-to-take-any-shit-off-of-anybody kind of organization. That’s how we had survived for so long on so little, and that was how she survived. The risk he took was that we’d all kill each other before he got a record! I think he thought that the professionalism we all have would be his one saving grace, and I guess it was. Because we can’t really kill each other; we’ve got a job to do. And once we finish the job, there’s no reason to kill each other.

I love Bettye. And I think, in the end, she loves me, too.

She spoke admiringly of the band when she played here in DC last fall.

Once the record was made, she saw that we really weren’t out to fuck her up or fuck her over. Though whole time, she was so sure we were going to, I guess because everybody did for so long. It’s understandable. That’s what we had to tell ourselves while it was going on: Bettye is this way for a reason. She’s this way because she’s had to be this way. We’d kind of remind ourselves of that every hour or so. She yelled at us a lot. But I can take that, and I knew we were doing good work.

She didn’t know who we were. To her, we were just a bunch of crazy people she’d been paired with who were going to bury her voice under a wall of guitars. Hell, I picked her up to go to the studio the first day — she hadn’t even met the rest of the band yet — and we’re in the car and she goes, “Well, I’ll tell you one motherfuckin’ thing: If you think you’re going to bury my voice under a bunch of motherfuckin’ guitars like you do on each and every one of your records, you’ve got another thing coming, because I think y’alls guitars suck!”

[Laughs.] She ranted for, like, 20 minutes, the entire drive to the studio. That’s how it started. And I was like, “Honey, you can sing louder than all our amps anyway.” What the fuck? [Laughs.]

Let’s talk about your shows. I know from your liner notes that you sequence your albums very carefully, but when you play, you don’t use a setlist, right?

No. It’s a clusterfuck! But that’s the goal: for [the show] to still be sequenced right, without planning it. Some nights, it don’t work. [Laughs.] Some nights it goes off one deep end or another. I never know when I point to Cooley which way he’s gonna take it. And Shonna . . . there’s only two or three ways she can go now, but as we start doing more of her songs in the future, that’ll add another element of surprise.

But that’s part of the fun of it, that sense of anarchy. We’ve been able to retain that as we’ve moved into bigger rooms. There’s maybe a little more professionalism in some aspects of [the show], but hopefully not too much.

We’re a democracy as a band, in our decision-making. But whenever possible, it’s also anarchy.

Well, about that: You guys drink a lot of whiskey onstage. Your shows tend to hit the 2.5-hour mark pretty consistently, and they’re physically very intense — you’re sweating bullets up there. Do you ever sneak offstage to pound a Gatorade or something?

I’m a big believer in re-hydrating yourself. I’m big believer in, whenever possible, pounding some water to balance it out. Otherwise, that shit’ll kill ya!

You guys previewed and worked out a lot of the material from Brighter Than Creation’s Dark on an acoustic, or partially acoustic, tour last year. You’re back to the Big, Loud Rock Show now?

Oh, yeah. At the beginning of the tour [in January], that was a real challenge, because the record was conceived, more or less, onstage during our acoustic show. Electrifying the songs is one thing. But then to apply songs that are this introverted to something as extroverted as our rock show, and have it be true to both, is a weird, delicate balance.

The first few shows were good — interesting, maybe — but they weren’t quite where I was wanting ‘em to be, because we were still trying to find out how to transition these songs into that kind of thing. But about a week or so into the tour, it found its thing in a big way.

It’s morphed into my favorite show that we’ve ever toured behind. It’s really mean.

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It always seemed like closing with Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” was the only sure thing in the set.

That still happens some nights. That song just won’t die. It’s not even our song, but it’s just such a great place to end the night. We certainly don’t do it every night, because that would become a bore, but we do it more often than we probably ought to, just because it’s so fun.

I’ve been covering that song since it was new. That was about the only song they’d let me sing in the band I was in in high school, because nobody else wanted to bother to learn the words. Then Adam’s House Cat covered it, and this band, too, pretty much from day one. Even when we were doing a more country kind of thing, withthe first record [1998’s Gangstability] — upright bass, mandolin, and all that — we still found a way to rock that song out.

Last question: The country has been totally polarized for the last eight years, to a point where we hear the modifier “red state” or “blue state” applied to everything now, which to me seems to reduce everybody to a caricature based on where they’re from. I wonder if many urban or surburban DBT fans have a more nuanced perception of the South than they might’ve before they heard your songs. Is that something you’re conscious of, or that you think about when you’re writing?

Sure. When we wrote our earlier records, none of us had ever really lived outside of the South or spent any time outside of the South. I’m a big believer in “write what you know,” and that’s where we were. And of course, starting with Southern Rock Opera, we were just touring all the time. I’ve spent a lot of the last 10 years all over America — some other countries, too, but especially America.

You can be in Seattle, which is a pretty cosmopolitan, liberal, blue-state American city, but get in your car and drive 25 minutes outside of town, and it could be Georgia with different trees. The accent is a little different. It may be a different industry that’s shutting down. [Laughs.] But by God, it’s the same motherfuckin’ Wal-Mart shutting the local businesses down in every town in America.

Alabama went to Obama by a big margin. The boundaries and the lines aren’t where they used to be.

Drive-By Truckers perform tonight and tomorrow at the 9:30 Club. Patterson Hood urges DBT fans to arrive in time to catch opening act The Dexateens: “They’re fucking great!”

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