Drive-By Truckers: The Personal is Political

The Drive-By Truckers have always paired incisive, thoughtful lyrics with their supercharged country-rock sound. From their 1998 debut, Gangstabilly to their latest album, 2016’s American Band, the Athens, Georgia based group has resolutely charted its own path.

The group’s 11th album, American Band, is being enthusiastically reviewed in many quarters; it’s showing up on more than a few “best of 2016” lists. The album is also getting noticed for the political nature of much of its lyrics. Band leader (and, with Mike Cooley, one of the group’s two primary songwriters) Patterson Hood is a bit surprised at that reaction. “There’s always been a political aspect to our writing,” he says. “I just think the language is more direct now.”

Hood points to a long list of titles from the Athens, Georgia-based band’s back catalog. “’The Living Bubba’ on our first album [1998’s Gangstabilly] was about a musician dying of AIDS.” He noes that some listeners classify songs as either personal or political. “Actually, the political is personal,” Hood insists.

“I don’t understand the disconnect about why things have to be looked at as one or the other,” he says. One approach that Hood has used to tackle issues he’s concerned about is to set his story-songs in another era. “Puttin’ People on the Moon” from the group’s acclaimed The Dirty South is set in the Reagan era, “but all the things it’s about were still happening,” Hood says. “I considered it to be as timely in the 2004 election as it was in 1984.”

For American Band, the Drive-By Truckers removed the period-piece element from most of the songwriting; the result is an album that feels more direct, less allegorical. Many of the songs explore what Hood perceptively characterizes in the album’s liner note essay as this country’s cultural divide. “For all the talk about a red-state / blue-state divide,” Hood writes, “I think it often comes down more to an urban / rural division.”

And though he’s a son of the South – born in the Shoals region of northern Alabama – Patterson Hood knows which side of the divide he’s on. “I’ve grown up around people voting against their best interest,” he says. “I came of age in the era of [George] Wallace, and I saw the damage it did to our state. Not just to the people that we were trying to oppress, but to ourselves.”

“I don’t see any of the things we were [writing] about on this record changing for the better any time soon, unfortunately,” he says. “And I was much more optimistic when we made the record than I am now.” He notes that Alabama is “ranked at the bottom five of almost every list you put it in. Yet we continue voting for assholes like [Republican senator] Jeff Sessions who put and keep us there.” Faced with the reminder that Sessions is president Donald Trump’s choice for U.S. Attorney General, Hood roars, “So America’s going to be Alabama now. Congratu-fucking-lations!”

Growing up in northern Alabama in the shadows of FAME and Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, one would have expected songwriter-guitarist Patterson Hood to have absorbed the influences of country and southern soul. And indeed he has, but there’s much more to his musical sensibility.

“A big touchstone for this album was The Clash,” Hood admits. “Them … and Tom T. Hall.”

Hood concedes that name-checking those two “might seem like an odd combination,” but it’s one he stands by. He cites a particular song that country music giant Hall wrote in 1973, about the George McGovern campaign and the Watergate break-in. He describes “Watergate Blues” as “a kind of cautionary tale of where our country was headed. When I was writing ‘What it Means’ for American Band, I definitely drew on his way of telling a story.” Hood also mentions the music and lyrics of Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye as sources of inspiration.

The Clash influenced the making of American Band, too. “Whenever we were trying to figure out how to approach something for this record, it was, ‘What would The Clash do?’” He readily admits that the Drive-By Truckers don’t sound anything at all like the 1970s-era British punk band. “But we’re all hugely influenced by how they operated as a band, how they approached their work and music and art and politics.”

Another major influence – “but not in the obvious ways,” says Hood – is David Hood. “I knew from what he did, and the fact that he was able to do it, that he was able to support our family growing up,” Hood says. “That made me aware of the possibilities.” But in fact Patterson Hood never wanted to be a session cat like his dad. In fact for a long time, he couldn’t even play an instrument. “I was a songwriter first,” Hood says. “I wanted to play in the service of my songs. It was about six years into songwriting when I thought, ‘I guess I need to learn how to play something!’”

But growing up with a session musician for a father did open Hood’s eyes to the possibility that he could make a living as a musician. “It didn’t occur to me until years and years later that it might not actually work out that way,” he laughs. “But I continued to do it anyway, and eventually it did work out. And I’m grateful for that. I always wanted to be that guy onstage. I wanted to be that guy with the guitar, and hot girls in the audience.”

While Hood concedes that his dad played on some “truly awful”sessions – he mentions Mary MacGregor‘s treacly 1976 smash hit “Torn Between Two Lovers” as a prime example – he notes that David Hood’s playing is “spot-on. He was a professional guy, doing his job. So he played just as well – in fact, he might argue better – on ‘Torn Between Two Lovers’ as he did on [Paul Simon‘s] ‘Kodachrome.’ Because the job required it.”

The Drive-By Truckers have long been a rather organized, no-nonsense organization. Erratic, problem personalities were dismissed without fanfare. Patterson Hood credits his father’s work ethic as an influence upon his own approach to music and the music business. “He showed up,” Hood states simply, echoing that philosophy. “You show up on time or early, you show up prepared, and you do your job. If a session is a shitty song, you still play the fuck out of it, and you don’t leave until it’s done. He taught me all that, and then some.”

Patterson Hood applies that mindset to his band. With longtime associate David Barbe at the production console, American Band was cut in a mere six days. “Our band has a pretty amazing work ethic, which is I think what’s enabled us to survive this long,” he says. “Because we went in and we hunkered down and we just did it. And it served us well out there on the road.”

That rigor extends to songwriting, too. Hood often writes story-songs for the band that are based upon historical events. While American Band represents something of a shift to writing about present-day, the track “Ramon Casiano” has it both ways: while Hood notes that the song’s lyrics “talk to the here-and-now,” the story itself concerns a murder that took place in 1931. “It makes its case for things not having changed, for its own timeliness,” Hood says.

Hood explains that he does a lot of research to make sure he gets his facts right. “As we were writing [2001’s] Southern Rock Opera, I tended to write first, and then go back and do fact-checking,” he recalls. “I wanted to make sure that I could back up what I said. I didn’t want anyone to be able to call bullshit on something [with] me not being able to back it up with facts.”

Hood writes about the things that matter to him. Does he feel a responsibility to pen a certain kind of song? “I think I have a responsibility to write the best song I possibly can, about whatever I’m writing about,” he says. “ And I have a responsibility to not spout out a lot of bullshit.” To that end, Hood makes sure to do deep research whenever he writes about a subject. “If I say something, I need to be able to back it up,” he says. “Because even if the song itself is a piece of fiction, it needs to be based upon a truth.”

Portions of this feature were published previously in the pages of Colorado Springs Independent and Chicago New City.