Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers Speaks with Dave Steinfeld
The Drive-By Truckers are an anomaly in the world of rock and roll. In the liner notes of the band’s new album, The Unraveling, head Trucker Patterson Hood writes, “Dualities have always been an obsession of mine and to some extent [of] the band itself. Being raised liberal in Alabama probably lends itself to that.” There you go. For the last 20-odd years, the Truckers have been in a position that (on the surface at least) seems incongruent. On the one hand, they are a hard-hitting rock and roll band from the South — the type that had they come up in the 1970s instead of in the ‘90s, would have found a home alongside Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. On the other hand, they’re a socially conscious group of guys who traffic in heavy subject matter and tell inconvenient truths.
The Unraveling is the Truckers’ 12th studio outing to date and it pretty much picks up where their last disc, 2016’s American Band, left off. That album was released literally two months before Donald Trump won the election and was, among other things, a portent of things to come. Hood has said more than once that the band originally intended to go in a different direction this time around. But when he, fellow singer-guitarist Mike Cooley and their cohorts looked around at the mess that this country has become, they decided to shelve the songs they’d initially written and make their second sociopolitical record in a row. The Unraveling is also unique in that it includes only nine songs and because the gap of three-and-a-half years between it and American Band was a record for the Truckers. In addition to their other strengths, this is a prolific band!
So what you have here is a concise album that offers further commentary on what it’s like to be alive in Donald Trump’s America — or to be fucked, depending on how you see things. As usual, the Truckers don’t have any definitive answers but they ask the right questions. After the opening track, the deceptively pretty “Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun,” The Unraveling blasts wide open. The music gets harder and the subject matter gets darker, with songs about mass shootings (“Thoughts and Prayers”), drug epidemics (“Heroin Again”) and the present border fiasco (“Babies in Cages”). But despite all that heaviness, the hardest hitting line on the disc may be in the relatively sedate “21st Century USA” when Hood sings, “If Amazon can deliver salvation, I’ll order it up on my phone/With Big Brother watching me always, why must I feel so alone?”
In addition to Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the Truckers are rounded out these days by keyboardist Jay Gonzalez, bassist Matt Patton and drummer Brad Morgan. The Unraveling was recorded in Memphis with longtime producer David Barbe. I had a chance to talk with Hood on the eve of the album’s release.
Dave Steinfeld (DS): Your 12th album, The Unraveling, is officially out tomorrow… I wanted to start by asking you about the recording process. If what I read is correct, you recorded the whole thing in a week in Memphis?
Patterson Hood (PH): Yes, really quickly! It’s kind of funny, because it was such a hard record to write and it’s such a dark record. But the recording of it was kinda joyous. We had always wanted to [make] a record in Memphis — and specifically at Sam Phillips’ old studio, Sam Phillips’ Recording Service. He sold Sun and then threw all his money into building his dream studio. So it’s like state of the art 1961, basically. It has crazy echo chambers — three of them — that he designed and built. All of that played into the recording.
DS: So in a way, the recording itself was a longtime dream for you and Cooley.
PH: Yeah. It was all kinda cathartic.
The band’s in a really good place. We play really well together, we all get along and have fun, and everybody had kind of a united sense of purpose about these songs and what to do with ‘em. Most of it was recorded live in the studio — you know, all of us kinda facing each other and stuff kinda bleeding into each other.
DS: One of the songs I wanted to ask you about was [the first single] “Thoughts and Prayers.”
PH: “Thoughts and Prayers” was definitely influenced not only by all the shit in the news but by my kids coming home from school after having [been] traumatized by lockdown drills, for Christ’s sake! You have 21 kids in a closet not knowing if it’s a drill or if there’s actually something going on in the school. It’s terrifying. Some of us grew up in the Cold War, you know, afraid of this nuclear apocalypse that we [thought] could happen at any minute. But this is like — it’s so personal when it’s happening in your kids’ school.
So many of the songs on this record were directly influenced by conversations that I had with my kids. My son’s 10 and my daughter’s about to turn 15.
DS: How do you raise two kids in America these days and try to balance giving them hope [with] being honest with them about what’s going on?
PH: I don’t know! It’s a work in progress. I will say, they’re wonderful kids. I’m lucky in that regard. Any optimism I’m able to hang onto is a result of them and their friends. The young people in general that I’m around, you know — our crew are all these mid-20s people who are amazing. They work their asses off and they’re so smart. I’m thinking, “God, I was a fuckup when I was their age! (laughter) How did you get to be so smart at 25?.. ‘Cause when I was 25, I was not being smart!
DS: Another song that I wanted to ask you about — and I think you said this is the song that sort of broke the writer’s block that you and Cooley were having — was “21st Century USA.” [It’s] very poignant — maybe a little less political but very much a character study of what it’s like to live in America in 2020.
PH: You know, it’s funny. I opened this wrong can of worms when I first started talking about this record. I kept referring to this writer’s block — and it’s not quite accurate. I actually wrote all the way through that. It just wasn’t this; it wasn’t the songs for this record. I [thought], “I like this, but this isn’t the record we wanna make. This isn’t what the band needs to do.” And I wasn’t sure what the record needed to be; I just knew that wasn’t it. There was a whole dialogue with myself. You know, the last record was so political; I don’t wanna do American Band Junior. That would be a disservice to the [last] record, which I’m proud of. But I didn’t wanna repeat it.
I think the breakthrough with that song was [that] it kind of showed me the light. It was like, “Okay. This is still political but it’s also very personal.” And once I wrote that song, I wrote pretty much the rest of my songs for the record. It kind of opened the floodgates. Then it all started making sense and one song kind of led to the next.
DS: I wanna ask you about one other song on the album, the opening song. It’s an interesting way to start the album [and] It’s very pretty. But if you don’t know what’s coming, the rest of it kind of hits you harder. Tell me a little about what prompted that song, and putting it first on the album.
PH: It just felt right to do that. Once we made the decision to make the record in Memphis, I wanted a Memphis song. I grew up three hours from Memphis and I always kind of had this relationship with [it]. You know, it’s where rock and roll was born and where Sam Phillips lived and where all this amazing music history happened. But it’s also where Martin Luther King was murdered. So there’s this really dark history about the city too. There are parts of the city that basically got burned down in the wake of King’s assassination — some of which to this day haven’t been built back. And I lived there at one point in my life briefly, at a really personally dark time. So going back and making this record there was a way of maybe exorcising that demon a bit. Kind of winding up some unfinished business that I had there.
So that song was kind of like a portal for me into this record. I kind of liked it as a first song. I liked how pretty it was, leading into this kind of — you know, the next several songs after it are pretty rockin’. [And the album] ends on such an ominous [note]. “Awaiting Resurrection” is one of the longest songs we’ve ever recorded. I kind of liked the way the record begins and ends.
DS: I think for people of our generation, who grew up listening to vinyl [when] the album [was] an art form, it’s hard to ever stop thinking in those terms.
PH: Oh, I never will. If no one else on Earth ever thinks of albums ever again, I’ll probably go to my grave [doing it]. That’s my art form.
DS: I know you and Cooley have been playing together for 30 years or more.
PH: 35 this August!
DS: That’s a long fucking time! And other members of the Truckers have come and gone. But the drummer, Brad Morgan, has been with you guys forever and we don’t hear a lot about him. Tell me a little about Brad and what he brings to the band that people might not be aware of.
PH: The band wouldn’t exist without Brad. Brad was the glue that kept all this crazy shit together all these years. You know, he’s that guy that’s really even-keeled. And he brought that to the table at times when the band was far too tumultuous and emotional for our own good. We call him Easy B. And there’s a Golden Rule in the band: “Don’t piss off Easy B!” Because if you’re fucking up enough to where Easy B. gets mad at you, you are fucking up! And you don’t want the phone call from Easy B. He doesn’t get mad often so if he’s mad, there’s a good reason for it and you better take heed.
And he’s also a colossal drummer. He so often takes such a subtle approach to things that people don’t realize what a bad-ass drummer he is. On “Armageddon’s Back in Town,” there’s that moment at the end of the song where he just cuts loose. It’s almost like a Keith Moon moment or something.
DS: To bring it full circle — I know you guys are gonna be taking this album on the road. It’s the right time for it, being that this is an election year. I run in pretty liberal circles [but] a lot of us are afraid that Donald Trump is gonna get re-elected. I wanted to ask your take is on that.
PH: It’s a dark thing to think about. If I was gonna place a bet, [Trump] will probably win. Within a couple of days of this record coming out, he’ll probably get acquitted. And then he’ll probably win re-election. I really hate what that says about us as a people. You know, our job is to go out and take these dark fucking songs and try to find the joy of playing [it] live — which it is. I mean, our show is a fun show. It’s almost like a blues band. Even though stylistically, we may not sound like a blues band, it’s sort of that tradition of taking your troubles through the week and turning it into a music of joy on Saturday night. Everybody gets out, gets drunk and kind of exercises that demon. I guess that’s where we’re at.
Interview by Dave Steinfeld, 2020