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
Jonathan Wilson (from the album Dixie Blur available on BMG)
For album number four, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson left his Los Angeles, California base to record Dixie Blur on album title homeground, decamping to Nashville, Tennessee, setting up in Cowboy Jack Clement’s Sound Emporium Studio. Doing an about-face from his previous recording methods, Jonathan Wilson sought a more intimate sonic backdrop for Dixie Blur, co-producing the album with Pat Sansone (Wilco). Backing the North Carolina native on his songs, Jonathan Wilson assembled a top shelf list of players, including Mark O’Connor (fiddle), Kenny Vaughan (guitar) Dennis Crouch (bass), Russ Pahl (pedal steel) and Jim Hoke (harmonica, woodwinds), Jon Radford (drums), and Drew Erickson (keyboards).
Namechecking Carolina roots, Jonathan Wilson cruises into a flashback for “’69 Corvette” while he erects a wall of sound to support the story of “Enemies”, tenderly draws out soft notes to sketch “Platform”, and scratches out a barnstomper for the dreams of “In Heaven Making Love”. The foggy state of mind in the title matches the musical life of its author. In addition to production credits including Father John Misty (Pure Comedy), Jonathan Wilson is musical director, past and present, for Roger Waters (Pink Floyd). His Southern Roots are on full display, Jonathan Wilson soundtracking Dixie Blurwith an Americana texture, the songs marching on processional cadence (“Fun for the Masses”), relaxing on Country Folk strums (“Golden Apples”), and rambling piano reveries (“New Home”). Jonathan Wilson walks in the skin of his songs, embracing the life of a “Pirate” on a lazy ocean sway, drives “El Camino Real” on a highway beat, and recalls a past lover with tenderness in “Oh Girl”, opening Dixie Blur with a dreamy re-working of Quicksilver Messenger Services’ “Just for Love”.
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Ayla Brook and the Sound Men (from the album Desolation Sounds available on Fallen Tree Records)
Dubbing their recent release Desolation Sounds, Portland, Orgeon’s Ayla Brook and the Sound Men present the album title as one of the items on a short list of survival tools. As a Rock’n’Roll guitar steers the course for “Refuge Cove”, Ayla Brook and the Sound Men make a vow to keep their heads above water claiming ‘I got this refuge cove and desolation sounds’. The complete destruction hinted under the name of Desolation Sounds disappears once the music begins. Ayla Brook and the Sound Men encouraging the new dawn to bring its best on the melodic marching beat of “A Little More Light” as the rhythms carves a current under the admissions in “(I Think I) Hit My Limit”. Dreamy twang melts with “Love & Laughter” while Desolation Sounds feels the gravity of love on the lighter-than-air sonics of “Who Are You” and catches a ride with a highway song in “Lift You Up”.
The rhythms are potent the melodies bright as Desolation Sounds gathers its songs in a musical quilt when Ayla Brook and the Sound Men stitch shimmering AM 60’s Rock’n’Pop, complete with girl group harmonies and a solid backbeat, on “All I Wanted to Do”, sigh with breaths of ambient electrics over the front porch Folk of “Little Birdie”, and follow along behind handclaps trudging across in “She Smiles Like a River”. A confession is the gateway for Ayla Brook to weigh in the technology blanket we wear when he is joined by Kimberley MacGregor on vocals for “Floated So Far” as Desolation Sounds scratches a small town Rock’n’Roll itch with “Cheap Microphones and an Old Guitar”.
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The Tender Things (from the album How You Make a Fool available on Spaceflight Records)
A repetitive beat hammers in the lessons when The Tender Things make use of the title track to offer opinions, suggestions, observations, and a DIY guide to love bumps on How You Make a Fool. Linking the soulful funk of Muscle Shoals, Alabama with the dusty twang of Bakersfield, California, The Tender Things are a soundtrack for the American Southwest. The characters that walk the halls of How You Make a Fool stand proud though they have some difficulty locating the line that divides good and evil, subjecting the stories to tales of could-have-been’s (“Back to Boulder”), cries for mercy (“Fix Me”), failed friendships (“When I Get to Berlin”), and slow dance confessions (“I Don’t Know How to Love You”).
Based in Austin, Texas, frontman Jesse Ebaugh (Heartless Bastards) filled out The Tender Things line-up with local talent as players with pedal steel from Ricky Jackson (Phosphorescent, Steve Earle), bass from Z Lynch (Nikki Lane(, guitarist Gary Newcomb (Bill Callahan, Richard Buckner, Bruce Robison), and Matt Strmiska (Black Joe Louis and the Honeybears) on drums. How to Make a Fool welcomes cameo appearances from Patty Griffin, who duets on “The Secrets We Could Tell” alongside the piano work of Robert Ellis, who performs on three of the album cuts. How to Make a Fool sees “Texas City” at the slow chugging end of a highway song as The Tender Things psychedelicize honky tonk to dance with “Sister Elizabeth”.
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Kim Richey (from the album A Long Way Back: The Songs of Glimmer available on Yep Roc Records)
Visiting old friends was the goal when Kim Richey entered the Nashville studio of producer Doug Lancio to reinterpret her 1999 album release, Glimmer. The project became her recent release, A Long Way Back: The Songs of Glimmer. Kim Richey walks into a hushed musical backing on the title track, the slow steps that follow the strums bears the weight backing her words as A Long Way Back skips on the rotating rhythms of “Other Side of Town”, shares “Good at Secrets” on a heartbeat thump, and walks through a musical soundscape alive with flickering guitar notes for “Lay It Down”. The stripped-back re-imaginings of her music shines a light on the songwriting of Kim Richey as The Songs of Glimmer digs deep into the workings of love and life.
Musical accompaniment on A Long Way Back: The Songs of Glimmer was in the hands of producer Doug Lancio, who played most of the instruments, aided by musical help from Nielsen Hubbard, Dan Mitchell and Aaron Smith. Reverie opens the song cycle for the album, Kim Richey dealing out memories caught in their own loop with “Come Around”, watching seasons revolve around the sun for “So It Goes”, and gets caught in the pull of the rotating rhythms of “Gravity”.
A staff songwriter that made the leap into her own releases, Kim Richey feels that the original release for Glimmer was her first batch of true confessional tunes, penning the stories from her own life rather than observations on the existence and choices of others. Falling back two decades, Kim Richey recalled that ‘I started off that record scared to death’ feeling that the Hugh Padgham-produced album, recorded in New York and London, as well as a disastrous haircut, unfamiliar musicians, and oversized budgets were part of the problem, summing up the experience as ‘it wasn’t the way I was used to making records’.
A Long Way Back: The Songs of Glimmer puts Kim Richey in her comfort zone, making the studio an intimate setting, perfect as the reality check for a former lover in “The Way It Never Was” while it builds confidence for a companion with “Strength in You”. Kim Richey sees tough times as a blip on her screen when she dresses for success in “Can’t Lose Them All”, greets an old acquaintance on a raggedy Folk rhythm with “Hello Old Friend”, and calls a cease fire in “If You Don’t Mind”.
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Mighty Oaks (from the album All Things Go available on BMG)
Based in Berlin, Germany, Mighty Oaks are an international Indie Folk group, the trio comprised of players Ian Hooper (US), Caludio Donzelli (Italy) and Craig Saunders (UK). Three countries gave birth to the three-part harmonies of Mighty Oaks as the band slides seamlessly between the scratchy rhythms that open All Things Go with the title track while the album drifts on dreamy waves of Folk as it bids farewell to “Aileen”, floats across ethereal Americana sonics in “Lost Again”, and tacks on studio heft to pump up the beats underneath “Light the World on Fire”.
Walking a line between the acoustics of guitars and mandolin and meatier tracks backing the music of All Things Go, Mighty Oaks stand tall whether picking out notes that flicker over pounding rhythms in “Tell Me What You’re Thinking”, hushing the music for the lessons of “Kids”, and rising up on the Popped-up percussions of “Forget Tomorrow”.
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Rory Block (from the album Prove It on Me available on Stony Plains Records)
For a lifetime career, Rory Block has been a Blues player, primarily keeping her releases in a direct lineage from the Country Blues originators. Rory gives back to the music, and the voices that championed the sound while pushing against their era’s racial and gender bias to record. She singles out cuts made popular during the early Blues days on her latest release, Prove It on Me, the tracks included, with the exception of the Ma Rainey penned title track and Memphis Minnie’s “In My Girlish Days”, culled from relatively unknown names the never traveled beyond of The Blues heyday of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Rory Block gives a new voice to songs written, and performed, by the women of the period, a time when little promotional money was spent on the novelty of a woman on stage as a featured artist. From back when booty went by another name, Merline Johnson was The Yas Yas Girl, represented on Prove It to Me with her tune “Milk Man Blues”. Following the path walked by Lottie Kimbrough, Rory Block tells the tale of “Wayward Girl Blues” while she sports the same sass as Helen Humes with the singer’s cut, “He May Be Your Man”, and aims for the prize along with Arizona Dranes in Rory’s version of her hit with the traditional “I Shall Wear a Crown”.
Over a decade in, Rory Block has made a mission of curating the work of Blues masters with her Mentor series tributing the men in the genre with full album releases honoring the work of Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, Bukka White, and Rev. Gary Davis. Beginning with Bessie Smith, Rory Block shone a light on the women Blues singers with similar releases leading to the female-driven one-off songs of Prove It on Me. The Blues of the singer with her name on the album cover finds a place among the versions when Rory Block presents her original cut, “Eagles”. All the instruments on the album are handled by Rory Block, her fingers plucking out chords for the admonitions of Rosetta Howard’s “If You’re a Viper” as she stomps out a rhythm to back her slide guitars grooves in Madlyn Davis’ “It’s Red Hot”.
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Lilly Hiatt (from the album Walking Proof on New West Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
The gentle electric guitar that kicks off Walking Proof, the latest release from Lilly Hiatt, proves to be pleasantly deceiving. That gentle strumming gives way to some stabbing guitar that rears its head again and again throughout the album, pushing Walking Proof into rough-around-the-edges Indie Rock territory. It is a great soundscape to explore and live in, giving the music an extra punch that electric Folk sometimes needs to Rock.
Album opener, “Rae”, sings about that friend that brings out the best in you, helping you ‘throw caution to the wind and don’t give a damn’. It is a light and airy cut that gives way to the guitar riffs opening “P-Town”, where Lilly Hiatt tells a tale of what seems to be a doomed trip to the Northwest U.S. though she does dish out the line of the year in ‘don’t you hate when people say it is what it is?’. “Some Kind of Drug” has guitar nodding to post-Hardcore experimental Punk while “Candy Lunch” and the title track, the former with trading Pedal Steel and electric guitar leads, the latter with fiddle riffs and Folk with just the right amount of jangle. Lilly Hiatt has created a sing-along space on Walking Proof’s strongest cut when she sings ‘the boys downstairs, they got the record on, they know all the words, to my favorite song’. The track, “Never Play Guitar”, harkens to the mid-90’s when Alt Country was becoming a bigger thing and Punk Rock flirted with Country Roots sounding like a marriage between The Jayhawks and Alex Chilton. Album closer, “Scream”, is an ambient and dreamy, a fitting end to a record where Lilly Hiatt musically goes where she claims ‘I ain’t slowing down for nobody’. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real (from the album Naked Garden available on Fantasy Records) (by Bryant Liggett)
The latest from Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real celebrates imperfection. Naked Garden is about as organically grown as a record should be. No time spent doing dozens of takes on one song, no studio trickery. Naked Garden is honest and real, a solid reflection of the humans that made it. Scars and all, you can hear the casual vibe of the studio in the songs, and just as a live performance, if a musician blows is as the tape rolls, Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real just pick up and move forward. The result is Naked Garden. a rollicking dose of humanity over a bed of bouncy Rock and a solid groove.
The album opens with a song of escape, with Lukas Nelson speak-sings “Entirely Different”, stating ‘gonna take a ride, the good kind of ride, the wanna get lost in space kind of ride’ as the tune gradually builds until its Rock’n’Roll riffs careen off into five minutes of wonderfully psychedelic meandering.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real offer some slower cuts with “Focus on the Music”, “Fade to Black”, and “The Way You Say Goodbye,” the latter with a lounge vibe focusing on a center-stage groove. “Back When I Cared” is a good time, what-the-hell cut with Bourbon Street attitude while “My Own Wave” and “Stars Made of You” have a driving bass, heavy R&B groove. Naked Garden pulls you into the studio with Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. The opening count, a shouted-out ‘1-2-3-4’ and post-fadeout player to player accolades are part of the package, giving a studio album a live show feel, and personality to the whole recorded package. (by Bryant Liggett)
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Sam Doores (from the album Sam Doores available on New West Records)
The vocal of Sam Doores moves to a marching cadence as “Let It Roll” floats through a myriad of sounds, all reflected from a funhouse mirror while the album drifts lightly on the dreamlike melodic gauze of “Push On” and tumbles in the hopes inside the kaleidoscopic turns of “Had a Dream”. After spending time as a band member in The Deslondes and Hurray for the Riff, the self-titled Sam Dooresis the solo debut for the musician. Former Hurray for the Riff Raff bandmate Alynda Lee Segarra joins Sam Doores in sock hop Rock’n’Roll beat of “Other Side of Town”.
Multiple studios played host to Sam Doores, the songwriter tapping Ander ‘Ormen’ Christopherson as Berlin, Germany producer and Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff) as producer in Nashville, Tennessee while Sam made use of homegrown talent for New Orleans, Louisiana recordings. Sonics breath in and out underneath the story of “Cambodian Rock’n’Roll” while a strong beat tethers the confessions of “This Ain’t a Sad Song” to the ground as the stripped-down arrangement in “Windmills” matches the stark landscape that watches the turbines spin. Psychedelic textures swirl around Sam Doores as he guides his everyman stories through oompah bands beats (“Nothing Like a Suburb”), swamp Blues (“Solid Road”), dancehall Rock’n’Roll (“Wish You Well”), shuffling Folk (“Must Be Somethin”), and Southern Gothic noir (“Red Leaf Rag”).
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