Drive-By Truckers: That Southern Accent

By: Fred Mills

Drive-By Truckers by Danny Clinch
By now the Drive-By Truckers tale probably has been told with sufficient frequency that most JamBase readers are well-acquainted with the Athens, GA combo — and for anyone who isn't, there's a pretty exhaustive chronicle to be found elsewhere on this site written by Dennis Cook that will serve you quite nicely. A people's band by any reckoning, the Drive-By Truckers inspire a Deadhead-like devotion among fans, and it is testimony to the group's broad musical appeal that you'll find everyone from hoodie-rockin' indie-popsters to hardcore twang aficionados to unreconstructed hippies to — spoiler alert, kids — your own ma and pa grinning from ear to ear and waving a frosty ale bottle in the air at Truckers concerts.

By way of a brief recap, however: longtime buddies Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley form the group in Athens circa 1996 and issue their first album, Gangstabilly, two years later; the band's slow-but-steady ascent finally kicks into overdrive with 2001's two-CD Southern Rock Opera, a meditation upon the South using a fictionalized take on the Lynyrd Skynyrd story as narrative foil; several lineup shifts later the Truckers expand their critical and commercial appeal considerably beyond their Americana/jam band fanbase, and despite the potentially crippling loss of third guitarist and songwriter Jason Isbell in 2007 they cut their best-selling record to date, 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark, landing in the Top 50 of the Billboard albums chart and topping numerous critical year-end best-of polls.

While ten years in the life of any band can seem torturously slow to its members, from the outside looking in this particular group's trajectory feels profoundly satisfying. As in, goddammit, they did it.

Along the way the band recorded with both soul songstress Bettye LaVette (for 2007's Grammy-nominated Scene of the Crime) and legendary M.G.'s keyboard avatar Booker T (2009's Grammy-winning Potato Hole), toured nearly nonstop (including steady summer festival action such as Bonnaroo and a celebrated co-headlining trek with The Hold Steady), became the subject of a full-length feature documentary (The Secret to a Happy Ending by D.C.-based Barr Weissman; it's currently making the rounds of the screening circuit while the filmmaker looks for a distributor), and most recently, got tapped to open a series of dates for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers on Petty's upcoming summer tour (more on that below).

Not so coincidentally, the Truckers' 2010 initial road trek — which officially commenced in Athens and touched down in Austin last week for SXSW, then stretches through May in the run-up to the Petty tour — is accompanied by the March 16 arrival of a new album (JamBase review). Titled The Big To-Do, it's also the band's first for the ATO label, and as Patterson Hood himself points out, the record has a newfound melodicism and conciseness that marks a notable artistic stride forward. Produced, engineered and mixed, as usual, by longtime DBTs associate David Barbe, and featuring, per DBTs tradition, iconic sleeve artwork by Wes Freed, The Big To-Do is a record that Hood and the band — guitarist Mike Cooley, bassist Shonna Tucker, drummer Brad Morgan, guitarist/pedal steel player John Neff and keyboardist Jay Gonzalez — are extremely proud of.

"If we were ever to have a record that was going to break through it would probably be this one," adds Hood, and it's not hard to hear why. A powerhouse track like Hood-penned opening cut "Daddy Learned To Fly" has an irresistible anthemism (which is saying a lot considering how many "anthems" the band has served up in the past), while Cooley's sinewy/jangly "Birthday Boy" fairly screams "hit single." Another Hood number, the delicately-titled "This Fucking Job," is a garage-rock fan's dream date of Neil Young, The Clash and "Louie Louie." And Tucker, who on Brighter Than Creation's Dark stunned everyone by emerging as a songwriting secret weapon for the band, steps up to the mic for "You Got Another," one of the most elegiac, cinematic-in-feel ballads this side of Tom Petty's "Southern Accents."

Hold that thought. It was, in fact, lingering memories of the Petty tune that stuck with me when I called Hood recently to update the Truckers file. Having grown up, like Hood, in a small, blue-collar Southern town, I'd always felt like "Southern Accents" and another tune from the same album, "Rebels," carried a special significance for me; given that the Truckers actually covered the latter song, I presumed the significance wasn't lost on Hood, either. So it seemed perfectly natural when, early in our conversation, we found ourselves comparing notes about being from the South — with all the literal and metaphysical baggage that implies.

I reached Hood on his cell phone just as he was pulling up at the band's rehearsal space in Athens.

JamBase: It was just announced the other day that the Truckers will be opening for Tom Petty this summer. How did that come about?

Tom Petty by Steve Wilson
Patterson Hood: His people approached us and actually asked if we would be interested. Well, we were beyond interested! Everyone in the band is so excited to be able to do a tour with him. And you know, the one time we kinda got our feet wet doing that kind of thing, it wasn't a particularly fun experience for us. We did a shed tour a few years ago with The Black Crowes, and they were as nice as they could be, but I hated the sheds. All the best things I like about touring — none of that happened with any of that. It was basically empty because we were playing so early, and it wasn't a particularly well-attended tour anyway. The band was going through kind of a bad time, and I hated being out in the boonies where the sheds all are instead of in the towns where the clubs and theaters and record stores and restaurants are and all that.

But Tom Petty's a different category all the way around. Probably, collectively, if you polled the band, that would be the favorite artist in the world for our band. So I think it's a really good pairing, and I'm excited about it. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are a class act on all levels. They're a longevity band; they're a songwriter band; they've got these great songs; and they're one of the few bands whose heyday was when it was and yet they're still making really valid, good records.

JamBase: Well, your band's version of his song "Rebels" [cut in 2003 for the King of the Hill TV show; it was released on 2009's The Fine Print collection of DBTs rarities] was so dead on, I could picture someone playing that for him and Petty going, "Wow, let's get these guys out here with us."

Patterson Hood: And he did sign off on that, too. He was in that episode of King of the Hill, his premiere appearance as a member of the cast, so he signed off on us doing that. So I know he's been aware of us, at least on the periphery, for a while. And it's exciting to me, too, that the status of our band has reached a level that we would be considered for something like [the Petty tour].

There is a certain simpatico-ness, if that's a word, for what you guys are trying to do and what he's been trying to do all these years, in terms of storytelling, in the energy balanced with musicality, and certainly the acknowledgement of your inherent Southern qualities. I wanted to tell you a quick story about Petty, too. Back in the late '80s I saw the Heartbreakers at the Charlotte Coliseum, and for that tour they still had a lot of the stage design they'd put together originally for the Southern Accents tour — kind of a plantation mansion motif. So right as the song "Southern Accents" started, somebody in the crowd tossed onstage a folded up Confederate flag, the rebel flag. Petty walked over, picked it up, and unfolded it, and a good chunk of the crowd started cheering. [Hood mimics "whooo!" cheering on his end of the phone line.] He just stood there staring at it, then walked back to the mic and began talking about how he was a Southerner, and he loved the South and his Southern roots, and all that. Then, after a really pregnant pause, he nodded at the flag he was holding and said something to the effect of, "But this isn't what we" — he gestured at the band — "are about." Then he wadded it up, tossed it back into the crowd, and the band resumed playing the song as scattered cheers and boos were heard from the crowd. That was interesting to see him take a stand like that knowing he'd get some hostile reactions, and sure enough, when I was driving home that night, on the local classic rock station the DJ was just ripping into Petty for the flag thing, and taking calls from listeners who were also pretty up in arms about it. I was proud of him, though. It was actually a pretty electrifying moment.

Oh yeah, right. We've had similar experiences ourselves.

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