By: Fred Mills
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?
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.
|Tom Petty by Steve Wilson|
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.
Continue reading for more on the Drive-By Truckers...
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.
-Patterson Hood on touring with Tom Petty this summer
Photo of Hood & Tucker by: Tor Arne Vestbø/festivalfoto.no
It seems like both you and Petty have always tried to celebrate Southernness in a subtler fashion, not going for the obvious symbolism or knee-jerk expressions, whereas other bands might display the rebel flag onstage and not consider that it's offensive to at least as many people as it is a heritage marker. Possibly more.
Yeah, we had this one time in England or Scotland, maybe Manchester, where there was this guy who used to follow us around whenever we played over there. He would show up at all the English shows and he'd be waving this giant rebel flag around. I ended up meeting him backstage at one of the shows; this was probably on The Dirty South tour, pretty good ways back. He was like [makes garbled, heavy-accented sounds] — I can't understand a word of what some of the folks over there say, with the accents. I got "flag," and I think it was basically, "Don't you love my flag?" or something like that. And I'm going, "You know, I don't. It's just not..." I was trying to explain it to him, and he was really perturbed that I wasn't overjoyed to see the flag.
And there was a period there when we were getting a lot of, "They're the new Skynyrd!" And we were seeing a lot of those [flags] at the shows. I don't want to make people who come to see our band and love our band feel like I'm dissing them from the stage, but I wanted to distance myself from it because I've got real strong feelings about it. And I didn't come to those feelings without a lot of thought, a lot of time spent debating it — and sometimes with close friends who felt otherwise.
You know, we probably spent four or five years writing Southern Rock Opera and another year trying to figure out how to make it with no money. So it was a long drawn-out time with much discussion in the van on what we wanted to do, and then a lot of thought individually trying to write it and put it together. And that was the 800-pound gorilla: how to approach the flag issue. I think we called it right; we decided it was a non-issue and completely ignored it. There's absolutely no flag imagery on the record, except if you look really close in one of the [booklet] drawings, actually one of the pieces of art that Wes Freed didn't do. It's a drawing an artist from Chicago did of the crash site, almost abstract with a tangle of vines and briars and pieces of plane wreckage; in the mud there is part of a flag there if you look closely. We let that one go because it was such a cool piece of art, and you know, there would have been a flag on Skynyrd's plane.
What's interesting is that in all my research, I learned there was a good bit of debate in the Skynyrd camp around the Street Survivors period about whether to continue having the flag or not, because there was some talk that it was being misinterpreted and being taken as something different from their initial intentions. I'm curious as to what would have happened if they'd continued on from that time, if they'd have gotten rid of it. Of course, I don't consider what they're doing now as having anything to do with that [original] band. Goddamn, I saw a new Skynyrd video the other night and it was the worst thing I've ever seen in my life.
It's interesting how whenever someone in the media wants to talk about, quote-unquote, "The New Southern Rock," the Truckers invariably are mentioned, although in recent years perhaps not as much. The transformation seems to be towards the band simply being called a classic American band of the contemporary scene. Are you aware of that? Why are people finally coming around — since it's really what you've always been about anyway?
I'm much happier with that! [laughs] I think it's just taken awhile for people to get past the title of two of the records. And you know, we did make a record about that, so I can't rightly complain too much about us getting put into a sub-genre. But that don't mean I have to embrace it, either! We've kinda fought that battle a bit, one interview at a time, for a number of years. I mean, duh, I'm definitely from the South. I open my mouth and there's no denying it. I've got a pretty strong accent, and our subject matter is rooted there, but at the same time we are an American band. Rock 'n' roll came from the South, but it was embraced all over, and fortunately we have been, too. Maybe not on a mega-big scale, but gawd, our first towns where we had a big audience were New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Richmond and Atlanta. Those were the first five towns. And Austin is in the South but is pretty different from the rest of Texas — it's kinda Southern like we're Southern in Athens. It's Southern, but not very stereotypical Southern. We were embraced up North and on the West Coast way before the South or the Midwest – those were tough regions of the country for us to break through. It took us a long time.
Why do you think that is? One would imagine your subject matter would really have resonance in those areas, small towns, and the like.
I've got a theory about that. Most of the places we've done well in the South have been cities. We always do good in cities, period. It took a long time to start getting a following outside metropolitan areas. But most of the places to play in the South outside Atlanta are college towns, and a lot of the kids in these colleges are from the same small redneck towns like we [are from], and the last thing they want to hear is people talking about where they came from. They want to hear someone talking about some place cool and exotic. So, bands from Boston or Brooklyn or England were much cooler to go see than bands singing songs about shit that happened down the street from where they grew up.
|Drive-By Trucker in S.F. - 2005 by Dave Vann|
That makes sense. I grew up in a tiny North Carolina textile town, and when I went off to college, I'll never forget my first weekend in the dorm and this one guy playing Skynyrd over and over in his room. I got sick of Southern rock pretty quickly, and that directly primed me for punk rock a couple of years later.
You see what I mean? Yeah, that's what I grew up on. It's generally assumed I grew up listening to nothing but Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet and .38 Special. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I grew up exposed to it, but I rebelled against it. That was one of the main themes of that record [Southern Rock Opera] we made. Getting past all the bullshit that surrounded [the bands] that turned me off about it at least made me pay attention to the actual records themselves, and kind of paralleling that to people's misconceptions, some correct and some incorrect, about this region in general in the post-civil rights era. That's kind of a crazy thing to make a record about, but that was the whole premise of that record. When we ended up playing for bigger-than-25-people-at-a-time rooms, it threatened to get lost in the translation. So, we've always been careful to try and stay in touch with that and have that be part of it when we perform any of that material.
Yet all along, even on the earliest records, anyone with a set of working ears can detect, say, the Joe Strummer and Mick Jones in your music.
The biggest influences for me were The Clash, Bruce Springsteen, and, of course, Neil Young. It's pretty obvious.
The Springsteen influence is obvious, especially in your more narrative material.
For sure. We had a screening of that film [the Barr Weissman-directed Truckers documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending] this past weekend, and there was a Q&A afterwards, and the first question I got was about the politics in our music and the fact that our songs seemed to be about things that have pretty heavy political implications: "Where did you get that? You didn't get that listening to Molly Hatchet..." [laughs] I'm serious. That was literally the question! And I'm like, goddamn, how many times do I have to say it! Because I really didn't listen to Molly Hatchet.
I did see all those bands because they were the only bands that came around, and I went to every concert. When I was a teenager I went to anybody that came to Huntsville, Alabama, which was an hour and a half from my town. And I'm glad I had the experience, but god... And we got those next-level-down bands, too: we got Kansas every fucking year, we got Eddie Money. It's like that song says, "We didn't have Lynyrd Skynyrd, but we had Molly Hatchet." It was the next level who came. Skynyrd did come because they had so many friends in that area, but then the plane crashed just as I was getting to the age to go to shows, so they were taken out of the picture. We sure didn't get The Clash. They were five hours away [Atlanta] and they sold out, and I've got older friends that saw The Clash, but I never did. I had to run away from home to see Springsteen because it was so far away. I was such a fan that I didn't care how much trouble I would get into because that would be after the show and at least I could see the show first.
You met Springsteen last year at the Pete Seeger birthday party in New York City. Did you tell him that story?
No, if I ever get to really talk to him I'll tell him. It was strictly a shake hands kind of thing. But when he met me he did say, "I know you guys!" We had toured with The Hold Steady, and he's a huge Hold Steady fan. He put his arm around me and said, "You've been hanging out with my boys!" [laughs]
Continue reading for more on the Drive-By Truckers...
He caught us at a really difficult time. We were really closer to breaking up than we've ever been in 25 years of playing together, Cooley and I, and nearly 15 for this band. He caught us at our darkest hour.
-Patterson Hood on the new film The Secret to a Happy Ending
Photo of Patterson Hood & Mike Cooley by Thrasher/Osburn from drivebytruckers.com
You mentioned the DBT documentary, so let's talk about that for a moment. Tell me who Barr Weissman is, and your thoughts on the film in general.
He's a filmmaker out of D.C. and he pretty much makes his living making stuff for National Geographic, The History Channel, filming assignments basically, which has taught him a lot on the technical end about being a filmmaker. On the side he makes these little passion projects that he finances himself and works with a skeletal crew; most of them have been political and really cool, low-budget and well-crafted films. He was the producer on one that won an Academy Award about stonemasons building this cathedral. He also did this cool film about minstrel show guys back in the late '70s when they were still alive. He did a film about this liberal politician running for office in Kansas, just following the guy around on the campaign.
So, he was predisposed to follow around a bunch of liberal rock 'n' rollers...
Totally. His pitch to us was, "I don't like VH1, I don't like rock movie documentaries, and I don't want to do any of that stuff. I don't care about your battles with each other or the label or whatever. I want this to be a love letter to the aspect of rock 'n' roll that saved my life as a teenager and I think saved your life, too." That was basically his pitch. "Okay, I think I get that!" So, he sent us a box of VHS tapes of his movies, and they were just stunning. I thought, "This is the guy, this is perfect." And I don't think our gut feelings have ever been more correct. I really love the movie he made. I saw it for the first time this weekend at the screening in D.C. It's a heavy little film.
|Isbell & Hood / DBTs - 2006 by Andy Tennille|
I understand he caught you nearing the tail end of the Jason Isbell period for the band.
He caught us at a really difficult time. We were really closer to breaking up than we've ever been in 25 years of playing together, Cooley and I, and nearly 15 for this band. He caught us at our darkest hour. But it's a really, really great film, and I'm proud of it; painful to watch, but not so much in a Spinal Tap way [laughs]. I'm sure there's a little of that, too, but I'm used to that. I can deal with that!
Some of the best films of this type do capture artists during dark periods, and in turn they uncover truths about artists in general that perhaps don't come across when it's just a straightforward concert doc or a sanitized biography. And it's interesting that a documentarian was on hand to capture, on film, an unfolding example of the maxim of "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
That's very true, and without ever delving into any of that [in the film], it's all there. You never see us fighting, but you can tell. You can just tell. We were never about fighting anyway, and that probably would have been healthier than what was going on, you know? So, it kind of captures the mood of what was happening while telling another story. I think his handling of really everything was pretty topnotch. As a film nut myself I'm really proud of it as a piece of filmmaking. I kind of have to separate myself from it and pretend it's not about my life, which it kinda isn't now! Our lives are pretty different now from where they were at that time. I guess that's the happy ending of the movie — what the title is talking about — where we didn't break up and everyone involved has actually gone on to be pretty okay. It's a much healthier thing on our stage or in our bus or in our houses at home than what was being captured there, and that in itself is pretty good. I think the same would apply to Jason, too. I think he's gone on to be in a better place, too.
Onto the new album. You reportedly cut 25 songs during the sessions for The Big To-Do, so why didn't you simply release another big sprawling 80-minute double album thing like you did for Brighter Than Creation's Dark?
We decided maybe it would be better that instead of making another big ol' sprawling record to cut it into separate records. We didn't have that option last time around. We probably wouldn't have done it even if we did have the option. Brighter Than Creation's Dark was exactly what we wanted it to be, and what we felt like it needed to be. I always felt like when we put it out that people will either get it or they won't, and that's okay because we do. So I've always been comfortable standing by it. It definitely was a polarizing record for some people. But three years after the fact, I'm still very, very comfortable with everything that happened making that record and what we put out.
We didn't want to do it again, though. We wanted to do it different. I don't want the first thing out of everybody's mouth to be, "Well, they write some goods songs, if they'd just learn to edit themselves..." There's still nothing I would want to leave off that record, given those circumstances, but I did get tired of that line. It got used a lot, especially in America, whereas in Europe it got received very differently. It got pretty much unanimous praise, especially in England where I think the lowest rating was 4 out of 5 stars; a lot of attention from MOJO and Uncut. And we weren't able to go over and tour and capitalize on it! Our situation was being between record deals and everything else, so it was kind of frustrating. We're going to try to fix that this time.
What are you liking about this new record right now?
I really feel happy with the record - it's more concise. If we were ever to have a record that was going to break through it would probably be this one because it's a pretty user-friendly version of what we do. It's pretty melodic, and I'm proud of the fact that we've grown in the songwriting. Lyrics have always been a strong suit, and particularly in my songwriting I probably have not paid attention as much to the melodic and music end of it.
Three or four songs on it would seem to be potential singles, primarily because of what you've just described, the inherent melodicism.
That's never really happened to us before. I think making the Booker T record [2009's Potato Hole] had a lot to do with that, making a record that didn't have lyrics. And the cool thing about Booker, he didn't have lyrics, but those songs have stories. That was this crazy breakthrough we had during the making of that record. We had four days to make it, and maybe as late as Day 3 we'd only finished three or four songs and we were way behind. We were working on a specific song and we knew it and we'd learned it, but it just wasn't clicking and he wasn't getting what he wanted out of us, so we were getting frustrated because we wanted so much to make him happy. Booker, instead of getting mad or frustrated, he figured it out. He stopped, said, "Everybody take a break, I want to talk to you about something." He told us this beautiful story about what inspired the song we were working on, painting the scene, the picture, the imagery. It kind of involved a family reunion, family he hadn't seen in awhile, and it involved the smell coming out of the kitchen - just this great scene. The song was "Reunion Time." So, he said, "Now, play that." And it was immediate. Like one take.
We cut six songs the fourth day. So, we really cut the album in two days, with the first two days him figuring it out and then getting us to the right place. And in him teaching us that, it taught us something about ourselves and how we work that hadn't dawned on us before.
How to streamline the process? How to get to the heart of a given piece of music?
Yeah, it's like what we react to, where our songs really come from in the playing-in-the-studio part of them and how that correlates to the writing process - that connection. For the rest of the session, for every song Booker would tell us the story, and we'd cut it and get it in one or two takes.
|Drive-By Trucker by Danny Clinch|
When we went in to make [The Big To-Do], I think that was still in the back of all our minds. I think there was more attention paid to the mood that the lyrics convey. I mean, we've always played to lyrics, but having to play without lyrics taught us a lot.
"Daddy Learned To Fly," your song that opens the album, sounds like a natural concert opener, high energy and anthemic.
It's a very fun record for us. That song in particular came out really nicely.
Another one of the strongest tracks on the album is Shonna's "You Got Another." She really shines on that. With all the additional keyboards and instrumentation, though, it sounds like it might be a tough one to perform live.
Oh, that one's coming along good in concert, too. She plays piano on it in concert. This weekend when we played, we had [producer] David Barbe out with us, so he played bass on that one live. But a lot of times we do it without the bass and Jay does the John Paul Jones thing of playing the bass part on keyboard while he's doing the Mellotron and B-3 parts.
The only one that we're still having to iron the kinks out of is [Cooley's] "Eyes Like Glue," as far as trying to figure out a more full band version and not just having Cooley up there by himself with an acoustic — because then he'd never do it! [laughs]
It sounds like you're looking forward to the tour.
The whole album is really good to play live, I think. We're gonna go out there and really work it.
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