Drive-By Truckers: That Southern Accent

 
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.

Patterson Hood by Thrasher/Osburn
From drivebytruckers.com
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.

Drive-By Trucker in S.F. - 2005 by Dave Vann
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.

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]

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