FOREWORD: Drive-By Truckers front man, Patterson Hood, is not only a superb artisan, but also a masterful folkloric historian and the son of a legendary studio musician. Instead of leading a revolt to let Southern rock spring up from its pre-punk ‘70s graveyard, Drive-By Truckers just went about their business, delivering the finest faux-Confederate Country rock in the last thirty years.
After ‘01s masterful Southern Rock Opera provided wide-scale liftoff, DBT brought songwriting axe man Jason Isbell onboard (replacing Rob Malone) to reconvene their three-guitar lineup (alongside Hood and his long-time musical partner, Mike Cooley). They returned with ‘03s nearly-as-effective Decoration Day and ‘04s wily The Dirty South. On ‘06s A Blessing & A Curse, raw-boned honky tonk took a front seat.
But despite Isbell’s departure, the best was yet to come in the form of ‘08s unadulterated refinement, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark. To increase their already reputable status, DBT backed up veteran soul singer, Bettye Lavette, on ‘07s respectable The Scene Of The Crime.
This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.
I took my brother Steve and his friend Gary to see DBT at Maxwells in ’03. They played so long it was well beyond 12 AM on a weekday before the show ended. My feet were killing me and my guests had already left due to early morning work. But it was a great marathon set by a real hard drivin’ band that everyone enjoyed.
There was a time in the pre-punk mid-‘70s when Southern rockers such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker Band, Atlanta Rhythm Section, and the Outlaws ruled the American airwaves. Here in the post-millenium, at ‘80s indie rock capitol Athens, Georgia, the Charlie Daniels Band slogan “The South’s Gonna Do It Again” rides high once more as hometown boy, Patterson Hood, leads the Drive-By Truckers to the promised land. Canonizing Skynyrd as well as Neil Young and Crazy Horse on the tributary Southern Rock Opera, Hood and long-time musical partner, ace guitarist Mike Cooley, re-energize Confederate folklore with a rad double-CD that both documents and mythologizes nearby “Sweet Home Alabama” in all its glory.
The son of David Hood, sessionman-bassist in the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (who’d worked with ‘60s icons Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Etta James, Bob Seger System, and Paul Simon), AC/DC-loving Patterson grew up surrounded by music. His fathers’ good friend, Jimmy Johnson, had produced the Rolling Stones and Skynyrd’s original demos (released post-plane crash as First And Last), containing one of their best compositions, “Was I Right Or Was I Wrong.”
After leading local band Adam’s House Cat from ’85 to ’91, Hood and Cooley faced their own traumas when bassist John Cahoon died prematurely in ’99 just before DBT released the audaciously semi-autobiographical live double-CD, Alabama Ass Whuppin.’ Meanwhile, fellow comrade Chris Quillen, who was set to join the band, died tragically in a car crash before their first gig. The brooding “Plastic Flowers on the Highway” pays post-mortem respect to his memory.
While Whuppin’s “Why Henry Drinks” distills DBT’s Country roots, barroom logic, and backwoods turmoil, the overblown ampage of “Steve Mc Queen” unleashes the ghost of “Gimme Three Steps” and “The Living Bubba” anoints AIDS-inflicted Bubbapalooza founder/ guitarist Gregory Dean Smalley (who’d perform 100 shows per year until his time expired). If these Southern blues ain’t enough to stick in your craw, Hood’s raw-boned “18 Wheels Of Love” is a great demented story-song in the Johnny Cash tradition and salutes his mothers’ sordid love affair with a trucker by adamantly claiming “every goddamn word of it is true.”
A modern day examination of the misconceptions and tribulations of Dixie, Southern Rock Opera re-tells the Skynyrd myth from wasted youth hindsight (“Let There Be Rock”), touching on fame (the darkly plaintive “Road Cases”) and demise (“Shut Up and Get on the Plane” and the slow dirge “Angels And Fuselage”). Along the way, “Ronnie And Neil” sets the record straight about “Sweet Home Alabama” and its cheekish dismissal of Neil Young’s snide deride, “Southern Man.” On “The Three Great Alabama Icons,” controversial former governor George Wallace, legendary Crimson Tide fottball coach Bear Bryant, and Lynyrd Skynyrd leader Ronnie Van Zandt get proper epitaphs.
Anyone with a yearning for true Southern Rock should check out Drive-By Truckers. Not only did they rock out Mercury Lounge in New York summer of ’02, they also kicked ass at Central Park two days hence.
You’ve dealt with many personal problems that have influenced your music.
PATTERSON HOOD: Making the Rock Opera was such an ordeal. We were on the road. When we had weeks off, we’d work on the record. Almost everyone in the band got divorced or broke up long-term relationships. The next record deals with our families coming apart. Most of it’s in the past. My ex-wife and I are on real good terms and I have a new, healthy relationship.
Original bassist John Calhoun died in ’99. Is the Alabama Ass Whuppin’ cover of Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” a reflection of his lifestyle?
I don’t know how comfortable I am talking about his problems. He was an unhappy person. He withdrew from everybody. We’d be friendly, but then I wouldn’t hear from him for long spells. A few of the songs on the next album are about him. As Adam’s House Cat, we were hated. Only a hundred people across the South liked us. That’s comparable to what we do now, but there’s more people that are acceptive.
Southern Rock has been under the radar since Skynyrd’s plane went down. Are there any new bands waving the Confederate Rock flag?
I don’t know. There’s several great up and comers like the husband-wife Athens band, Southern Bitch. They added a third guitarist, but their lead guy plays lap steel and piano. I wouldn’t say they’re Skynyrd-ish. They’re more Appalachian influenced, along the lines of Blue Mountain. Then there’s Lona. They’re poppier and more eclectic, going from George Jones to the Police seamlessly. The Possibilities have been together eleven years. Their new record’s great.
Do you emulate the “Whiskey Rocka Rolla” dope-smoking lifestyle of Skynyrd?
We’re healthier about it. We’re about ten years older then them, pre-plane cras. We’re probably more influenced by Neil Young then Skynyrd. Rock Opera sounds more like Crazy Horse, none of which was intentional. We pay repsect to Skynyrd’s mythology and use that as a platform to tell some of our southern stories. To do it right, there had to be three guitarists who didn’t step on each others’ toes. They had a system where each person had a particular style and were respectful to the other. Gary Rossington did the more slow, melodic leads and the slide part on “Free Bird.” I gravitate towards the slow solos instead of hot licks. Cooley is the psycho lead player, which Alan Collins in Skynyrd was. Rob was a huge Steve Gaines fan, and ironically, his replacement is more of an Ed King type.
Southern Rock Opera could be seen as an insightful history of Alabama from the ’60s forward. Some of it’s legendarily nostalgic, like when Governor Wallace ran his wife for Governor.
She died of cancer during her term. Wallace ran against her Lieutenant Governor, Brewer, in a dirty 1970 election. All kinds of shit went down. Nixon wanted Brewer to win since if Wallace won it would strengthen his postion for another run at President and split the Southern conservative vote. Tricky Dick did underhanded shit he got caught at. But it wasn’t revealed until the stuff became declassified. Wallace would’ve won anyway. The election had nasty racial overtones. Since blacks were finally allowed to vote, Wallace reinvented himself or had a change of heart. He got 90% of the black vote by 1982.
Legendary Alabama football coach, Bear Bryant, reluctantly allowed blacks on his team ahead of most Southeast Conference programs. When called into question, he said, ‘I don’t have black or white players, only football players.’ He did more to rid segregation than any politician and was a fabulous drinker. He played an interracial Southern California team in Tuscaloosa to convince Alabama fans that blacks should be on his team.
Oh yeah. I love Bear Bryant folklore. I have a close friend who’d tell me amazing stories. I didn’t get too deep about that on the record because it was already covering so much ground.
On Alabama Ass Whuppin,’ you exposed your mother’s affair on “Eighteen Wheels Of Love.”
There’s a little exaggeration. But she’s still married to that trucker. I’m proud of that record but I haven’t heard it in a few ywears. It captures a moment in time annd makes the transaction from the first two mandolin-and-steel country-ish records to the Rock Opera when we went out on the road and played loud, belligerent rock but wanted something to document the difference.