IN PURSUIT OF LOFTY THINGS Drive-By Truckers

An extended interview
with Patterson Hood, on the new album and more. Check the live video, below.

 

BY ANDY TENNILLE

 

20 years ago, Patterson Hood packed his shit and left Muscle
Shoals, Alabama, distraught following the break-up of his band of six years –
Adam’s House Cat – and disillusioned with the small town in northern Alabama
that his father – David Hood – and his colleagues at FAME Studios and Muscle
Shoals Sound helped put on the map in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s recording
classic hits with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and the Rolling Stones.

 

Like any good teenager who grew up in the late ‘70s
listening to The Sex Pistols, The Clash and Elvis Costello, Hood rebelled,
choosing to leave behind his hometown, his family’s business and his father’s
music for life on the road chasing the rock ‘n roll dream.

 

“I didn’t really intend to rebel against Muscle Shoals as
much as I feel like Muscle Shoals rebelled against me,” Hood says. “When I
started trying to play music, I was viewed as this snotty-nosed loser, fuck-you
kid that it made me rebel further. I mean, I wrote ‘Buttholeville’ as a
response; I didn’t come out punching. I felt like I was punched and so I
punched back. There are still some people in that town who are mad about that
song, and that was in 1988. I tried for a long time to stay there and finally
just left after Adam’s House Cat broke up with a lot of frustration and anger,
feeling like I had to leave.”

 

Searching for a more welcoming music scene, Hood relocated
to Athens, Georgia, founded the Drive-By
Truckers with former Adam’s House Cat bandmate Mike Cooley and the rest is
history. Over the next 15 years, the band would go on to make eleven albums,
record with Booker T. Jones and Bettye LaVette and tour the world, earning a
reputation as one of rock’s road warriors. All the while, Hood formed a musical
family in Athens
that interestingly mirrored what his father’s generation developed in Muscle
Shoals. David Barbe came on board for Southern
Rock Opera
and quickly became the band’s close confidant and de-facto
producing partner. Wes Freed was tapped to illustrate the band’s album artwork.
Scott Baxendale met the Truckers when the Decoration
Day
tour hit Denver
and has built custom guitars for them ever since. Last year, Hood and company
moved their band office and warehouse to Chase Park, the same complex that
houses Barbe’s studio and Baxendale’s new guitar shop. Every January, the
Truckers host three nights at the fabulous 40 Watt that benefit local non-profit
Nuci’s Space and serve as a reunion for their friends, extended family and the
entire Athens music community.

 

“Everyone who has an extended relationship with them are
just really quality people, from the folks at Red Light to Traci Thomas at Thirty
Tigers to Matt, Damon and the road crew,” Barbe says. “It is like a big family,
and now that they’ve moved their headquarters over here next to my studio and
Scott’s guitar shop is here as well, we’re all here next door to one another.
We all work together, and there’s a lot of love and a lot of loyalty, and that
starts with the band.”

 

With Go-Go Boots,
their new album out this week on ATO Records, the Truckers have once again
turned to their hometown for inspiration, tipping their hat to the country soul
made famous by Muscle Shoals while covering two songs by the late Eddie Hinton,
one of the town’s greatest talents. It’s perhaps their most well-rounded effort
since The Dirty South and further
solidifies their place among America’s
best rock bands.

 

*****

 

BLURT: Well, congrats
on another fine album. Lots of people are saying Go-Go Boots is the Truckers finally embracing the more soulful,
Muscle Shoals side of the band. In looking back over the last three albums, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark was almost
an extension of the Dirt Underneath tour, a more intimate, acoustic side of the
Truckers. The Big To-Do – a big rock
record – seemed like a reaction to that, like the pendulum swinging back in the
other direction. What is Go-Go Boots?

PATTERSON HOOD: I think it’s probably a little of all of the
above. We certainly didn’t go in the studio and say, “Well now we’re gonna make
the Truckers soul record.” Any talk of that was more after the fact, when we
realized this was the most Muscle Shoals-sounding record that we’ve ever made.
At the same time, it doesn’t sound like any particular record ever made at
Muscle Shoals. It sounds like a Drive-By Truckers record to me. It’s a little
heavier on the storytelling aspects than anything we’ve done since The Dirty South, and in some ways, it’s
kind of a follow up to that, except musically it moves in different directions.

 

You recorded Go-Go Boots and your previous album, The Big To-Do, during the same sessions.
Why is this band suited for that approach?

 Our band is not
economical. We’re not aerodynamic. We’re a big, gas-guzzling dinosaur of a road
hog. We’re made of big heavy steel, we’re hard to parallel park, but if you get
us out on the open road and gun it a little bit, we’re good on a nice long
trip. That’s just who we are. There have been times when we’ve gone through
periods where we’ve tried to be a little more agile and it’s just not what we
do best, unfortunately. So there’s an inherent bigness that comes with what we
do, and recording two albums at once was a way of embracing that without
putting out another two hour-long record like Brighter than Creation’s Dark. I personally have a real strong soft
spot for that record, but I didn’t want to do another one like it, not any time
soon.

        I don’t know if
we’ll ever choose to or get to do a project the same way again, but I’m really
glad that we got to do it this time and that it turned out the way it did. In a
lot of ways, doing two records at once really, really worked for us; the way we
operate and the way we record. I wish I could do it that way from now on, but
the reality is that to do it that way, you’ve got to put both of those records
out in a relatively timely fashion, which means having two records out in
eleven months. As cool as that sounded on paper, that’s a lot of work.

 

I need to follow up
on something you said a little bit earlier. You said this could be considered
the follow up to The Dirty South. I
find that interesting because to me that record represented the peak of that
particular lineup. Now you’ve had a couple of records with this band. Is this
record a good representation of the potential of this band?

 I have no idea where
this band will go next or could go next. The lineup is so stellar right now,
and I feel like in some ways we’re running at the peak of our potential, but in
another way I feel like we’re almost just now scratching the surface and
getting to the good stuff underneath. It’s a really fertile band in a lot of
ways, and there’s plenty of the good kind of dynamics that can make something
interesting without any of the troublesome dynamics. I’ve never had a band
that’s played just like the sound in my head, only way better. The band in my
head is the same as this band, and that’s really a good feeling.

 

Let’s talk about Go-Go Boots. How did you differentiate
the songs for it versus the ones for The
Big To-Do?

I knew that there was a record somewhere in my head that I
really wanted to hear, and that became Go-Go
Boots
. When we went in the studio, there was a very clear-cut idea of what The Big To-Do was, and then there were
these other songs that I felt just as passionate about, maybe even more so in
some cases. I knew it was gonna take a little more time than we’ve ever really
had the luxury of having to find that record, so we went about it at our own
pace while taking care of the business at hand, which was making The Big To Do. As we wrapped that record
up, we knew that we weren’t gonna be shut out of the studio for the next two
years like it used to be between records. We knew that we had this ongoing
thing that we could work on at our leisure. So we’d do a leg of the tour, and
I’d be listening to what we had so far on the Go-Go Boots stuff and thinking about what’s next. We’d book a
little studio time when we got home, go in there and apply what we worked on or
talked about on that tour and then go back out on the road some more. It was
really enjoyable to have this ongoing thing. I tend to write more if I’ve got a
project I’m writing for. That was the thing about the two-year gaps between
working on records in the past – I would tend to just not write during that
time. It’s an easy thing to put off when there’s nothing looming. With this
record on the horizon, I pushed myself to keep writing because I knew that we had
this record that had the potential to be as good as anything we’ve ever made,
but it still hadn’t found its identity yet. We had these really great songs, I
thought, but there wasn’t that thing that makes a collection of songs a great
album, that unifying thing that ties it all together.

        In the midst
of all this, we were asked to record a song for an Eddie Hinton tribute. That
turned out to be kind of the missing piece. That opened a creative door that
was like, “Wow, this really ties in with these Go-Go Boots songs we’re working on.” Once we decided to include
those songs on the record, this other running theme emerged in the record that
inspired me to dig out “Mercy Buckets” and turn it into something that we could
use. I’d had an earlier version of that song for many, many years that actually
predates the Truckers. If someone asked me to play at their wedding, I’d play
it, but it wasn’t a song I really heard on one of our records. Hearing the
Eddie Hinton songs on there changed my mind, so I went back and rewrote the
song and made it a much better song. We knew as soon as we recorded it that it
was the way the album should end.

        The last thing
I wrote was “I Do Believe,” which I wrote right as we were finishing the
record. Originally, we were gonna begin the record with “Go-Go Boots”, but then
once I wrote that song, it became pretty clear that it’s gotta be the first
song. Having that as the first song, “Mercy Buckets” as the last song and the
Eddie Hinton songs in the middle gave the record this arc that counterpoints
all of the darker killing songs in the middle.

 

 

 

You’ve chosen family
as the source of inspiration or song subject matter many times throughout your
career, “I Do Believe” being the latest. Tell me who that song is about?

 “I Do Believe” is
about my grandmother, Sissy, on my mom’s side. She’s the person on earth that I
was the closest to, as far as a child and as an adult. As long as she was
alive, she was the person I was the closest to. I really haven’t written about
her much. Some aspects of her have popped up in “Old Timers’ Disease,” which I
definitely count as one of my family’s songs even though it’s a fictional
story. My granddaddy used to talk about walking down the street with her when
they were young, and cars would just about start colliding because whoever was
driving would be so busy staring at her butt that they’d run into telephone
poles. She was a really stunning woman, so I used that imagery in “Old Timers’
Disease.” She’s in “Little Bonnie,” too, but I’d never written specifically
about her or our relationship.

        I’ve been
writing since ’73, since I was eight years old, and I’ve written a shitload of
songs, but it’s still as much a mystery to me now as at any point in time as
far as how it all happens. I can tell you where specific things in a song came
from, but I can’t tell you what made me think of it at that moment. We were
riding down the road in our van and we’d been to Europe, and then Colorado, and we were on
our way home, and everyone’s exhausted. We were driving home from the Atlanta airport, and I
was sitting in the back of the van and that song just hit me. I wrote it down
right there on a little notepad I had in my bag. I was no more thinking about
Sissy or any of the stuff that’s in that song…it was as far as anything could
have been from my mind, and yet, in about a ten-minute period of time, I wrote
that song. It was a very vivid snapshot of a moment in time when I was about my
daughter’s age, five years old or so. It wasn’t until after I finished writing
it that I realized I’d just written about Sissy. I can’t remember the last time
I’d thought about that day, but it’s all there in that song.

 

Does that happen a
lot for you, where a song just comes out of the sky like a lightning bolt?

 Almost all the good
ones. In a lot of cases, it’s an idea I’ve had for years, but the actual
writing of it happens like a lightning bolt. For years, I’ve wanted to write a
song about the cop that “Used to Be A Cop” is about. I had the basic idea for
that song when we were writing The Dirty
South
, but the song never got written. I have no idea what caused me to
write that song out of the blue one night a couple of Novembers ago when I was
just sitting in my office. I wasn’t thinking about it then, I wasn’t thinking
about any of that. It just came out. I had my acoustic guitar, and I pretty
much played what I play on the record, just that four chord little circle that
plays throughout the song. I demoed it as soon as I finished writing it, and it
already had the jagged staccato, psycho thing at the end, which was definitely
borrowing kind of a Bernard Herrmann feel, ‘cause I love Bernard Herrmann.

       As far as the
disco beat and all of that, that all happened when the band got a hold of it.
The song’s set in the late 70’s, early 80’s, so that’s the music that would
have been playing at the bar when the former cop’s watching his ex-wife dancing
with some dude and thinking about following her home. It’s so weird. It’s 7
minutes long, and it’s already gotten more radio play than any song we’ve ever
put out. We’ve always said if we ever have a breakthrough hit, it’s gonna be
from the outer edges of what we do. It’s not gonna be the hit version of the thing
we do, it would be from a different direction. I’ve always thought that. It has
gotten more radio attention than any song we’ve ever put out, and it’s seven
fucking minutes long. It’s funny. The studio version’s even longer than the
version live. It’s a minute longer on the record than the live version. When
does that happen? (Laughs)

 

So what’s the story
behind “Go-Go Boots?” When you see these things on the TV, hear them on the
radio or read them in the paper or online, what’s the first reaction?

 When I was a little
boy there were two things I wanted to do; I wanted to either be a rock star or
a film director. I always wanted to make movies and always wrote stories and
outlines for a number of things. Southern
Rock Opera
started off as an outline for a screenplay me and Earl (Hicks, former producer and bass player)
were gonna write, and then it made more sense to just make a record. That was
when it first dawned on me to merge those two worlds, so that’s been a big part
of what I’ve done over the years.

        The murder
that inspired “Fireplace Poker” and “Go-Go Boots” was a real event that
happened in my hometown in the late 80’s. It went down over a week or 10-day
period of time and was pretty much the front-page story every day. It was all
unraveling before your eyes, and just watching it all happen, I thought, “I
wanna make a movie about this.” I thought it would make an incredible Southern
gothic, Night of the Hunter-style
movie.

        I wrote the
song a long time ago, over the course of a number of years. I probably wrote
the first draft of it in the late 80’s and wrote pretty much the version that
we have now in the mid-90s. I had it in mind for the album I referred to as
“the Heathens record,” which was the album that morphed into Decoration Day, so it was definitely on
a list of song titles leading up to making that record. By the time we finally
made the record, we had so many songs and it was already going in so many
directions that it got shelved and put aside. It just wasn’t the time for it,
but I was still drawn to that story, so I wrote “Go-Go Boots” a little later as
another attempt to tell that story, just in a different form. That ended up
being one of the first songs we recorded for this album. It was a magical take,
and we knew early on that that was definitely gonna be on the album and that it
was like gonna be the title cut for this darker, weirder second record we were
working on as we did The Big To-Do.

        As we were
finishing the record last summer, the same weekend we did “I Do Believe,” “The
Fireplace Poker” reared its head one more time. We were about to finish the
record, we didn’t really need another song, and we sure didn’t need a
nine-minute long narrative about a murder that we already had another song
about, but if we didn’t do anything right now with, I knew we’d never do
anything with it. So we gave it a stab to see what we could get, and we very
quickly ended up with a magical take. So once again, I’ve got two songs about
the same thing from different perspectives on a record, and I guess that’s just
another one of those things we do.

 

I’d like to talk
about “Ray’s Automatic Weapon.” How often does it happen that you write a song
and by the time you start playing it out, or it comes out on a record, it’s
taken on a whole new meaning? I’m talking about the recent shooting in Arizona and the whole
debate right now about gun laws.

 I honestly hadn’t
even thought about that until you said it just now, about “Ray’s Automatic
Weapon,” but it’s very true. Southern
Rock Opera
happened that way, too, in that it came out on 9/11 and ends
with a plane crash. Playing that album the first time in New York was on October 11th of
that year, and Ground Zero was still smoldering. It was really weird stepping
up on stage to play that record knowing the closeness of all of that, even
though that record was set in a different time and place and was about
something totally different. People did come up to us after the show and they
would talk about “Angels and Fuselage” and the relation to what had just
happened in their lives. Nothing could have been further from our minds about
what we intended when we recorded that song, but none-the-less, those things
happened. That’s part of the beauty of this art form. Songs do take on new
meanings that were never intended, and that’s a great thing, particularly if it
helps somebody deal with something they’re suffering through.

 

Let’s talk about
Eddie Hinton. It isn’t as if the Muscle Shoals scene lacks folks who had all
the talent in the world but never made the spotlight. Why Eddie Hinton? Why not
Donnie Fritts, Tony Joe White, or countless others?

 With Eddie, it always seems to go one step
further. Eddie’s story is a tragic narrative. He was such an amazing talent in
a town that had so many amazing talents, but Eddie’s talent might have
transcended one step further even. He was a writer on the same level with Dan
Penn and Spooner Oldham.  He was a guitar
player of the caliber of Duane Allman. Extremely underrated, but a fantastic
guitar player, a great studio musician who could pretty much play whatever they
put in front of him. He played the harmonica, he could play drums, and he wrote
string arrangements. He wrote a string arrangement that he took to the London
Symphony Orchestra to play ‘cause he heard strings in his head on the song. He
wrote the arrangement on the plane ride over.

        When he got
there, those classically trained symphony players couldn’t believe that this
guy from Alabama
had written these parts. They were in awe of it. He was this vocalist on the
level with Otis Redding, but you can’t find his records. They’re almost all
imports. He lost his mind and spent a lot of time in and out of mental
institutions and was known to be a little deranged, maybe a little violent. He slept
on a park bench for about a year in Decatur,
Alabama. It’s just a very tragic,
sad, sad story, but if you listen to his records, they’re just beautiful. So we
were definitely drawn to his story. I wrote “Sandwiches for the Road,” which is
on Gangstabilly, a couple weeks after
he passed away in ’95. We’ve had this ongoing relationship with Eddie’s music
over the entire history of this band. It’s been the music that plays between
sets at our shows for at least eight or nine years. So it just made sense.

        I had wanted
in the past to record one of his songs, but it was vetoed from day one because
we were scared we wouldn’t be able to do it justice. But then we got asked to
do the tribute thing, and it was really then just a matter of talking Cooley into
it. He was always a little skeptical of the idea of covering an Eddie Hinton
song, for very good reasons. But at the end of the day we were all very happy
with what we did on that. And we’re glad we did it. I think in doing that, it
was a nice boost for our confidence in pursuing some of the loftier things we
were trying to do with this record.

 

[Photo and Video  Credit (both from January, at the  40 Watt Club in Athens) by Andy Tennille – who, in case you
don’t know, is our Associate Editor
. See
his print feature on the Truckers in BLURT #10, due to hit newsstands in
mid-March
.]

 

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