The Drive-By Truckers have always made straightforward rock and roll records with simple titles that belie the complex themes about American life and history contained within. Their latest, American Band, is no different.
This one, however, seems to live in 2016 in a way that few of the band’s previous records occupied their own time; Southern Rock Opera, for instance, was released in 2001 but drew its stories and musical references from an Alabama of the late 1970s and early 80s. In other words, American Band is about what’s happening right now, and across a much larger landscape, from Black Lives Matter to the squishy, squirmy alt-right movement that crept out from under a rock and swept Trump to power.
Even a song set in 1931, about the murder of a young Mexican boy by a future leader of the NRA (“Ramon Casiano”), is firmly rooted in a modern politics of identity and guns and historical weight. Not that the music doesn’t rock. As in their previous albums, this is the Truckers’ primary goal. And they achieve it, along with the even trickier feat of singing with Southern accents about race relations while committing, by my count, zero microaggressions. You have to be a little crazy to attempt something like this in 2016, and here to explain how they pulled it off is bandleader Patterson Hood, who spoke to CL just days ahead of their November 16 appearance at Tampa Theatre.
Read our Q&A below. Get more information on the show via local.cltampa.com.
CL: Judging from what I know about your political beliefs, I assume you’re saddened by the election, but are you surprised by it?
Patterson Hood: I’m definitely saddened. I’m pretty angered. I’m a little terrified, honestly, just because of the signal it sends—it’s open season on all the people that don’t fit the red-hat brigade’s point of view. I had a friend get called a liberal cunt yesterday standing in line at Walgreens. She’s wearing a T-shirt with a rock band on it. She probably looked like she wasn’t in the best of moods, and she wasn’t because of the election, and some total stranger calls her a liberal cunt. And that’s in Athens, Georgia, which is very much a blue bubble town.
My wife has a pre-existing medical condition, so Obamacare greatly helped my family. A few years ago, my wife got thrown off our insurance altogether. The Supreme Court is gone; we didn’t even get the nominee that was entitled to us this last year, and I’m really, really violently angry about that particular one. Whoever Donald Trump gets to appoint, that’s his fucking right as the goddamn elected president, and he did win fair and square. He gets to appoint Supreme Court justices, but Obama appointed a Supreme Court justice and they won’t even have a hearing about it, and that makes me a different level of angry.
You explore southern culture across your entire body of work. In previous albums, the stories that you told were set in the past, and it felt as though you wrote those as a way to try to understand who you are and where you came from. But in your latest record, American Band, a lot of the stories feel more present, more of the current moment.
It occurred to us as we were writing this record that right now is probably one of the most interesting historical times—I think it’s just become moreso, unfortunately—that I’ve ever lived through, and I felt that we needed to address the here and now. “What It Means” was the first song I wrote for the record, and I wasn’t even thinking in terms of it being a Drive-By Truckers song, or even something that would get recorded. I just wrote it to try to vent my frustration over what I was seeing happening, and what I felt was something that had been happening for a long time that seemed to be bubbling up over the surface. When I played it for the band, [Mike] Cooley played me “Ramon Casiano” which was his new song at the time, and that’s when we both realized that this new record was probably going to happen sooner than we thought and was going to somehow be addressing the political and cultural climate of this moment.
You’re both a representative of Southern culture and someone who challenges Southern culture in interesting ways. If you think about your ideal audience for this record, is that a fellow Southerner who maybe needs to hear some hard truths, or someone looking at the South and wondering what the hell’s going on? In other words, who were you trying to explain to whom?
To some extent, this isn’t about the South. This is about America. I’ve written a lot about the South, and there is a song that addresses my Southerness on this record with “Ever South,” but this election wasn’t about the South…
You’re right. I think that I’m actually asking about what we’ve come to think of as the core Trump voter: middle America, white…
PH: My demographic. I am a Southern, white, middle-aged, college dropout male. Demographically, I could very easily be a Trump voter. As can the rest of my band, except for maybe our keyboard player, who is part Puerto Rican.
That was a big part of our naming this album American Band. We wanted to show that there are people who look like us and feel like we do. Because I know we’re not alone. We play for a thousand people a night, on average, and most of our fans are down with what we’re doing. We sold out in fucking Phoenix, Arizona, which has never been a particularly strong town for us, and we had probably one of our favorite nights on this tour so far.
It’s easier than ever for people to experience news, TV, films, I guess all sorts of culture, that reaffirms their views. And I wonder if music, especially music that engages with political themes, still has the ability to cross that that divide?
I think it does, but less and less people are using it that way. I was a little white kid in Florence, Alabama, in the late 70s ,early 80s, and I didn’t know what a Sandinista was until I heard it on a Clash record, and so then I looked it up and started learning about what was going on down there. They had the ability to write about real political and socially relevant things and yet it was highly entertaining and it rocked.
Some of the touchstones when we were making this record were the Clash, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye—we don’t sound like any of those, but those were the people we were looking to for guidance. There’s a Tom T. Hall song he wrote in 1974, I believe, called Watergate Blues. This was a mainstream country artist—Lord knows that’s a very conservative world in itself, and always has been—and he wrote a song that was basically pro-McGovern that tells the story of the rise and fall of the McGovern campaign, and the song ends with the Watergate scandal, and him worrying about what was going to happen to his country next.
You’ve been living outside of the South for a while now. How has the distance that you have from the region altered your views, or even memories, of your life there?
Demographically, Portland [Oregon] is very similar to Athens [Georgia]. I’ve lived in Athens since 1994. In Portland, which is probably the most liberal city in America, if you get in your car and drive 15 minutes out into the country, you might as well be in fuckin’ Alabama. I mean, it’s Trump signs and trailer parks. The trees are bigger. You can see Mount Hood in the distance, which is awfully, stunningly beautiful, but it’s still very very similar to the demographics in small town Alabama or Kansas or anywhere else.
And I found that all over America.
We don’t have a red state/blue state divide. It’s more of an urban/rural divide. Watching the Pennsylvania returns, the whole question was whether Philly and Pittsburgh were going to vote in big enough numbers to make up for the rest of the state. I did spend the first 30 years of my life in Florence, Alabama, and that is very much red-state America. I still have family members who do not agree with my politics and a lot of my views, and I’ve got some that do, and I’ve got some that I’ve seen change their views as they’ve gotten older in ways that I’ve found really inspiring.
Your song “Let There Be Rock” is a really wonderful song about growing up, but it’s about a childhood that might, from a parent’s point of view, seem a little bit dangerous…
Sure. I’m a parent. I have to deal with my kids growing up hearing that song.
Is it possible for you come out okay from that kind of experience and still want your kids to experiment or try things?
I don’t want them to get hurt. I don’t want them to get killed. I see enough of me and their mother in them to know that they’re gonna want to get out and do some things that, you know, I’m gonna want to protect them from doing. That’s human nature. My job is to try to teach them as well as I can, try to protect them as much as I can, and still allow them to fuck up a little bit. It’s gonna happen.
I don’t regret the things I did that I talk about in that song. That was my escape from what I considered the day to day hell of my existence as a teenager, living where I was, it being the way it was, and me being the way I was; I didn’t fit in and I was often an outcast in my school. I didn’t even really have a peer group for a lot of my growing up because I was considered such a weirdo. At least I’m seeing my kids having a much better time of it right now than I did at their age. My daughter’s in sixth grade, and sixth grade to me was hell. I was bullied mercilessly.
I would come home beat up and bloody and I was scared to go to school, I was scared to go to the bathroom after lunch because I’d get my ass beat every time I’d walk in there. My daughter is in sixth grade and she can’t fathom that. I’m seeing it with my son, too. He’s only seven, but I don’t think his childhood will be quite as nightmarish as mine was. So hopefully they won’t feel quite as compelled to do some of the shit I did, or at least they won't do it quite as self-destructively as I did.
Your father, David Hood, is a musician, and he’s played with some of the biggest names in soul music and a bunch of other genres. I lived for two years in Memphis, Tennessee, and I’m a huge fan of the Stax Sound…
Oh, me too.
I’m wondering if you can recall a time when you were growing up or becoming a professional musician yourself when you had to decide what kind of music you were going to dedicate yourself to, and why did you choose what you chose?
My dad was a session player, so he didn’t really choose his genre. He played whatever he was hired to play and was just fortunate enough that he was in the right time and place with the right talent and skill set to where he ended up playing on some of the greatest records ever made. I never really wanted to be a session guy. I always came at it through my own writing. I was a writer before I learned to play. I really learned to play guitar so that I had a way of expressing these songs I was already writing.
I always think of us as just a rock and roll band. I don’t think of us as a Southern rock band, or some specific sub-genre of it, because we’ve got records that touch on all these other things—which is probably part of my dad’s influence. We made a country soul record with Go-Go Boots, and we made an attempt at a power pop record with The Big To-Do.
I’m going to see you this week at the Tampa Theater, which is a beautiful venue, but I've heard they don’t let the audience stand up until the encore. Does that affect the type of show you’re going to play? I can imagine you’d want to see people up and dancing and having a wild time.
I love when the audience can move around. I love playing theaters, too. I certainly hope they’ll be able to stand at their seats. The Tampa Theater is beautiful, and we really had a great time the last time we were there. We play a lot of different types of rooms and we do our best to make it work.
(Editor's note: We checked, and there is no such rule at Tampa Theatre regarding staying seated during a concert. Additionally, the venue had this to say: "Folks are more than welcome to stand and dance in their seating areas… they just can’t block the aisles or gather at the front of the stage. BUT, for this show, apparently the band requested that fans be allowed to come down and dance in front of the stage during the encore, and of course we will accommodate.")
More information on the show is available via local.cltampa.com. George Quraishi is a Tampa native and the founder and editor of Howler, a magazine about soccer. He lives in Tampa Heights with his wife Shea and their rambunctious one-year-old poodle, Echo.