When the Houston Press reached Drive-By Truckers co-founder/singer/guitarist Patterson Hood at his home in Portland, Oregon recently, the sound of water running was in the background. “Excuse me a minute, I’ve got to wash my hands. My dog just puked all over,” Hood said, sighing. “I guess this is what all the glamour of being a working musician comes down to.”
As a working band, DBT recently passed their 20th anniversary. While their ten previous studio efforts feature plenty of songs in which politics, social issues and history (both historical and contemporary) collide, last year’s American Band ratchets things up another notch. Here, co-founders Hood and Mike Cooley (each of whom sings lead on his own compositions) have never been more of-the-times.
“It’s funny. All [the reviews] said how the band had gotten political on this one. I’ve always felt that all of our records were kind of political. But this one came out before the election, and we really wanted it to,” says Hood, presumably gripping his phone with now-clean hands.
“But in a strange way, we’ve got a record that is more timely now than it was six months ago, and that wasn’t really the plan,” he continues. “On a totally selfish level, it’s probably good for the band, but it’s not really good for us as a people. I wouldn’t wish what’s going on with our country on any country!”
Even the cover of American Band makes it stand out, utilizing a photo instead of the traditional Wes Freed drawing that had graced the majority of their output. “I’ve always been a fan of photojournalism, and although the cover isn’t that in a literal sense, it has that kind of feel," Hood offers. "We love working with Wes and continue to do so, but felt that this album needed a different kind of look.”
Hood has followed politics since he was a child. He remembers when he “got into some trouble” in elementary school for a report during the Watergate crisis in which he wrote that President Nixon should be tried for treason. “My teacher in the north Alabama public school didn’t take very kindly to that!” he laughs.
“But I always felt there was a political aspect to our writing in the albums,” adds Hood. “Like when we talked about George Wallace on Southern Rock Opera or Ronald Reagan on The Dirty South or Lee Atwater on English Oceans. We even wrote about George W. Bush – who now seems quaint and like he almost has indie cred today with what we’re dealing with! I mean, you’ve got to laugh. But yes, it’s closer to the surface on this record.”
Writing in the group’s press-kit bio for American Band, Cooley offers, “I wanted this to be a no bones about it, in your face political album. I wanted to piss off the assholes.”
For Hood’s contributions, there are songs that touch on controversies involving the Confederate flag (“Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn”), the Black Lives Matter movement (“What It Means”), school shootings (“Guns of Umpqua”) and even one about mental depression, written the night he heard of comedian Robin Williams’s suicide (“Baggage”).
On Cooley’s side, there’s the clinging to history of the Old South (“Surrender Under Protest”), dirty politicians (“Kinky Hypocrite”), censorship and anti-Muslim fervor (“Once They Banned Imagine”), and immigration and border protection (“Ramon Casiano”).
That last song is about the real-life 1931 murder of Casiano, a 15-year-old Mexican boy, by a U.S. Border Patrol agent in Laredo. That agent – Harlon B. Carter – would years later lead the National Rifle Association and move the group’s focus from promoting marksmanship and sportsmanship to advocating for gun rights and against gun control.
“The NRA needs to be turned into a political turd in a swimming pool, so all these fuckers will start paddling away,” Cooley adds from that bio. “What I’m trying to do is point straight to the white-supremacist core of gun culture. That’s what it is and that’s where its roots are. When gun culture thinks about all the threats they need to be armed against, what color are they?”
“I’ve always been Progressive, or whatever you want to call it this week,” Hood adds. “I mean, I was raised by Roosevelt people! Politics has always been part of who I am.”
Music runs in his blood as well. Hood's father, David Hood, was the bassist for the storied Muscle Shoals-based "Swampers," elite studio musicians whose fingerprints are all over '60s and '70s rock and soul classics. The Swampers are name-checked in "Sweet Home Alabama," the song by Lynyrd Skynyrd...whose myth and influence would provide the basis for the Truckers' own 2001 masterpiece, Southern Rock Opera. Got all that?
That's not to say all the new material is heavy. “Sun Don’t Shine” is a paean to the Alabama/Georgia-bred Hood’s new home of Portland, Oregon. And “Ever South” is a sweeping look at the region’s history and proclivities. Hood thinks the latter is the “best ever” song about the area – which is saying something. But that he had to leave it to get perspective, over distance both geographical and mental.
“We’re kind of known for writing about the South, and I get that,” Hood says. “But it’s like that guy from my hometown, George Lindsey, the guy who played Goober on The Andy Griffith Show. He could have been a Shakespearean actor, but once he played Goober, that’s what he would get typecast as.”
And, as on all Truckers records, many songs have a cinematic quality, as if they could easily be outlines for a novel or movie. Don't think that Hood hasn’t given that some extra thought over the years.
“A lot of songs on [2004’s] The Dirty South were based on characters or stories that I thought of maybe someday writing a book or screenplay about, involving the State Line Gang or the Redneck Mafia or whatever you want to call them,” Hood says. “Cooley and I wrote a whole series of songs based on that period, and the kind of guys who were going up against Buford Pusser…but this wasn’t the glamorous mobster life of Goodfellas.”
Pusser was the real-life sheriff of McNairy County, Tennessee from 1964-70 and known for his virtual one-man war on local crime and criminals. That actually made him plenty of enemies. His wife was murdered during this time, and he himself survived several assassination attempts. His story was dramatized in the movie Walking Tall. Pusser died in 1974 in a one-car accident that plenty of people believe was not accidental.
Besides Hood and Cooley, the Drive-By Truckers includes longtime drummer Brad “The EZB” Morgan, keyboardist/guitarist Jay Gonzalez, and bassist Matt Patton. Together since 2012, it’s the longest-lasting consistent lineup in the band’s history (though intermittent guitarist John Neff left in 2013).
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But circling back to politics. Those who have followed the band since before their breakthrough with Southern Rock Opera know a lyrical affinity for the subject has even earlier roots. Specifically, the very early tune “The President’s Penis is Missing” that came to light on the Truckers’ second record, Pizza Deliverance.
The tune – inspired by Bill Clinton’s sex scandals – has the narrator in a state of shock as they look to recover the First Organ, searching the White House, Capitol Hill and even the Smithsonian to no avail. And only to sum up: "Them outer space people would laugh if they'd seen us/all this talk about cum-stains and oral coitus/ meanwhile the whole world suffers from hunger and meanness/ but we're more concerned with the President's penis?”
“Oh, that one was political, for sure!” Hood laughs. “Though it’s probably the most hated song that I ever wrote!”
The Drive-By Truckers and special guests Hiss Golden Messenger perform Tuesday, April 11, 7 p.m. at White Oak Music Hall, 2015 North Main. Doors open at 7 p.m.; tickets are $25-$27. For more on the Drive-By Truckers, visit drivebytruckers.com.