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Grand Funk Railroad may have got there first, but Drive-By Truckers are an American band. If not for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, for whom the Truckers opened the Midwestern leg of their summer tour, the Georgia six-piece might be the American band.
The Truckers rock hard - rattle them bones hard - but they're not rock stars. The songs on the band's eight studio albums through this year's The Big To-Do (ATO) examine life on the economic margins of society and the yawning gap between mythology and reality in the contemporary South with a literary eye for detail, hard-bitten humor and erudite Dixie charm.
Blue-collar as they come, the band is constantly touring and has already finished its next album, wrapping the mastering the day after Labor Day. "I sometimes question if we'd be better off if we could slow things down, but we just haven't quite been able to make that happen," says front man Patterson Hood, who started the Truckers in 1996 with co-captain Mike Cooley.
"It seems like whenever we try to take time off, we end up with twice as much to do."
Note: Be sure to read all the way to the end, because Rocks Off has a nice little surprise for all you Trucker fans out there.
Rocks Off: I hear you guys all the time on satellite radio. How much do you think that has helped to grow your audience?
Patterson Hood: I think it's gotta be helping. It just about has to be, because they have been very supportive. And we sure appreciate it, because we haven't gotten a whole lot in the way of regular radio up to this point, but satellite radio it seems like we fit like a glove with what they do. It's gotta be a help. Something's helping something. It's hard to tell if that's helping the touring or the touring's helping that or what. I'm sure it all kind of helps each other.
RO: How was opening your leg of the Tom Petty tour this summer?
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PH: Oh, it was fantastic. It was really great. They treated us great, and it was really cool getting to work with them. They're such an amazing band, and it was a great show. I think their audience seemed to take to what we're doing pretty well. I felt like our response was pretty good pretty much every night.
We made friends with some of the band, and their crew and our crew got along famously, so it was a great experience.
RO: How did you feel when they asked the Truckers to open some of the tour?
PH: We were thrilled. We've all been lifelong huge fans, so I can't think of another band we'd be more unanimously thrilled across the whole band than that. And he seemed a particularly good fit for this particular album of ours, too. I think the timing on that end was good.
RO: How do you mean?
PH: I just think The Big To-Do would be the record of ours that would work the best opening for that show. It's a little bit more of a poppier record of ours, I think, in some of the same ways that Petty's songs are.
RO: When you write, how much comes from personal experience, how much from things you hear from friends or family or the news, and how much do you make up?
PH: It's kind of a little of all of the above. It all goes in the blender, and whatever makes for the best song and the best story is probably where it's gonna go. Whether it ends up being more on the true-story end of things or more the movie version, I'm usually not necessarily like the person whose story I'm telling, even if it's done in first person, but there's gotta be something about that I can relate to enough to where I feel comfortable crawling inside that skin for however long it takes to tell that story. There's gotta be something that makes a personal connection to me.
RO: How much different are the ways that you and Mike write songs?
PH: I don't know his process enough to be comfortable talking about it. I love his songs. To me it seems like we come at it from pretty opposite directions sometimes, which I think is part of why it works so well in the band. I think a lot of times we might write about a similar thing [but] our approaches are so different it gives it a different expression.
Like I wrote "This Fucking Job," he wrote "Get Downtown" [on The Big To-Do] - both of those songs are basically about the current economic malaise we're in; we just approached them differently. I'm a lot more prolific. I'll write a lot of songs and toss 'em after the fact. He tends to edit before he writes down. He might write one or two a year, but they're generally pretty fully formed, whereas I might write 30 songs and decide I like 10 of 'em or whatever.
RO: How would you say Shonna is developing as the band's third songwriter?
PH: I think she's developing nicely. I really love her songs. They leave a lot untold. They're kind of mysterious - you don't necessarily know what the song's about, but it seems to work on a more gut-instinct level. A song like "I'm Sorry Huston" [from 2008's Brighter Than Creation's Dark] you don't really know who Huston is or what there is to be sorry about, but there's something going on there, and a lot left up to the listener's imagination.
I think that's really cool, particularly in relation to how that fits with our songs. Ours may be more fleshed-out in a lot of ways, so that kind of makes a nice little counterpoint.
RO: Do you think the Truckers will ever get tired of touring?
PH: Oh, sometimes, sure. It definitely happens. But I don't get tired of the show. That's probably why we put out so many records. It keeps the show evolving and changing. The one or two times we've ever toured a second year behind the same record, it generally became pretty hard.
When we put out Southern Rock Opera, and then a year later it got re-released on a bigger label and we had to basically start the whole touring cycle behind it again for a whole nother year, it was a little maddening because artistically we were moving on in a lot of ways. We were already hard at work on our next record, which became Decoration Day, so it was kind of hard to stay focused on the job at hand. I think that's definitely one reason why the band tends to be so prolific.
RO: Besides Southern Rock Opera, would you say that each Truckers record has a specific theme, or that you guys keep coming back to the same more general themes time after time?
PH: I think they've all been kind of evolving. There's definitely a kinship between Southern Rock Opera and The Dirty South, which came out two records later, as far as a revisiting or further look at some of the same themes. But otherwise I think they've had their own things going.
RO: I just saw a couple of hours ago that Leonard Skinner died.
PH: Oh really? He still outlived almost everyone in the band [laughs].
RO: Is there anyone from your own school days that had that kind of impact on you?
PH: Sure. Maybe in a different way, but I had a history teacher in high school that I've actually stayed in touch with. I still email him from time to time. I learned a whole lot from him. He was the best teacher I ever had, and pretty much that's where I got a lot of my love of history, and a lot of my political viewpoints pretty much came directly from things I learned from him, even though he wasn't the kind of teacher who would try to impose his politics on his students at all. In fact, he would very much want to err on the other end of it.
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At this point Rocks Off asked Hood if there was anyone he and the Truckers would like to back up the way they did soul legends Bettye LaVette on her album Scene of the Crime (2008) and Booker T. on Potato Hole (2009). He answered Hall & Oates. Unfortunately, our recorder chose that exact moment to run out of memory, but Hood was kind enough to email this explanation a little later on.
Patterson Hood: I was just waxing on our combined love of Hall and Oates. Folks think I'm kidding, but all of us are fans, especially Cooley. We're all especially fond of the post-"Rich Girl"/pre "Kiss on My List" middle era (Beauty on the Backstreets, etc.). We got to meet G.E. Smith last year when we were touring with Booker and he was very cool and we discussed how underrated (at least critically) H2O were.
I'm a huge Todd Rundgren fan and I think my love of H2O comes through from that.
Now for the fun part: Rocks Off has five pair of tickets to Thursday night's House of Blues show to give away to the first five people who email us with the correct title of the Truckers' 1999 live album in the subject header. Good luck!