Shut Up and Drive

"Yesterday the van broke down," Patterson Hood says in his raspy, Southern-fried voice. He sees this as an omen -- but not one of ill fortune, mind you. Quite the opposite. The singer was on his way from his home in Athens, Georgia, to a solo gig in New Orleans when his vehicle gave out at 1:30 a.m.

The front man for the Drive-By Truckers managed to guide the van down an off-ramp, through a stop sign and into a gas station parking lot. Within minutes, he'd talked someone into towing the van to a garage and dropping him off at a rental car office. He hardly missed a beat getting back on the road.

"I got to my gig only 30 minutes late," Hood says. "So I can't complain about my luck these days."

In a way, that story could be a metaphor for his band. In 2001 and 2002, the Truckers released Southern Rock Opera, a sprawling double-album tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd that also explored the paradoxes of the deep South. Supporting the album pushed the band to the breaking point, and by the end of 2002, four of the band's five members (all of whom had been married when they recorded the album) were divorced.

Decoration Day came out of the wreckage. That album wasn't as conceptually cohesive as Southern Rock Opera, but it was tighter musically. And its songs were still loosely connected in that they illustrated characters making choices -- which is entirely the opposite of the people who inhabit the Truckers' excellent new album, The Dirty South.

In fact, not one of South's characters -- not the twister-ravaged country folk of "Tornadoes," not the reluctant warrior of "The Sands of Iwo Jima," not the pushed-into-it small-time coke dealer of "Puttin' People on the Moon" -- has any choices to make. They just do what they have to.

Sounds bleak, doesn't it? Well, it is. But it's also strangely uplifting.

Hood, for his part, says the band has never been happier, at home or in the van. Of course, the lineup has been slightly retooled. Bassist Earl Hicks departed acrimoniously between Decoration Day and The Dirty South and was replaced by Shonna Tucker, the girlfriend of singer-guitarist Jason Isbell.

"That's one of those things," Hood says after a deep sigh. "The road is a bitch, and it takes its toll on people. It just wasn't working out anymore on any level."

The road may be a harsh mistress, but she inspires the Truckers. Southern Rock Opera came about after five years of discussions in the van, and the centerpiece of The Dirty South -- a three-song suite about the people (moonshiners, pimps, gamblers and the like) hassled, locked up or killed by Sheriff Buford Pusser in the original Walking Tall gritsploitation flicks -- had a similar genesis.

"We have too much time on our hands riding around in that van," Hood says. Singer-guitarist Mike "Cooley was like, 'You know what would be a great idea? To do a movie about the other side of the Walking Tall story.'

"So many of our songs start out as screenplays," Hood continues. "Maybe we should stop making records and start making movies. Randy Newman once said, 'It's occurred to me lately that a lot of the things I write about probably don't really make for good songs.' And I think we're kind of in the same boat…[S]o much of what we write is for our own amusement anyway. We just happen to be amused by folklore about dead redneck sheriffs."

By taking the perspective of the low-down, down-home types who do what they must to put food on the table, Hood acknowledges that The Dirty South flips the underlying theme of Decoration Day on its ear.

"Around the time we were finishing this record, I was wondering what this record was about, and I listened to it, and I was like, 'Well, shit, all these people kinda don't have choices,' " Hood says. "Even the ones who turn out good, like my great-uncle in 'The Sands of Iwo Jima.' He didn't volunteer. He got drafted and sent over there. But he made the most of what he had to deal with, and he came home a great man. And some of the characters didn't come out quite as well."

Then there are the people on "Tornadoes." Aside from, maybe, earthquakes, twisters are the ultimate no-choice disaster. Unlike a hurricane, you can't really run from one; about all you can do is hunker down and hope for the best.

Northern Alabama, from which Hood originally hails, rests in one of America's notorious tornado alleys. It's also one of the most religious areas in the South -- which is kind of like saying Fallujah is one of the most dangerous areas in Iraq, an extreme of an extreme.

"It's just a godforsaken place," Hood says of his home territory. "All them damn people -- it oughta make 'em think. They're the most God-fearin' people I've ever met, and it ain't workin' out. That guy that played Jesus in that fuckin' Mel Gibson movie got struck by lightning fuckin' three times!" (The Passion of the Christ star Jim Caviezel, along with assistant director Jan Michelini, was hit by lightning last October while the movie was in production. Michelini had already been struck by lightning once during the shoot.) "You know, duh? Maybe there is a God, and he don't like shitty movies. And Michael Moore hasn't been struck by lightning yet! And he's a big target!"

By this point, Hood is cackling so loud and hard that he sounds like he's choking. "That should make 'em go, 'Oh, shit! God really isn't a Republican! What do I do now?' "

For that matter, what do the Drive-By Truckers -- after three career-defining records in a row -- do now? Slow down, Hood says. The band has at the ready an album's worth of material that didn't fit the conceptual structure of Southern Rock Opera, and there may not be a better time for a leftovers record. But followed by what?

"We'll probably have to sit down and make a list of things we don't want it to be," Hood says. "We've talked a lot about doing away with the individual-writing thing and just getting everybody together and building a record that way. That seems like the next step in the evolution."

Then what?

What else? Hit the road.

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