The Drive-By Truckers during their last Houston appearance in November 2019: Jay Gonzalez, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Matt Patton. Drummer Brad Morgan is hidden.Photo by Bob Ruggiero
First, let’s start off with that name.
It was never meant to stick, only a dark humor-laden joke among band members for a group whose sound, home base, and even lineup were meant to be fluid back when it all began in 1996.
“If we had known people were going to show up, we would have thought a little longer about it,” co-founder Patterson Hood has said. The same Hood who said “There are probably a lot of people who never listen to us because our name’s so stupid but who might actually like us if they hear us.” And the same Hood who in 2020 wrote an essay for NPR titled “Now, About the Bad Name I Gave My Band.”
“I think how much further they could have gone with a better name. But also how far they’ve come with a bad name,” author and music journalist Stephen Deusner laughs over a Zoom interview. “And even when I explain my book to people who don’t know who they are, I have to qualify it when I say their name. ‘Wait! They’re really good! Don’t walk away!’”
Deusner hails from some of the same areas across the south that the Drive-By Truckers (founded by singer/guitarists Hood and Mike Cooley, the only original members left) tires have tread on. And he tells their story in the inventive biography Where the Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers.
The quality of Drive-By Truckers' music has exceeded any hesitancy or head-shaking about their moniker. With an evolving sound and worldview and material that has a basis in—but far outgrows—the general tag of “Southern Rock,” they’ve been challenging their listeners and themselves with a wide ranging body of work.
Deusner benefitted from having the full cooperation with the band, interviewing members past and present, and even hitting the road for a bit. He had built a gradual relationship with Hood over the years while filing a number of stories.
“Patterson knew my name, and they had an idea of who I was when I approached them about doing the book. They also knew I was from the same [geographical] area in Selmer, [Tennessee] in McNairy County,” Deusner says.
The inventive parts of Where the Devil Don’t Stay (the title taken from a song lyric) come in the form of the narrative. Rather than a straight-ahead chronological bio, Deusner takes the reader right to the places in the South that played key roles in the band and it’s development: Athens, Georgia; Muscle Shoals and Birmingham, Alabama; Richmond, Virginia; Memphis, Tennessee and others.
Along the way, he writes about the history of these places and the band, interprets their music, and adds his own observations, ping-ponging across timelines and lineups (included the one that included current Americana music mega-star Jason Isbell).
Not to mention details on the real people and historical figures the Truckers wrote songs about like George Wallace, Steve McQueen, Buford Pusser and Ronnie Van Zant. Deusner also touches on the non-famous people and other events in the band’s orbit who inspired songs like performers Gregory Dean Smalley, G. G. Allin, Bryan Harvey and a litany of ex-girlfriends, wives and relatives.
“I had started out thinking I would do a traditional biography, but then that didn’t seem interesting enough, and it wouldn’t show what made the band special,” Deusner adds. “A lot of my relationship with [DBT music] happened after I left the South.”
In fact, it was when his wife’s teaching and research work brought the couple to Birmingham in the United Kingdom that Deusner really began to dig deep in the catalog. “I would just walk around with my headphones listening to music that reminded me of home, just to see how it sounded differently,” he says. “I listened to a lot of Truckers during that period, and all these places they talk about really came out to me. And that’s how this structure started developing.”
Perhaps the best known lyrical phrase in the Drive-By Truckers discography comes on “The Southern Thing” track from Southern Rock Opera in which Patterson Hood tussles with the concept of “the duality of the Southern thing.” And how a region’s culture, lifestyle and sociology is consistently two things at once, seemingly at odds with each other.
In the book, Deusner writes “That phrase puts words to my own vague struggle about where I come from: disgrace and pride, forgetting and remembering, change and stasis.” He elaborates on that.
“I feel like I can read something personal into that phrase and idea, even though Patterson or someone else could hear something completely different in it. Hearing this band after I had left the South was very meaningful to me. I loved being from the South. That’s who I am,” he says.
“But I also acknowledge it has an ugly history with a lot of unsavory and awful things. It’s OK to feel different oppositional feelings about my home. And when they made that song, they were defining themselves as a Southern band, what they wanted to be and what they didn’t want to be.”
In the book, Deusner tells one story of how the band stopped a show cold when an audience member raised the Confederate stars and bars battle flag, even earning angry retribution by Cooley from the stage. Fans (usually referred to as "Heathens," after a DBT song) will appreciate Deusner’s history of the band, especially the early years, and the background on many of their songs. Then there’s Hood’s own admissions of personal failure personally and professionally, as well as bouts with depression. Jason Isbell talked to Deusner, and was equally blunt about how his alcoholism eventually ruined not only his stint with the group, but his marriage to fellow band member/bassist Shonna Tucker.
“That surprised me when I talked to him. He was forthcoming in that he screwed up in a lot of ways. But a lot of people related to him in an interesting way. His manager told me there was a guy who was trying to quit drinking and having a [difficult] time, and Jason wrote him personally. He’s one of the biggest [Americana] stars out there right now,” Deusner says.
“Mike and Patterson really complement each other. Patterson has a photographic memory, but Mike can give you the larger picture,” he continues. “That’s something I didn’t expect to find out.”
Moreso than a lot of groups, the Drive-By Truckers have gone through a number of different musical phases along with many lineup changes. And while they’ve always written about political, social, racial, rural vs. urban places and class issues (especially the last), it’s often been through the prism of the past.
But their last three records, American Band (2016) along with The Unraveling and The New OK (both 2020) have brought the band literally up to today’s headlines. Song topics have included George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, the Black Lives Matter movement, school shootings and gun control, Trumpers and the rise of the right wing, immigration and the Mexican border, religious hypocrisy and even the pandemic. It’s not hard to figure out where the band’s sympathies lie.
“That’s what I assert when I talk to people about the band. They’ve always talked about these things. And now it’s not just about the South, it’s about America and speaking directly,” he offers.
“I’ve been trying to think of other artists who have been successful writing political songs, like Steve Earle and James McMurtry. But the Truckers do it on a different [level], and they’re powerful and nuanced songs you want to hear over and over,” Deusner sums up. “It’s political, but it’s not pat. They’re trying to figure these things out, just like we all are.”
Where the Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers
By Stephen Deusner
University of Texas Press
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.