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Everybody at the Table: Talking Politics, Music, and Race with Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood

on September 19, 2016, 12:00am

Photo by Danny Clinch

Patterson Hood thinks it’s time we had a talk. And by “we,” I mean every last one of us living in the United States. In his work over the past two decades as a co-founding member and principal songwriter for alternative country icons Drive-By Truckers, the 52-year-old has had plenty of time to explore the evils plaguing America and the world at large, both real and imaginary.

Most of the time, Hood’s country-fried narratives read as though plucked straight from a Flannery O’Connor novel, detailing doomed love, otherworldly encounters, and political intrigue by way of bullheaded Americana. But with a high-stakes election just around the corner, it’s time to cut the poetic pretenses and come to terms with the skeletons lurking in the founding fathers’ closets, as well as with our own racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and paranoia over people “taking our guns.” They’re views some might call — to borrow the chosen adjective of 2016’s Democratic candidate — deplorable.

Hillary Clinton may have apologized for calling the Trump campaign out for its associations with bigotry, but the Truckers aren’t afraid of the conversation getting a bit nasty. After all, when you’re a bunch of liberals from Georgia (and, in the case of Hood and co-founder Mike Cooley, Alabama before that), you get used to butting heads with the folks who have Confederate flags sticking up from their lawns.

“I don’t want there to be any doubt as to which side of this discussion we fall on,” Hood said in a press release announcing American Band, the Truckers’ forthcoming 12th album. “I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding of where we stand. If you don’t like it, you can leave. It’s OK. We’re not trying to be everybody’s favorite band; we’re going to be who we are and do what we do. and anyone who’s with us, we’d love to have them join in.”

dbt americanband cover Everybody at the Table: Talking Politics, Music, and Race with Drive By Truckers Patterson Hood

It’s no accident that American Band is scheduled for release on September 30th, just over a month before Election Day. It’s one of the year’s most relevant rock albums, tackling a bevy of conventional topics and the overlap between them. On “Ramon Casiano”, the band goes after the National Rifle Association, which Cooley calls a “white supremacist gun cult.” “What It Means”, meanwhile, is a response to the upswell of police shootings of unarmed people of color and the movements that have arisen in the wake of those shootings. Even one our nation’s oft-overlooked epidemics gets addressed on “Baggage”, a ballad Hood wrote in mid-2014 upon learning of Robin Williams’ suicide.

Hood, Cooley, and the rest have nailed down plenty of talking points, but you need only take a fleeting, dread-laden glance at the headlines to know there’s much more to discuss. On a recent August afternoon, Consequence of Sound called Hood to chat about the 2016 election, American Band, and the flawed but beautiful nation that inspired it.

This is your most political record to date, and yet you recorded it before Trump became a “thing.” What’s your take on the material now that it’s all actually happening?

You know, it’s funny, because the oldest song on this record is “What It Means”, and I wrote it close to two years ago. At the time, I hoped deep down that by the time we released the record it would be dated and not something we’d put on the record. Unfortunately, when we made the record, it was more timely than when I originally wrote it. I’m not really happy about that — I’d just as soon have it be something that’s a snapshot of a moment in time, and we can move on and maybe I don’t have to play it. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet, and I don’t know if I’ll get to see it or not.

I do think that all of the talking about [Trump], even though the talking itself is really unpleasant and difficult and painful, and starts resembling a bad Thanksgiving dinner conversation with that uncle who keeps saying terrible things, I do think that talking about it is a first step for things getting a little better. If nothing else, it airs it out a bit. I think the things that people refuse to talk about are given an extra power — the refusal to acknowledge or talk about them.

I have family in Georgia, and it’s a difficult situation. You have your family, and they’re Southern and happy, but at the same time, there are these uncomfortable truths. In the press release for American Band, you mention your white, working-class, evangelical, Southern background — a demographic that overlaps with that of many Trump supporters. What are we leaving out in our understanding of these communities?

That’s a really good, difficult question. I’m sure that many of them mean well, but are very misguided. I understand that there’s an anger at the status quo from both sides of the spectrum — there was no shortage of anger on the Left — and therefore people are drawn to figures who represent a break from that. I’m certainly not comparing Bernie [Sanders] to Trump. I voted for Bernie Sanders, and I like him a lot. I’m not comparing them at all, but to the people on the Left, he does represent this break from the status quo and a breath of fresh air that appeals to our liberal and progressive sensibilities.

I think people on the Right have the same feeling about Trump, like, “Oh, he says all these crazy things, but he don’t mean ‘em. He’s just refreshing and honest!” And it’s like, well, he’s actually an asshole and actually, those crazy things he says are not fit for being said by someone living in the White House and someone who’s supposed to represent us to the rest of the world … Even if I was a conservative or a Republican, I can’t fathom wanting to be represented by somebody like that. I know some really smart Republicans who feel the same way, and I may not agree with them on a lot of issues, but they don’t want that either.

So, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think his racism is the extent of his appeal, but it’s certainly part of his appeal. The mere fact that he’s embraced so much of that in his rhetoric, and how he’s marketing himself to his followers and gotten away with it … that is very troubling.

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Photo by Danny Clinch

Many of your songs are rooted in the Southern Gothic tradition — good people with bad intentions led astray by temptations and human weaknesses. That’s one of the things I noticed about the record, there’s a lot of double-edged swords. Was that intentional?

I think a lot of them revealed themselves to us as we put it together. When I’m writing, I’m not thinking yet about the album as a whole. Maybe towards the end of the process I might be, because it’s starting to reveal itself. Those types of things get revealed to us while we’re in the process of getting the record together, and we go, “Hey, our songs seem to be having a conversation this time.” That’s what me and Cooley do. The whole backbone of this band is this dialogue between his songs and mine. But this time it seems to be more pointed and unified than ever. We grew up in neighboring towns, and we’ve played together for 31 years. We’ve got a lot in common, but we’re two very, very different people, and we have different ways of articulating our feelings. But on this record, it seems particularly unified.

I mean, you cut nine tracks for this album in just three 14-hour takes. That’s marathon speed. How’d that process go?

It was amazing and completely unplanned. The original plan for this record was to start making it in early January/February, mix it and master it in the spring, and try to get it out in the fall. We were touring last fall, and I thought, “You know, we’re gonna have a bit of a time crunch,” because we’d had a nightmare of a time getting the vinyl pressed for our live record last year. It was five discs, and all the vinyl pressing plants were backed up, so the record was months late getting in stores. It was really frustrating to us, because we really worked hard on the packaging for it and the box and everything about it. We were really proud of it. The loss was kind of a fiasco — it was literally months — so we were like, “We don’t want this to happen.”

We knew the [new] songs had a heavy political bent, and we wanted to get it out for the election this fall. We didn’t want to spend our fall with the record backed up at a pressing plant, so we figured we’d get a head start on it. Our November tour was short and ending in Nashville, so we thought, “Why don’t we find a studio in Nashville where we can go and get a head start? Instead of starting from scratch, we can apply [our time on the road] to the studio.” We were hoping to just do three or four songs or get in a state where we felt like we were at the starting point. So to go in and have nine songs — our final tracks for the record — was amazing. We had no idea that was going to happen.

I remember the second morning, we started with “What It Means” — that’s one of the songs I thought would be hard to get. It’s one take. We did the hardest song on the record in 15 minutes, and then were like, “OK, what’s next? Cooley, what have you got for us?” So we just went back and forth, and we’d already knocked out a couple the day before. To us, that’s a good first day, considering how the first day of recording is usually slower because you have to get the right sound and all that. We’d never recorded in Nashville before; we’d never recorded with this guy [Matt Ross-Spang] before. He will now be a lifelong friend. He was incredible to work with and hang out with. It was all magical, and by the end of the third day, we were like, “Shit, we could put this out and just call it done, but let’s take Christmas off and see how we feel about it.” Over the Christmas break, I wrote “Ever South”, and then we went in right after New Year’s and took four more days.

Then at the last minute, right before we mixed it, Cooley wrote “Filthy and Fried”. We were playing in Athens, Georgia, that weekend at the 40 Watt Club, and David Barbe was already going to be recording the show, so we had a mobile recording setup there. So we were like, “Well, shit, let’s take a stab at this new song and see how it goes and just record it here during soundcheck.” It made the record, so it was a magical process.

You live in Portland, Oregon, now. Do you ever find yourself looking back to Georgia, especially given the likelihood of it being a toss-up state this election?

I feel guilty not being a voter there. I do. This is the first time I’m going to vote for a president and have my vote actually count for something [Laughs]. I’m going to be voting blue in a blue state, and I’ve never done that in my life. I’ve never voted for a winner, I don’t think, aside from Clinton in the ’90s, although he didn’t win the states I was voting for, man, and I voted for Obama. Obama’s the first time I voted for anybody in the primaries that actually got the nomination. Part of me feels a little bit guilty that I can’t get involved now that Georgia’s in play.

I’m still a bit skeptical about it. The last election I voted in was the gubernatorial election in Georgia; I was a Jason Carter supporter, and he was looking really good in the polls, some of which had him within one percentage point of making it. Then it was like, goddamnit. It was disheartening that day, so I’m skeptical, but who knows. My in-laws live in Marietta [a middle-class suburb outside of Atlanta], which is about as conservative as it gets, and I’ve noticed a lot less Trump signs than there were Dubya, McCain, or Romney signs. My in-laws are the most liberal people I know. If they could fall to the left of me, they would, and they were the only people who didn’t have those signs. My dad voted for Jesse Jackson in the primaries back in the day. There was one vote for Jesse Jackson, and that was my dad. That’s where I come from, even though a lot of my extended family were extremely religious and definitely Republican.

You’ve mentioned Ta-Nahesi Coates and Kendrick Lamar as being two of this album’s biggest influences. Tell me more about that.

I think To Pimp a Butterfly is probably the London Calling of this era right now. When people look back at the ’80s, London Calling is the album of the decade, even if it technically came out in ’79. That was the era I grew up in and the record I looked back on as defining that era, that moment in time. I think To Pimp a Butterfly is that record. It’s so artistically dense that I still hear new things every time I listen. I still find new things in it, and there are things that I haven’t figured out or understood — and I’ve been listening to it for a year and a half now.

That book [Coates’ Between the World and Me] is like “What It Means”. I’m afraid it’s not going to be dated soon enough. It’s probably going to continue to be relevant. I’d already written a good bit of the record before I read the book, but when I read it, I realized that it expressed exactly what I was trying to put into words. At the same time, I was going through a lot of questioning. I’m a 50-year-old white dude from Alabama with a Southern accent. Do I have a right to be making these suggestions? And it’s like, “Well, yeah, I do have a right.” In fact, maybe it needs to come from someone like me as well as Kendrick Lamar and Mr. Coates.

One of the things I took from the book — because the book doesn’t offer many answers, either — was “What It Means” is basically a bunch of questioning, and he [Coates] seems frustrated by the lack of dialogue and by the fact that white people in particular seem really scared to talk about race, whether it’s out of guilt, stubbornness, or another reason. So it’s like, OK, I’m going to answer that call, and if it’s uncomfortable, that’s OK. It’s an uncomfortable thing, but it needs to be talked about.