A reluctant yet masterful rock and roll sage grapples with his own miraculous writing in these troubled times.
By Steve Houk
Yep, two more bad things happened in this country over these last few weeks. Two more really bad things.
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On one side of the country, kids were being yanked away from their parents at the border, for no real reason. And then as that continued in the West, on the other side of the country, almost like the unthinkable has become normal, five journalists were gunned down in their newsroom, for absolutely no reason.
In visceral reactions to these things, many cried. Some screamed. Some marched. Others just typed and texted SMH…again.
But like he always has, Patterson Hood wrote. He tweeted out a handful of those gorgeous yet heartwrenching words of his, words that someday would become song lyrics or likely already had. Some thanked him for them, some called him names.
The world wakes up this morning
I’m sorry for the news
Wrapped up in a tinfoil blanket without any shoes
Babies in cages Are we so divided
That we can’t at least agree
This ain’t the country that our granddad’s fought for us to be
Babies in cages
And then days later, he wrote more words, this time reflecting on his anguish about the 154th mass shooting in this country this year, and got a “Preach, Reverend Hood” response among other praises and yes, some pushbacks.
When the carnage was over you could hear the cellphones ringing
You could smell gun powder in the air
On the bloody ground LED’s were blinking
Deliver us from evil, thoughts and prayers
Sure, Patterson Hood can write words about less oh-so-serious subjects, and he has often. He’s crafted dozens of memorable tunes about just livin’ and lovin’ and loneliness and dealin’ with it all in this bitch of a daily life we live. He wrote a staggering rock opera about his heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd, and exquisitely eulogized another hero, Tom Petty. And he even wrote a well-received NY Times op-ed piece about how the South is such a living dichotomy. No doubt the guy can outright write.
But when he’s moved, pissed, outraged, or just damn thoughtful, he has also written songs that make you literally stop in your tracks, and gasp and ask, like he has, what’s it mean? Songs that make you dig deep about yourself, our your country, or your neighbor, or your soul, or whatever he feels. This is all good for his fans, and he lives to write songs, but deep down, Hood prefers to not have to be that spokesman of hurt, that scholar of pain, that harbinger of horror. He doesn’t really like all the negative static, the pings of sadness, the grip of anger, cluttering up what most who know him feel is that magnificently insightful brain of his these days. Kinda sums it up here in a line he also tweeted out last week.
This white noise in my head, I think I need a filter
A pressure valve to keep from blowing up
When the shit comes down, I pray I can rise above it
Hold me close when I’ve had enough
“I’m certainly proud of what I write, but I don’t really want to be defined by writing that kinda stuff,” Hood told me as he was walking his dog a few weeks ago, and then banging around in his kitchen before likely setting down in his living room. “It’s stuff that I do, and I’ve done, but I also want to write other things and do other things, and I don’t really like the amount of space it’s taking up in my brain right now. I am pretty unhappy about pretty much everything about the political, etcetera, climate of our country right now. I’m not happy about anything about it.
For a couple decades since storming out of the musical shoals of Alabama, Hood has been the driving force of one of America’s most talented, possibly one of the most unwarrantedly unheralded, and certainly one of the most hard-working road bands ever, Drive-By Truckers. And during that time, he and his band have covered the gamut of topics large and small on their 11 brilliant albums. And sure, Hood had written some heavy shit before — I mean a southern band putting out an album in 2004 called The Dirty South takes big balls.
But after writing 2017’s American Band — a record with songs that pull zero punches on current and volatile issues like police shootings of young blacks, mass school shootings, in an even more direct way than he’d ever done before — something happened. Hood found himself at an unexpected crossroads of where he was actually gonna go next with his writing. In some ways, it made him slam into a wall he’d never experienced before.
“I didn’t want to back down from what I was doing, because I believed in what I was doing,” Hood said openly, relaxing as he was awaiting the beginning of the Truckers’ opening stint on the Tedeschi Trucks Band‘s Wheels of Soul tour which hits Wolf Trap on July 11th. “At the same time, I also didn’t want to be defined by that, didn’t want to have that, ‘Oh, that’s what he does now’ thing. But overall, I had a harder time getting in the groove of writing for this next record than I’ve had in a long time, it was a very disturbingly hard process. I went a year without writing anything after I finished American Band, which I’ve never done, I’ve never gone 12 literal months without writing a song since I was a eight years old. At first, it was kind of enjoyable, taking a break. Then it kind of got where it wasn’t. It was really tough.”
After the drought began to slowly lift, the first thing Hood wrote was another no BS in your face song, “Perilous Night” which treaded the same choppy water as some of American Band did. And it got him some backlash, for calling out the President by name, ramming the collusion issue down some throats, accompanied by a no holds barred music video (remember them?) that drove it all home even harder. But like he has always been, Hood was not compromising one iota, not backing down one bit, as far as what he wanted to say with his music. And to many, that’s what makes him the gift to music that he is.
“When I started trying to write again, it took another full year before I was really getting anything out of it that I even remotely liked,” Hood continued. “It took me eight months to write (Perilous Night) and then I threw it away. And then after the demonstrations in Charlottesville, I dug it out and rewrote it, and we put out the single last fall. And I’m sure there’s some people who walked away, and I’m sorry, I hate that. But I’m not gonna not write the song I feel like writing over any of that. I think it’s unfortunate, but you know, that’s just part of this shitty time that we’re in and (writing songs about it) is just another symptom of it. But I’m not gonna live my life pandering to that kind of bullshit, you know, I’ve always spoken my mind, and I’ve always gotten in trouble about it, always. Long before this. People don’t remember, when we put out The Dirty South, it was a really heated election year and we had way more pushback that fall of ’04, more than we ever had over American Band or “Perilous Night.” I remember it was a Charlottesville show back then where we had this whole contingent of frat boys shooting us birds and throwing things at us during that show. And then, honestly, thankfully, my favorite show we’ve played this year has been…our Charlottesville show. We had a really beautiful, wonderful night in Charlottesville. So go figure.”
As the songwriting fog seemed to dissapate, Hood started feverishly writing again, but surprise, he found what he created wasn’t a record he’d expected to write.
“After all that struggle, I ended up basically writing an entire album that I don’t think is the record that (the band’s) gonna make. It’ll probably be the solo record I’ll make at some point after the next record. I wrote a really good record, a really strong record. But I don’t feel like it’s the record for the band, right now.”
Hood had done a slew of solo shows in the last couple years, and enjoys that different kind of dynamic, and clearly leaned towards that feeling in his recent writing. But he also wants to continue to please the base, the fan who loves the DBT for their kick-ass rock and roll vibe. And it all leads back to this last struggling period of songwriting, and how he feels the songs he is writing should ultimately be expressed.
“The reason I didn’t want to make the solo record right now was really because I’m having fun being with the band. I didn’t want to take a break right now from the band to go pursue this other thing when the band’s so hot right now. Sure, the solo shows have really morphed into their own kind of beautiful thing, I’ve had a really wonderful time with that in the last two years, they’re generally very quiet rooms and you can hear a pin drop, which is wonderful, and I’ve got a really, a beautiful audience that comes to see me and it’s very intimate. And that recent record I just wrote is like that. But I didn’t want to then take that record and go put it in a room with 1500 people who are ready to go raise hell and have it be kind of a raucous rock show, you know? I didn’t want to disrespect either of them, I didn’t want to disrespect the rock show or that. Nor do I want to limit what the band does, ’cause the band can do anything. Whether it’s loud or quiet or…hey, we could do an album of polkas and they would make it work.”
So no, the upcoming Drive-By Truckers record isn’t going to be a polka record, although it’d sure be an interesting one. But after grappling hard with his basic philosophy of songwriting, and leave it to him, writing an entire record that he will set aside for now, Hood has finally been able to craft with his bandmates — Mike Cooley, Brad Morgan, Jay Gonzalez and Matt Patton — what he thinks is just the right next record for his Truckers to bring to the people, especially out on their coveted road.
“It’s about finding kind of a balance,” Hood said. “Honestly, American Band is absolutely one of the best things we’ve ever done, and it’s certainly the best received record we’ve had in 15 years. So, I didn’t want to just follow it up with something half-assed and let down the momentum. So after I finished that last more ‘solo’ type record, I started writing the band record, and it’s coming along really well, we’ve got some really strong songs and I’m feeling really good about it and really excited about recording it this fall. I’ve been super, super self-critical and hard on myself, as I know Cooley has too, in this process. I just felt like this one was really important how we follow it. Not just a good record, but the right good record, and defining what that is, in its own right, is a bit of a daunting thing. It’s been, you know, it’s been three and a half years since I finished writing American Band. So, it took a long time and was really a brutal process getting there.”
Hood’s innate songwriting mind, the same one that went through that recent torturous reboot, has been there since nearly the beginning of his time on earth as an Alabama baby, likely swingin’ on the ol’ rusty swing or runnin’ through those Alabama woods with songs wafting in and out. Thankfully, he nurtured it early on, certainly with the help of his Muscle Shoals session Swamper Dad David Hood’s exceptional musical heritage, and yes, the secret finagling of his Dad’s record collection.
“I think I heard ’em in my head,” Hood recalls. “I think I was eight when I figured out that’s what it was, and started writing them down. I’m pretty sure I heard songs before that, but it was, like at eight it was a conscious thing that, okay, I should write these down. And when I grew up, there was always a lot of music around the house, alot of records. My Dad worked a lot, I didn’t see him a whole lot but his record collection was there. And I learned, at an early age, how to illicitly operate the stereo without him knowing, and how to get the records put back just so, ’cause my Dad’s super anal-retentive about his records, as he should be, and as I am about mine. So, I learned, at a really early age, how to pull it off so that I could go downstairs when I was supposedly doing homework and put on headphones and listen to music, listen to records. If it had a cool album cover, I’d play it. It was just why I’m such a fanatic about album covers, and about all covers. And about all of the packaging stuff. It was…that was my education growing up. ‘Cause I sure wasn’t getting it at school.”
Like any great purveyor of words, Patterson Hood’s songwriting and his music will continue to evolve, and provide him and his many fans new and old with his always gloriously perceptive, honest and penetrating words, that often come just when we need them most. He may rather not have the negative hive of angry bees buzzing around in his brain motivating his writing, but it’s also part of his already-revered legacy, to speak his mind in song.
But at the end of the day, in his heart, Hood’s just a singer in a killer rock and roll band, and it’s that core and the band’s relentless tours that has kept the Drive-By Truckers the revered American band that they are, and the place where Hood’s complicated yet remarkable mind seems most at peace at.
“The band’s super good right now, and we’re having a great time with each other,” Hood said with an anticipating sparkle in his voice. “And I think we are gonna make a really good next record. The band’s never played as good as it’s playing now. And this tour, it’s gonna be a great show. Right now, I feel good about all of it. For now.”
Drive-By Truckers with the Tedeschi Trucks Band and The Marcus King Band perform Wednesday July 11th at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna VA 22182. For tickets, click here.
(top photo by Danny Clinch)