Bonafides are hard come across. They’re earned. And when they’re attained, they can vault a messenger to a pedestal that requires a keen sense of responsibility to people looking for clarity in a world that lacks anything resembling such.
The Drive-By Truckers have bonafides. For decades, they’ve assumed the roles of a vast array of characters through lyrics that tell first person accounts of marginalized, misunderstood Southerners whose experiences are indicative of social mores pushed aside by a larger narrative we all want to hear.
Their new album, American Band, is not just an extension of that dynamic. It is the embodiment of that with one clear divergence: Hood and Cooley are no longer telling the story of tragically romantic caricatures of southern social ills. Their views on their home, the state of politics and discourse are the characters in their highest charting album to date.
American Band had to be refreshing to write, not just because the sound of the records harks back to pre-Decoration Day Truckers at times. In an age where it seems that everyone feels the need to aggressively assert their views on the state of thing without having earned the bone fides to do so, the Drive-By Truckers have shed the character driven songs and entered the fray head first.
Late last month, Patterson Hood called into the Creek to talk about American Band and the Drive-By Truckers upcoming November 17th show at the Capitol Theatre in Macon. He spoke slowly and intentionally about how this album is part of a long legacy of music as setting the scene for social change, how it is completely different from their other work, but somehow feels like the Truckers record they’ve always been writing.
There is no question that the characters Hood and Cooley have drawn up as fictional messengers of a non-fictional South changed the way we all perceive our home. And there’s no question that without the façade of characters we’ve become accustomed to from previous albums, American Band is a little more grinding, ripping at the veneer a little faster.
People got used to Hood and Cooley’s characters. They got comfortable. So, the Truckers, whether consciously or not, abandoned them, to write what some, including Hood, are calling their best work yet.
Seth Clark: We’re pumped about y’all coming and playing, and really dig the new album and just wanted to ask you a couple of questions, I guess.
Patterson Hood: Yeah, killer! It’s been a while since we’ve been to Macon, so it’ll be fun.
People down here are super pumped about it. We’ve all been waiting for you to come back and we’re just excited. How’s the Tour going so far?
It’s been great, man. We’ve had a really kick ass first leg that was great. We’re all pumped about coming down South again.
Why did y’all release American Band now? It seems like – even as far back as that solo show at Eddie’s Attic in 2014, I think I remember you playing ‘What it Means’. It seems like y’all have had some of this material for a while. Why release it now?
Actually, I had just written ‘What it Means’ when I played that  show at Eddie’s Attic. It was a brand new song. I started playing it that month. I had written it probably three weeks earlier. You know, at the time that I wrote that song, it was so timely of that moment, that I didn’t really think it would be something that would be timely by the time we made another Truckers record. I really was thinking of it in terms of something I would do for a while, then, with all, move on. And unfortunately, you know, we find ourselves with that song being more timely now than even when I wrote it, you know, which is unfortunate. I’d honestly just assume that song be something that wasn’t really appropriate to do anymore. It would suit me fine if that was like a time capsule of a troubled time that we’ve progressed from. But unfortunately we’re not there yet. So, when I played it for the band the first time, they all really reacted strongly to it and wanted to make it a Truckers song. Then Cooley pretty much responded by playing his new song for the first time, which was Ramon Castiano – and kind of from there, the record wrote itself. Things kept happening that stirred a reaction from one of us, and it became a song.
There was some point where it kind of occurred to us that that was the kind of the record we were making; it was never really a conscious decision. We more or less just followed the songs, which is what we always do as far as that goes, but this time the songs, you know, led us in this exact direction. And you, know, we’re living in a crazy time. It’s a time that I think that years from now historians will study this time, and this election. I would love to think that from hopefully a better time, they will. But, we don’t know. We don’t know right now. We don’t know where it’s going to lead. I know how I feel and that’s all I can really control: how I feel and how I react to it. I started writing songs when I was a kid as a way of dealing with things that were eating at me. Whether it was personal, a girl, or a teacher – I was real young. I was in third grad when I started writing songs. I actually wrote a song when I was real young about Watergate. Because that was that era. I’ve always kind of followed politics, so that’s always been a part of what I do. I wrote a song in ’88 about George Bush, Sr. when he was running for President against [Michael] Dukakis. So I’ve always kind of had that as what I do. And you know, Cooley’s always had his strong political beliefs, too. Although it’s really, I think the last couple of records, it’s ben a lot more apparent in his actual song writing. But you know, it’s always kind of been there. Uncle Frank and One of These Days, which were on our second album; those were both pretty political songs.
They just weren’t as time specific as what we’re doing, maybe right now. But they were certainly still relevant and timely, and still are now! So, you know, this record, like I said, these are crazy times. And we felt compelled to write about it and sing about it. On one hand, I’m not really idealistic enough to think…maybe that’s not the right word… I’m not quite thinking that a song can change the world or change anybody’s mind. But music can provide a backdrop, a soundscape for people who are trying to make change happen. You know, it does help. Martin Luther King made a really wise decision in asking the Staple Singers to come perform whenever he spoke. So they were a big part of the civil rights movement. He would speak, and then the Staple Singers would sing. That’s a beautiful part of that story. So I do believe in music as a tool in helping with social change.
It seems like, I actually had a question written down, saying, you know more than anyone about Macon’s history with Capricorn, how the Walden brothers famously got behind Carter in a successful attempt t keep Wallace confined to Alabama in his last run for President. Right.
Then the Staple Singers with Dr. King… And then later in 2014, with y’all openly campaigning with Jason Carter for Governor, you were an outspoken supporter of [Senator Bernie] Sanders. For sure.
It’s definitely… It’s still different. The album feels like it carries past being background music to hard times. It seems like commentary. With that as a background, I’m curious. Do you see this as a call to action? What stops a fan from listening to ‘What it Means’ and the rest of the political songs on the album and thinking, “Wow. This is hopeless.” I don’t know. That’s beyond my ability to control as far as other people’s reactions to it. All I can do is write the best song I possibly can about the thing I’m compelled to write about and learn to sing and play it as well as I can. I’m really blessed to have this band to play with, because they’re badasses, every one of them. They take whatever I do and make it better than what I ever could have imagined it being. And I have Cooley as a partner, writing songs that are as good, or better than anything I could do. So, my job on his songs is to be, to try to bring something to what he’s written that’s worthy and doesn’t in any way take away and hopefully adds to it. So far, so good. So far, he keeps me around. And where it goes from there, is up to the listener. I’ve been really taken aback and kind of really moved by the reactions this record has gotten, because there’s been obviously a little pushback, and people with some real nasty things to say about it, which is I guess to be expected in these weird times were living in. But, overwhelmingly, the response has been amazing.