For more than two decades Drive-By Truckers (DBT) have been redefining Southern rock music. Along the way, they've paid homage to the traditions and icons of an often maligned genre while lambasting stereotypes and prejudices associated with the style and the Deep South in general.
Now, as DBT heads out on a co-headlining national tour with multi-Grammy Award winner Lucinda Williams, the finishing touches are being made on what will be the band's 12th studio album. Just before they hit the road, City Paper caught up with DBT co-founder and frontman Patterson Hood via phone from his Portland, Ore. home, where he's lived for the last five years. He discussed his personal musical journey and the evolution of a band that continues to make a lot of noise — formerly with their three-axe attack (á la, Lynyrd Skynyrd), and now more with what they're actually saying than the level of their amps, which are still pretty loud.
Their last studio effort American Band (ATO Records, 2016) was dubbed by some as a protest album and was certainly their most political record to date. It also marked a kind of rebirth for DBT, which seemed to struggle to regain its mojo in the decade after former Trucker and current Americana darling Jason Isbell's departure. American Band put DBT back in the spotlight and proved that Hood, who turns 55 in March, and longtime collaborator and bandmate Mike Cooley (52), still had plenty to say and plenty of rock 'n' roll left in the tank. The album garnered a mountain of critical acclaim and ended up on several year-end Best Of lists.
According to Hood, while the themes on American Band served as a foreboding look at the direction we were heading as a nation at the time, the new album will be a glimpse into the current state of affairs from a more personal perspective. But writing another political or protest album was not what Hood and Cooley set out to do when they first started conceiving the new record, which doesn't have a working title just yet or at least not one Hood's willing to reveal right now.
"We wanted to step away from [being political] but it didn't really work out ... American Band was written with a certain sense of pending doom, where this one is more just about the crazy, fucked-up time we're living through and the sheer day-to-day. This record is just as political as American Band, but it's more personal. The political is personal and this just takes it to the next level," says Hood. "When someone is trying to take away my family's health insurance, that is personal."
Back in December when Hood played an intimate solo show at the Pour House, he gave the crowd of hardcore fans who turned out on a Tuesday night a few teasers from the upcoming record. He also played several songs from his three solo albums as well as some DBT favorites, all while splicing in a good deal of his trademark storytelling banter in-between tunes.
A prolific songwriter, master storyteller, and part-time essayist, Hood rarely seems at a loss for words. But writing this album was "laborious." He says that while these odd political times might serve as a jackpot of material for comedians and late-night talk show hosts, it's a little tougher for a songwriter.
"Trying to make a record out of the shit I was feeling is hard, you know? Trying to find a way to appropriately and artistically sum up this shit is hard. It's really hard. I mean, they're serving Big Macs on silver platters. You can kind of laugh in a fatalistic way, but it's not fucking funny," says Hood in reference to the national champion Clemson football team's recent visit to the White House, where amidst a government shutdown, they were served food from McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King, and Dominos.
While he doesn't adhere to any one specific technique or ritual when writing songs, Hood says he typically won't write while on the road. But last year, while touring with the band, inspiration finally struck and somewhere between Sioux Falls, S.D. and Mizzoula, Mont., the floodgates opened.
After several hours of driving, the tour bus pulled into a Holiday Inn Express just off the interstate for a 12-hour stop somewhere near Gillette, Wyo. Hood and his bandmates were walking next door to a Mexican restaurant to grab a bite when he says he looked up and saw a billboard for Oasis Tanning Salon. That was his breakthrough.
"That was it. This is 21st century USA,'" says Hood. "Then it got easier and I was able to write the rest of the album."
And while writing the record was "laborious" Hood says the recording process was a "joy" and the best the band has ever worked together in 23 years. The album, which took less than a week to record, is set to be mixed and mastered in March. "I'm really excited about it," says Hood. "Musically, it's probably more ambitious than anything we've ever done."
Expect to hear some tracks from the forthcoming album as well as favorites from the previous 11 DBT records when they come through Charleston this week. The show will open with singer-songwriter Erika Wennerstrom, and then Williams will play a full headlining set before DBT takes the stage. The fact that DBT closes out a bill that includes a 15-time Grammy nominee speaks volumes to their popularity in the region. But as much as Charleston loves the Drive-By Truckers, Hood says he always enjoys his time here. "I love Charleston. It's one of my favorite towns," he says. "I like to eat, and y'all got some amazing food. I always get a good meal when I'm in town."