Patterson Hood had something he wanted to say. He just wasn’t planning on contouring those words into melodies. Instead, the leader of the Drive-By Truckers was making alliterations the old-fashioned way by putting pen to paper and allowing his imagery to tell a story that was painstakingly close to when his life wasn’t so easy. But snippets of poetry became chapter-ending musical sonnets and the book eventually fell to the side when its creator decided he was too happy with his life now to dwell on the past.
Not long ago, Hood was spending a “gorgeous day” in Portland, Oregon. Along with his solo band, he was in the middle of a tour, traveling the country and sharing his most recent story, Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance. Feeling satisfied with his current place in life, Hood called in from the northwest to talk with me about how a book became a song, his admiration for Jim Dickinson and how political leaders could learn from the misjudgments of those in power before them.
How has the touring been going?
It’s been a great tour, a really cool tour. The band is just unbelievable, the band that we put together for this. I hope we can continue doing stuff after this tour, which has been so good. It’s been a lot of fun.
How much longer are you going to tour?
I’m touring pretty much for the rest of the year. This tour is about a month and then as soon as it’s over I’ve got a ten day run with the Truckers and then I go to Europe for three weeks, touring with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady! And Will Johnson of Centro-Matic; and the three of us are doing like a songwriters show kind of thing and touring Europe with that. That gets me to pretty much Thanksgiving and then I think this band is going to do a few more dates in December and hopefully do a few more sometime next year too.
Who is in the band with you?
It’s Jay Gonzalez and Brad Morgan who are also in the Truckers; Jay plays piano and Brad plays drums. Then we had a cello player named Jacob Morris, who is just fantastic. He was classically trained and just a phenomenal player. Then we’ve got these two sisters, Claire Campbell and her sister Page Campbell. They have a band of their own called Hope For Agoldensummer and they are incredible. They were joking about people saying their music is sepia-toned but it is very sepia-toned sounding and the two sisters do those crazy sister harmonies and they play about a half a dozen or so instruments each and they are great at all of them. They’re part of this band with me and then their band is opening this tour with Jacob sitting in and Jay and I to some extent sitting in with them too on their set. So it’s been really fun. I mean, Claire plays the saw, a singing saw, and they play all kinds of things. And just having those harmonies has been amazing.
You sound like you’re a very lucky man.
Yeah, it’s been a really fun tour. It’s a different type of tour than what the Truckers have done for most of the last ten years as far as the Truckers are on a bus and have a five person crew. This is in a van with a one person crew so we’re humping our gear and doing all that stuff, which I have no problem with doing, and it’s actually been kind of fun. We’ve had some crazy, crazy long drives, like driving from Minneapolis to Portland is quite the haul but you know it’s been great. Everybody works and pulls together and it’s been a good positive vibe in the van and that’s worth a ton right there. It’s been a really cool tour.
You’ve said your current album originally started out to be a book. When did you realize that it was going to be a record instead?
It’s strange because the book was basically loosely based on a portion of my life a little over twenty years ago and I was going through a pretty bad period of it. One of the lead characters of the book, who is pretty strongly based on me, was a struggling, kind of very unsuccessful songwriter. So the way I was structuring the book is that between every chapter I was going to have a song that that character wrote. My original idea was going to use something I wrote back in that period or else something written in character from that point of view. And those songs, the ones I kind of wrote in character from that point of view, maybe three of those ended up on this record, which is kind of what started this whole process.
At some point I abandoned the book for mostly personal reasons than artistic reasons. I was actually liking a good bit of what the book was doing, and I may at some point go back to it and finish it. But this wasn’t the time in my life to do it. I just didn’t feel like committing the amount of time to being in that mental space that it took to kind of inhabit that character enough to write it in a long book form and balancing that with being a father and having a family; it was taking away from enjoying the life I live now (laughs). Spending that much time in that space, just the act of doing it I think opened some kind of floodgates so a whole bunch of songs came out, including a bunch that had absolutely nothing to do with the book that I was writing.
So that became the record: The three that kind of came directly from the book then the others that are much more contemporary as far as having to do with my life now as opposed to my life then. It wasn’t any kind of long, agonizing decision. It was more like, I kind of got sidetracked by the other thing that I was enjoying more. In all honesty, my rationale for much of what I do in my life is what I enjoy. It’s like, ok, making this record is going to be a lot more fun than writing that book (laughs) and it was. We generally have fun making a record. The Truckers’ records, with a couple of brutal exceptions, have generally been fun to make. But with that said, this record was even more fun, I think. It was just a really kind of joyous process.
Which three songs were the ones that were originally in the book?
“12:01,” “Better Than The Truth” and then the lyrics to “Untold Pretties” is actually a very short chapter from the book, just read as spoken word over an instrumental piece that was inspired by that chapter. I actually didn’t intend to have the spoken word part of it on there. It was kind of a last minute experiment that I decided worked. Originally, the piece of music was inspired by the writing and so I was going to put it on there as an instrumental and then in the booklet include that chapter. That was going to kind of be like the nod to the book that inspired the record was to include that short chapter cause it was so short and it just kind of seemed to pertain to it and at the last minute I thought, I wonder what it would be like if I read the chapter while that music played? I didn’t really expect it to work but it worked like perfect so I included it.
What can you tell us about the song “Disappear?”
I saw that Walt Disney movie on TV when I was a kid where the Kurt Russell character invents a magic potion in his chemistry class that makes you invisible [Now You See Him, Now You Don’t]. I was probably about seven, the same age that my daughter is now. I spent the next few years of my childhood pretending I could be invisible (laughs). So it’s sort of about that. It’s a little bit different lyric-wise than a lot of the songs I’m somewhat known for. A lot of times the Truckers are better known for our more storytelling songs whereas this one is just almost like a selection of imagery that kind of leaves it pretty wide open for however anybody wants to interpret it. I’ve wondered if I even made it a disservice telling as much as I’ve told about it because someone might get something totally different out of it that might be better for them than the truth.It’s kind of one that wrote itself. I wrote the song and then I had to figure out what the hell it meant (laughs). When I first wrote it I really had no idea. It’s like, ok, I know what this is about, at least to me. But it may be different for someone else, which is one of the good things about songwriting.
Another song I would like to ask you about is “After The Damage.”
I think that was the last song I wrote for the record. I don’t even know the specific. I know what I think about when I hear it but I don’t know the specific inspiration for it. It just kind of happened. I was actually on vacation with my family when I wrote it. I was driving down to our destination and I could kind of hear it in my head and I was like, I hope I can still hear it when I get there and can write it down before I lose it. So as soon as I got the car unloaded I headed out to a private place out on the deck and wrote it down real quick and then figured out how to play it, then demoed it after I got home from the trip. It turned out real good. It was fun in the studio too. I kind of knew immediately that I wanted Kelly Hogan to sing on that one so it was a treat having her come in and do that.
My friend Will Thompson sings on that one also and he has a great voice. It’s a collection of great voices and my voice (laughs) You know, we made a record with Booker T and it was all instrumental and yet it was very much a storytelling record. It just didn’t have words. I just became so fascinated with how he could put so much imagery in something that didn’t have words. So I’ve been more conscious on if our music could hold up as an instrumental piece even without the words. I think that’s really largely informed our work both with the Truckers and this record. I’ve just been more aware. I’ve always been a word guy so for a long time I probably let things slide. If I thought the words were strong enough I probably could be a little careless with some of the musical aspects of things. We’ve been much more in tune with that since working with Booker.
Your stories are predominately set in the south. How do you continually feel the creative fire writing about such a familiar place?
I don’t know. There’s never any shortage of things. I mean, the south is interesting and for all you could say, good and bad and there is no shortage of both, there is never a lack of interestingness about it. I guess you write what you know and I travel enough to where I’ve gotten to know a good number of places pretty intimately but none of them have just the inherent weirdness (laughs) Or maybe I don’t know any of them well enough to know the inherent weirdnesses of places other than the south. The south is something, it’s so extreme and it’s good and bad and our history is extreme and also very full of drama and peril (laughs). So I don’t know.
The Drive-By Truckers have had members come and go but Mike Cooley has been a mainstay. Why do you think you guys work so well together?
I don’t know. I’ve wondered about why some relationships, and you can talk about this in personal relationships too, but sometimes you have that summertime fling that is just idyllic and incredible for about two months and then it’s just over and there is no reason for it to continue any longer. And other times you can have a relationship that doesn’t seem like it would be something that would necessarily last but lasts forever. And he and I somehow have fallen into that category.
I think the bottom line is I love what he brings to the table. I love his playing, I love him, you know, and he is one of my favorite songwriters in the world so I feel honored to be sharing space on albums with songs that I hold in such high regard but also love what he does to my songs (laughs). He sits at polar opposites from me in so many ways that whatever direction I take in a song, he generally finds a way to bring something totally opposite to it and then inject that and I think that would be something I would miss if it wasn’t there, to the point that he plays on this record. I’ve only made one record ever in my life that he didn’t have some part on and that was my first solo record which was just me by myself with an acoustic guitar. Honestly, I’d probably like that record better if he was on it somewhere.
Out of all the songs that you have written, which one do you think is the most personal to you and why?
They’re all to some extent personal to me, even songs that are about other people that are very different from me. There has to be some place where I connect with the subject matter or else I couldn’t have written it. Even if I’m writing about some kind of shitty person that I am hopefully nothing like, there has got to be some place where I can connect to it or else I don’t think it’s going to work. As far as my favorite thing I’ve written, I’ve had the same answer for that for a real long time and that’s the “Living Bubba” which is on our first record.
As much as I hate admitting the possibility that I peaked in 1996 (laughs), that’s not a pleasant thought. Even when I first wrote it, I thought, I might never write a better one than this; there might never be a better song from me than this one and it’s the one. And I try to write every song to be as good as it can possibly be but that one just had something. I felt like I hit a different level as a writer there and it’s a bar I would love to keep. And it was about somebody that I barely knew. You would think I knew him intimately and we were lifelong friends by the portrait the song makes but in truth he was somebody that I had had a few conversations with, I certainly had a respect for him and I certainly cared for him, but I didn’t know him well. I second-guessed the thing for about a year cause I was worried about what his friends would think when they heard the song, if they would think I had no right to write something like that. It was from first person from the guy’s point of view. I ended up playing the song to his mother about a year after he passed away and she came up to me and threw her arms around me and told me that I got it right, which was probably the greatest review I have ever had.
On the new record “Heat Lightning” is kind of that way. The title cut is very, very personal and very close to my heart and was inspired by the passing of my Great-Uncle who was kind of like a second father to me and I’m really proud of that song. And my wife really likes that song too. I think it’s her favorite thing I’ve ever written and that’s nice.
Speaking of family, I talked to Luther Dickinson over a year ago …
Oh, I love Luther, they don’t come better
Well, he told me that you once said about his father that “He was a great example of how to balance your career and your family and even combine them if possible.” Is that a goal for you as well?
Yeah, very much, and his father would be a role model for me too. I loved Jim and that’s someone else that I didn’t know well but he touched me very deeply. The time I spent with Jim Dickinson, it happened at just the right moment in time when I probably needed that the most and it had a profound effect on me and impact on me. And the fact that he did this thing that we’re all trying to do so well and was such the consummate artist and even kind of cranky artist (laughs) which I can relate to. There is nothing he did that he didn’t do like it was a mission, and I relate to that. But the fact that he was able to balance that with obviously a successful job of child-rearing because of how those boys turned out, and I say boys but they’re men now but I knew them a little bit when they were teenagers and they were already so bad ass. So he is definitely a role model.
I think in a way he helped my relationship with my father because my father and Jim were peers and were friends and had worked together and had a mutual respect for each other and the fact that my Dad and I’s generation gap was punk rock. That was our generation gap. Before punk happened, we liked the same records and after punk there was this gap that took us a long time to overcome, cause Dad was a studio guy, from the same world as Jim was from. But the fact that Jim always embraced the punk esthetic and even produced at least three or four of what are considered landmark records in that genre, including the Big Star’s Third, which is before punk but it’s still one of the records that all the bands I grew up loving worshipped that record. I think that really helped with making Dad understand the validity of the art form I was in love with and that wasn’t so foreign to the art form he was from. And of course I always loved my dad’s music. I mean always, that was never a question. But I think maybe Dad questioned how much I respected the music he did, just because of the other stuff I was listening to.
Luther was telling me he listened to Black Flag and stuff like that.
Yeah, Luther was a punk rocker when I first met him and I think that’s part of what sets him apart from so many people who do the genre of music that they do. He brings that kind of punk rock ethic to it.
This is an election year. What do you think the candidates need to focus on the most?
We need to recognize the importance, the validity of the middle class and the fact that so much of the politics of the last thirty years have basically been systematically working against that. Both parties are guilty to some extent of that although I think I could make a pretty valid argument for the Republicans leading the way on a lot of it.
I think we do need more focus on fixing the infrastructure and fixing our education and all of that. I don’t know what all the answers are but I know that’s the right place to be looking for a lot of it. I don’t think that social programs are the enemy or are such terrible things. Sometimes when you don’t implement them correctly, and particularly some of the older ones, you cut funding and don’t do the upkeep necessary in keeping them working correctly and then you go, “Hey look, it’s broken. Throw it out.” But it’s like throwing out the baby with the bath water. It amazes me how much Southerners call themselves so conservative and are so against these programs when it was FDR that brought power to the South.
The part of the country I came from, we didn’t have electricity before FDR. We had a dam that was built, the Wilson Dam in my hometown, was built to provide hydroelectric power for a munitions plant during World War I. When the war ended, they took the generators out because they said the people there were too poor to pay for the power so they weren’t going to give them power, they weren’t going to make it available to them because the people were too poor to ever afford it. When Roosevelt came into office, he mandated that they put the generators back in the dam and that they run lines out to the people. Now the power companies were very upset, very angry, saying this was, I don’t know they used the word socialism at the time but they were definitely calling it some form of communism and government overreach. But, they were forced to do it, they did it, and they ended up making billions of dollars off of it, because when the people got power all of a sudden they were able to work and do more things, which therefore they made more money and they could afford the power. I use that as an example but I think it’s a pretty good example.
And I think all these years later that still holds up because you can compare that to other things now. You know, now we do need to work on developing other resources like wind and solar and things like that. But things might initially take a pretty big investment but from our government because it’s not going to be short-term profitable enough to expect businesses to just make it happen on the private sector all the time right now. But if you make that long-term investment there it will eventually pay for itself and to me that is one of the useful roles in government. Lord knows we’re not afraid to spend money. They’re going to spend it on something. If they’re not spending it on things that help the people, they’ll be spending it on things that kill people in other countries.
When do you know it’s been a good day for you?
Today has been a good day (laughs). I live a pretty good life. I work really hard and I sometimes get stressed out and sometimes I’m overworked and sometimes I can get grumpy like anybody else or as negative as anybody else, but overall, I’m playing now in two different bands that I think are great bands, I get to play the music I write and I get to go all over the country and sometimes all over the world playing it for people in really cool cities. I get to drink good coffee (laughs). Generally I don’t have to pay my bar tab (laughs). And I get to come home to a beautiful wife and my beautiful kids. So life is overall pretty good. I can get pissed off about politics and shit like that but I feel like we’re winning the election so that helps my mood. I’m not getting overly confident but it’s looking pretty good so I don’t know. Hopefully, your answer is somewhere in there.
You sound happy, considering if you go back and think about some of the things that you have been through in your life and how that that hasn’t kept you down.
Well, I always try to be pragmatic and kind of realistic but also I’ve generally had a certain optimism that I don’t know if it really always comes through in my songs. I interpret my music so differently than most people. I mean, most people they kind of dwell on how dark some of the songs are whereas to me the mere fact that I am alive to sing them is kind of a happy ending in itself. So I don’t really think of them as that dark. To me, it’s almost like dark comedy; it may come from a dark place but it’s generally pointing towards something better and I do generally try to be fairly optimistic in life.