In three days, the Drive-By Truckers will release their 11th studio album, “American Band” — a strident, political powerhouse of a record that’s directly relevant to where our nation and the South find themselves today. We took one of the band’s two founding members — Patterson Hood — back to the place where the band first gained traction 20 years ago, Atlanta’s Star Community Bar. We had a long conversation about the history of DBT and, of course, the duality of the Southern thing. Today, we bring you that interview — and exclusive video of Hood performing “Ever South” from the new record, plus a tune that goes all the way back to the band’s earliest performances.
Interview by Chuck Reece | Photos by Jason Hales | Videos by Nathan Bach
For starters, dispose yourself of the notion that anything you’re about to read qualifies as objective journalism. When you interview someone who has been a real friend to you for two decades, you give up the right to dress yourself in Robes of Sanctified Objectivity. Instead, just consider this a document of a sprawling conversation between friends.
Patterson Hood and I first met 20 years ago, in early 1996, a few months before the formation of his band, the Drive-By Truckers. We were both in uncertain periods, him recently married to Wife No. 2 and disoriented by a move to Georgia from his native Alabama, and me in that weird space between Wife No. 1 and Wife No. 2. We became friends. He swears to this day he wrote “The Deeper In” while sitting on the toilet at my house in Atlanta. If objectivity were even possible in such a relationship, it would be smashed to bits by this fact: Without Patterson Hood, The Bitter Southerner would not exist.
- Our reason for being is to explore an idea that Hood wrote into a song 15 years ago. What does The Bitter Southerner cover, at its essence? “The duality of the Southern thing.”
- Because Hood wrote an essay for us, “The New(er) South,” in our earliest days, we were able to build an audience quickly. To put it bluntly, we rode his coattails, and arguably, we might not be here today without his early assist.
More importantly, though, this band, led from the beginning by the songwriting team of Hood and Mike Cooley, has always been, as Hood says, “fighting the fight” — the struggle finally to confront, rather than deny, the past of the region and the state (Alabama) that raised them. With the exception of Outkast, no Southern musical act over the last two decades has done so much to challenge and change the way their fans see themselves and their home.
In three days, Drive-By Truckers will release its 11th studio album, “American Band.” The first song to go public from that record was Hood’s “What It Means,” an angry screed against racism and police brutality. The album, as Patterson told me in our conversation, sounds “as Drive-By Truckers as the Drive-By Truckers can sound.” But its subject matter is sharper, its point of view more resolute, and its lyrics more relevant to the moment than any previous DBT album.
In August, Hood came through Atlanta — from his new home of only one year, Portland, Oregon — for a solo tour. We took him to a holy spot in the DBT story, the Star Community Bar, where 20 years ago he and Mike Cooley experienced something they’d never known in any of their pre-DBT bands. They sold out a nightclub. I was there, and it was a night I’ll never forget.
So we’ll begin the conversation back at the bar where it started, a long time ago.
To understand the musical environment in which DBT developed its first rabid following, you must first understand a musical movement that sprang up in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood in the late 1980s. They called it the Redneck Underground, a bunch of ne’er-do-well bands, poets and characters — names like the Jody Grind, the Diggers, the Blacktop Rockets, Slim Chance & the Convicts, the late Deacon Lunchbox — who embraced their Southernness with a new sophistication. It presented Southern pride as something anyone, even the drag queens, could revel in. The South they conjured was a South of acceptance. And all who were part of the Redneck Underground would tell you the lord of the scene was a short, skinny, guitar-slinging, pompadoured madman named Gregory Dean Smalley, whose life is the subject of Hood’s song, “The Living Bubba.” The annual event that united the whole scene was a Memorial Day-weekend affair at the Star Bar called Bubbapalooza.
Chuck: Well, here we are, back in the Star Bar about 20 years hence. Do you remember the first time you played here?
Patterson: Yeah. I played here once before the Truckers [in a short-lived band called the Lot Lizards], and I actually hit up Greg Smalley to play here acoustic one time, a solo thing, but he wouldn't book me. He said, "We don't do that kind of thing." I was like, "Well, I don't really do that kind of thing, either. But actually, I think it would work." He wasn't having it. But on May 25, 1996, I played here for Bubbapalooza as part of the Lot Lizards.
Smalley had seen the Lot Lizards play. The Lot Lizards opened for him one night at the High Hat [a club in Athens, Georgia, where Hood first got work as a sound man, after moving from Alabama]. He flipped over “Nine Bullets,” and so he invited us to play Bubbapalooza. And then he died. Actually, the day I wrote “The Living Bubba” about him, I called him to thank him for the fact that we had just gotten invited to play Bubbapalooza. His wife answered and said he was in the hospital, and this was probably it. I hung up the phone, and I walked my dog out through these fields that were behind the house we was renting, and “The Living Bubba” hit me, and I ran back and I wrote it. He was still alive when I wrote it, hence “The Living Bubba.” I wrote that as my thank you.
Prior to that, Tony Eubanks, who loved Greg and co-owned the High Hat, had asked me if I would write a piece for Flagpole about Greg, like the next time he came to town, to see if it would drum up some more people coming to see him. I wanted to do it, but then Greg never came back. He got too sick and never came back. I played the Star Bar with the Lot Lizards that night, May 25th, and that's the last time the Lot Lizards ever played. The Truckers started like 15 days later. I started the Truckers on June 10, 1996. I have this weird thing where I can remember dates like that.
It's all tied together [for me] because this guy named Chris Quillen was supposed to be in the Truckers. He lived in Florence, and he was supposed to be in the original lineup of the Truckers. And the night I played the Star Bar with the Lot Lizards, Chris got killed in a car wreck back home.
Chuck: Good lord.
Patterson: I had saved up and bought studio time for a day, and then invited the people that I visualized as that band to be there, and he was supposed to be part of the Truckers. That first 45 is dedicated to Chris — “Nine Bullets” and “Bulldozers and Dirt.”
Then the Truckers played here first in early ’97. Word was already passing through the community about our song, “The Living Bubba,” but I don't think we played it that first time.
Chuck: You didn’t. I was here, and I’d remember if you had.
Patterson: Everybody knew about the song, and then we got asked to do Bubbapalooza [in 1997]. It was the first time the Truckers did Bubbapalooza, and it was, I believe, Sunday night, if I remember correctly, and we went on pretty late. Mama was here.
When Hood says “Mama,” in this case, he is referring to Nancy Floyd, Smalley’s mother. Even after Greg succumbed to AIDS, Ms. Floyd often showed up at the Star Bar, where pretty much everyone who was part of Atlanta’s Redneck Underground scene referred to her, with great love, as Mama.
Chuck: I was standing right next to her first time you played it.
Patterson: We did that song for her, and that was intense. But she liked it.
Chuck: She was crying.
Patterson: It was terrifying, playing that song for her and everybody else who was here. But everybody loved it. After that show, I think we sold out every Star Bar show we ever played, pretty much or close to it. This became our place.
DBT’s lineup at the very beginning was Matt Lane on drums, Barry Sell on mandolin and other stringed things, Adam Howell on bass, John Neff on steel guitar and of course, Hood and Mike Cooley.
Chuck: You know what I remember most about the first I saw you, that first show here? It was when you were doing “Demonic Possession,” and you hit the line about Led Zeppelin, and y’all stopped on a dime and did like 12 bars of [Zeppelin’s] “Kashmir,” then back into the song.
Patterson: Probably the only time ever we did that, but yeah, it was awesome.
Chuck: It’s weird. You think back to this place and what it meant to that group of people, and that was 20 years ago now. Did you ever think, back then, that your career would get to where it's gotten to now?
Patterson: No! I mean, we named the band because I thought that name would help us sell out the Star Bar. You know, “If we name it Drive-By Truckers, I bet those crazy fuckers will all like that name and they'll come out.”
Chuck: They did. You were right.
Patterson: It really was that simple. We thought we could probably sell out the Star Bar with that name. By that time, Cooley and I had been playing together for 11 years, and we had never sold out a room before, of any size, ever. Adam’s House Cat never sold out a room anywhere, and so selling out Star Bar was the first time I ever sold out a room.
Chuck: I don't ever remember there being a little crowd. It was always a big crowd.
Patterson: It was always fun, you know. God, we raised so much hell back then. Jesus Christ.
Chuck: There are so many stories about what happened in this place that no one should ever hear. Does it feel funny to be back in here now?
Patterson: No, it feels nice. It's cool. It just feels weird to be in here sober. But I'm hung over, so I guess that counts.
Chuck: Close enough.
Patterson: That whole scene, the whole Redneck Underground thing, that's a part of our history that's not even that well known, because we weren't really, officially part of that scene, and yet we kind of were. We came along at the very end of that scene, and then we kept doing what we did, but that was a real important thing for us. I mean, it was a huge thing. It was like, "Ah, a place we might be welcomed."
Chuck: There was a lot of change going on in your life at that time.
Patterson: When I moved to Georgia from Alabama, Cooley and I were kind of on the outs. We had three bands together, and all three had been dismal failures, and I moved to Athens just to try to kick-start a life, find something that worked. I didn't have a band, and yet I didn't really fit the Eddie’s Attic folkie think, either, at all.
Chuck: But you did play their Monday-night open mic thing, right?
Patterson: I won a couple of them. I won the first one I ever went to.
Chuck: What song did you win it with? Do you remember?
Patterson: Probably “Nine Bullets.” Funny, I never do that song anymore, but that song opened a lot of doors at that time because that's the one that Greg Smalley liked; it’s why he invited us to play here. I met Jim Stacy [now rather famous as a food-TV master of all things deep-fried] and I knew Ted Weldon [the lead singer of the Diggers and later, a much beloved band, Truckadelic], and I got immersed in that scene that was going on. Donna Jane [Sampler, Hood's wife at the time] and I would drive over here and come to Diggers shows at the Star Bar. I’d think, What would I do? There's a side of what I do that intersects with that, and I think I could hit that a little harder and might have a place I could play. Might have a home, you know? It was as simple as that, and then when I ended up opening for Greg, he liked us, and he invited to play Bubbapalooza. I was like, "Yes, this is going to work." By the time I played here first, that show with the Lot Lizards, I knew that was going to be our last show. But I already had plans for the Truckers, and I had the name, and I was writing the second album. I wrote “Pizza Deliverance” first. We can't do anything without doing it backwards. I wrote the second album before the first album. That's been a recurring theme in my life.
Chuck: But this place completely became DBT’s home base after that.
Patterson: Yeah. All of a sudden we had a place. We would come here and sell out. It was crazy. Then Wes and Jyl Freed came that night at Bubbapalooza ’97.
Wes Freed later would become the artist who created every DBT album cover from 2001’s “Southern Rock Opera” to 2015’s “It’s Great to Be Alive!”
Chuck: Their band, Dirtball, played.
Patterson: Dirtball played, so Wes and Jyl hit us up that night. They were like, "We put on this thing in Richmond called the Capital City Barn Dance. You would be perfect for it." We played Richmond about two months later. Big room, sold out, because the Barn Dance was huge at that time, and they put us in this prime spot on the bill. All of a sudden, we had a following in Richmond, so we had Atlanta and Richmond, so we were like, "All right, that's halfway to New York, let's go to New York next time." We went to New York, and we ended up with a good place on a bill for Coney Island High. Packed house. They loved us. I don't even know if we had the first 45 by then. We might have had the 45. We did have the bumper stickers that said, "Mama ran off with the Drive-By Truckers." But that's it.
A year ago, Patterson Hood moved away from his native South for the first time in his life, taking up residence in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Rebecca, and their two children. Hood’s Southern childhood wasn’t typical: When Mavis Staples calls for “Little David” to play a bass solo in the Staple Singers’ classic “I’ll Take You There,” the David she’s calling for is David Hood, Patterson’s father. Like their cohorts Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper at Memphis’ famed Stax studio, Hood and his colleagues at FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound were among the white Southern musicians who gave nary a damn for the color line. They collaborated with black artists and helped create a truly distinctive sound for Southern soul music. Still, despite his atypical raising, Hood was never a stranger to the urge shared by many young Southerners — the impulse to leave and live elsewhere, at least for a while. But he never did it, until last year.
Chuck: I want to talk about the decision to move to Portland. You’ve lived there for a year now.
Patterson: It was a two-year process leading up to getting there. Looking at it now, I think we've got one more year before our life isn't a total living hell, and then we'll see. Then we'll see how we're doing. I've got to hang in there one more year and see if we can get everybody settled in and how it's going to be.
Chuck: I know you like it, though.
Patterson: Yeah, I love it. But it’s not just me, so we've got to get everybody else happy, too, and that's a lot more trouble than getting me happy.
Chuck: I remember talking to you probably a few days after you first let it be known on Facebook that you were going to move to Portland. If I remember what you said to me correctly, you said, "It was like I had set the Confederate flag on fire and pissed on the Bible."
Patterson: There was a little of that reaction.
Chuck: How did you feel about leaving the South?
Patterson: I mean, I've been setting the Confederate flag on fire and pissing on it my whole life, you know.
Chuck: Have your feelings about the South changed by leaving it? I know that when you told me you were going, I felt like, "Damn, I wish you wouldn't leave," but I remember you saying to me, "I ain't like you. I haven't ever lived outside the South."
Patterson: You lived in New York for a while. We would have moved to New York if we didn't have kids. I love New York. But Portland is a lot more livable right now. New York is just so goddamned expensive, too. In Portland, the expense is about to kill me, but it's nothing like New York.
Chuck: When I moved to New York, I started seeing home differently. Have you felt any of that at all? It could be real different with you, because the first time I moved to New York was when I was pretty young.
Patterson: There is definitely part of me that feels guilty for not being here, because I've been part of this fight my whole life. I've been part of the loyal opposition for literally my whole life. I grew up in the Loyal Opposition. My Dad was the Loyal Opposition. You know, he looked at what he did as a “fuck you” to George Wallace and to that whole mindset, and he was proud of that aspect of what he did. I grew up with that. I grew up seeing and learning that. I'm a fucking liberal, you know, and goddamn proud of it. I've been part of that fight over the South forever, so there's part of me that feels a certain guilt about not being here to try and see it through, whatever it would be.
Chuck: It's interesting to hear you say that about not being here for the fight. I think there's an argument to be made, especially after having listened to this record a lot, that “American Band” is a statement about the South I'm not sure your band would have been capable of making if you still lived here.
Patterson: I had to do what I did. I had to do it. I don't even have an answer for why. I don't know why. People ask me all the time, "Why did you move to Portland?" I don't have an answer for it. It was a calling; it was something I had to do. Some days, I've equated it to my version of a midlife crisis. I'm not going to trade in my family for a new family, and I don't want a red sports car, but I had to do something to shake up my life. It involved living somewhere different, because I never have. It never even occurred to me, at 16, that I would spend my whole life, more or less, in Alabama or Georgia. Georgia never occurred to me until I just ended up there, and I was always going to go do something else. I was like George Bailey, you know, from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” because it took me to age 30 to get the fuck out of Florence. I went to Auburn for a couple of years to chase this girl that broke my heart. I went to Memphis for five months once and got my ass handed back to me — my car stolen, probably could have and should have been killed. But it never even occurred to me that it would take that long to even get me out of Alabama. I grew up hating that fucking place. I don't hate it now. In fact, I love it now. I love going home. I was there last week. Florence is unrecognizable to me now. Part of me is like, maybe it took me leaving for the place to get so fucking cool. Maybe I was the one holding it back.
Hood is a huge fan of Billy Reid, the designer who was able to build a Southern fashion empire from their shared hometown of Florence, Alabama.
Patterson: Billy Reid was the impetus. He was able to do what I didn't know how to do or had the means to do when I was there. All the things that I dreamed of happening to that town, he was able to make happen. He would probably argue with me and say otherwise, but fuck him, he's wrong. He is the impetus for the change more than any one human being. There's certainly a lot of other people who have done a lot of great things, but he was that spark and driving force because he's successful, you know? Successful is something I never was when I was there, and so I didn't have any driving ability. I was just Dad's snotty-nosed, spoiled kid, who bitched about things he ought to be grateful for. Now I go back, and it's amazing there.
Chuck: There is something I have always marveled at about you — and probably envied a little bit, too. You grew up with your daddy making music with black people, music that changed the whole world. You had him and the rest of the Swampers in Alabama, and there was Booker T. and the MG’s in Memphis. What was going on in those places musically back then? That era has always seemed to me the single most amazing symbol of the good stuff the South is capable of when its cultures come together.
Patterson: It is. It is.
Chuck: Why do you think so?
Patterson: I mean, you want a flag? You put goddamned Booker T. Jones on a flag, and I'll fly that in my yard. You can raise that on the capitol steps. That ought to be the Southern flag. Put Booker T. & the MG’s, put all four of them on there.
Chuck: It just amazes me, because those four guys couldn't walk down McLemore Avenue together, but they could go in that studio ...
Patterson: … and make that incredible music.
Chuck: Music that will live for fucking ever. I mean, it never goes out of style, and that's the South at its best. We’re better when we come together. Since we started this publication three years ago, we hear that from young readers all the time — that they really do want to be proud of where they come from. I think y’all have been planting those seeds for a long time. And there are all kinds of organizations down here now, like the Southern Foodways Alliance, that plant those seeds of hope in the younger people. I mean, I felt like I had to get out of here if I was ever going to be who I was. But now there are more Southern kids who are like, "Fuck it. I'll change it and make it the way I want it to be."
Patterson: Yeah, if nothing else, both of my kids will probably end up returning here, whether I do or not.
Chuck: Why do you think so?
Patterson: Well, Emmett — he's only 6 now, he’s about to be 7 — but I mean he'll tell you in no uncertain terms, "I can't wait to be back in Georgia. When I go to college, I'm going to college in Georgia." He's all about the South. Ava, she'll be able to do just fine anywhere in the world she goes, I have no doubt about that. But I did like the idea of them at least being exposed to something else, too, you know? If nothing else, for how it would make them view home, because it ties back to your first question, I guess. It certainly makes me appreciate things more, being away from it. But it sure don't make me appreciate hot weather more, though. I fucking hate hot weather.
(For the record, both the temperature and humidity in Atlanta that day felt like about 95.)
Let’s get back to that wife thing I brought up in the beginning. I must point out that for each of us, Wife No. 3 proved to be the charm — and, in Patterson’s case, his final marriage also gave the world two amazing kids. But I do remember, in the early days of our friendship, joking to him, “Man, you’ve already got a wife, and his name is Cooley.” The relationship between Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood is the one constant in DBT’s 20-year history. And the band’s lineup today — Cooley, Hood, drummer Brad Morgan, bassist Matt Patton and multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez — has had DBT’s longest ever run without a personnel change. Seems like age is making us all better at relationships.
Chuck: Talk to me about your relationship with Cooley.
Patterson: Fighting the fight — that was a bigger part of us staying together and continuing to do whatever the hell it is we've done all these years than even the musical connection or the personal connection. That’s not in any way to belittle either of those things, because obviously both are there and great. We always had chemistry. Before either one of us was worth a shit, we had chemistry. People would remark on us like, "Damn, when y’all learn to play, y’all are going to be great, because y’all have great chemistry." I think it used to really piss both of us off when people would say that. Like, "Goddamn it, I'm stuck with that motherfucker." Likewise, on the personal thing, you know we've always been ridiculously close friends. It just took us 10 years to be able to get along. We were like brothers that just came out of the womb fighting, and then at some point we just learned how to get along. Then a better friendship was able to begin developing, and now we're like 20 years into that process. I would say we're close as shit now.
Beyond those two things, there's still the aspect of where we're from, where you feel like the world's against you, so you've got your fight on. I think Southerners have that in general, but I think North Alabama Southerners have their own special type of that, and we grew up around that. The first thing we did, our band Adam's House Cat, was so locally hated. They hated us at home. We never, really, were able to overcome that, but we stayed together six years through that. That band became just badass tight, and we never lost that us-against-the-world mentality. Applying that to our political beliefs, we are definitely underdogs in our home region. I like Southern liberals anyways, because it's a little harder to be one in the South, so therefore you have to be a little sharper at it, I think. You know what I'm saying?
Chuck: I completely agree.
Patterson: It's in style to be liberal, up where I'm living now.
Chuck: I reckon it is.
Patterson: I'm probably not quite liberal enough, you know.
Chuck: Probably not.
Patterson: Which is awesome. I love that. I think it's cool, at least for now. It may get old, but right now, I get a real kick out of that.
Chuck: But the conversations are harder to have in the South.
Patterson: I mean, as much as I find some of the vitriol distasteful, I do think some of the conversation is healthy, especially when people mind their manners a little better, which is a novel thought.
Chuck: Especially this year.
Patterson: As a lover of history, I'm getting off on the fact that we're living through some fucking crazy history right now.
Chuck: Remarkable history.
Patterson: I'm definitely trying to soak it in. That was a part of why I wanted to make this record. And just for the record, whenever I say “I” in reference to the band, I mean it plurally. I never, ever, ever want anyone to think that I'm taking credit for more than my share. The band is such a personal thing to me that I do often refer to the band in the first person, but I mean the band. I mean Cooley and me and Brad and Jay and Matt. This record was very, very collaborative between all of us. Cooley and I came in with probably the best bunch of songs we ever had. I mean it's certainly the most unified bunch of songs we've ever had.
I think our records have often been set in various, different periods and have always had us singing about something that happened then, even if it's something that we might consider relevant today. “The Dirty South” was set in the Reagan era and in the late Carter era, and “Southern Rock Opera” was set in the Wallace era, the ’70s, just post-integration of the schools and the rise and fall of arena rock in the ’70s. “My Sweet Annette” is set in the ’30s. There's always been that, but on this record we wanted … well, we're living in such a fascinating contemporary time right now, that we wanted to make a record that's a document of this moment. I think that occurred to Cooley and me separately without either talking about it to the other. We first started playing each other new songs, it was already happening. It was like, "Wow!" And then we talked about it.
Chuck: This record is a departure — not necessarily from a musical standpoint …
Patterson: Yes. It sounds absolutely like the Drive-By Truckers. It sounds as much like the Drive-By Truckers as the Drive-By Truckers can sound.
Chuck: It does, but …
Patterson: … it’s a very different record.
Chuck: I think back to a conversation we had three years ago, when you were writing “The New(er) South” essay for us. I remember we got to talking about politics, and you said, "Rebecca keeps telling me we need to be more overtly political."
Patterson: She's been saying it for years. She loves this album.
Chuck: It's just interesting to me that you and Cooley seem to, based on what you just said, have come to that same place simultaneously, but on your own.
Patterson: Cooley has always been damn near as political as me, but behind the scenes. I can remember he and I talking about politics. In the Adam's House Cat days, we had some political songs, but Cooley had an aversion in those days to openly political songs. I guess the whole protest folk-song idea, he wasn't into in his younger days.
Chuck: I get that completely.
Patterson: Especially the idea of in any way preaching to the converted. Getting up there in front of a bunch of people that feel exactly the way you do and saying all the big bold statements and they're all clapping and hooting and hollering because they feel exactly the same way. I am always cautious about speaking for Cooley, but I feel pretty safe in this: He just really did not want to be that, and I respected that. At the same time, I grew up in a culturally different home and had a little different relationship with music than he did. I might have been a little more open to doing those type of things if I didn't want my partner glaring at me and making fun of me and kicking my ass. I tended to hold back, sometimes, out of respect for his views on that. I don't know what exactly changed or what gave. It was a process. It was over a long period of time, but it's been getting more and more on the surface. You know, when I first wrote “What It Means,” I was like, "Well, you know, this would be a really great thing for the Truckers to do, but Cooley might not like this. He might not like it." Yet when he heard it, he loved it, and he was like like, "Right on." After all, he came in at the same time with “Ramon Casiano.”
As Hood writes in his liner notes for “American Band,” Cooley’s album-opening “Ramon Casiano” is named for a 1931 Texas murder victim. “There are many parallels between that case and the ‘stand your ground’ shooting of Trayvon Martin decades later,” Hood writes. “The man who killed him went on to head up the NRA and was the one responsible for turning it into the political organization that it has become. It's a nearly forgotten chapter in our country's painful history of racial violence.”
Cooley was already there at the same time I was. There are so many parallels, back-and-forth songs on most of our records, but on this record, we went to the next level. It sounds like we sat down and planned that shit out — except we really, of course, didn't. He's been the one leading the charge. I mean, I've had a really busy year in my personal life. Historically, there have been so many aspects of the day-to-day things with the band that I've always been the one to do. But he just took over, and it's been awesome. Again, it was never really discussed. I guess he just knew it needed to be done, and he needed to be the one to do it, and he just did it.
I have to admit that for a long time, I always favored DBT’s very first lineup of players. But that’s always a peril when you feel among a band’s earliest discoverers. Over time, of course, I came to appreciate the various strengths of all the band’s lineups. But I’d never asked Patterson how he sees the various “eras” of DBT — until this conversation.
Chuck: I know I can go on Wikipedia and find out precisely how many different incarnations of DBT there have been over the years, but when you think about the history of the band, do you think about it in versions?
Patterson: Yes and no. It's still one band to me, but there have been different eras.
Chuck: Well, how many eras do you think there were?
Patterson: A lot of them.
Chuck: See, from the outside, it feels like three eras.
Patterson: Yeah, I see that. But you know, if you take that first one of the three, you've got the Adam Howell and Matt Lane era of that, but then right after that, when Brad took over for Matt Lane, and it was Brad, Rob Malone, Cooley and me, the four-piece era. That lineup played more shows than any single era of the band.
Chuck: I hadn't thought about that before, but I guess you're right.
Patterson: That era has always been one of my favorites. It was, as I look back, our Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn days, riding down the raft on the Mississippi. That era is a book I would love to write, but probably won't. But it would be so good. That was a really important era that gets overlooked, and when we reissued “Alabama Ass-Whuppin'” [the band’s first live album, recorded in part at the Star Bar in 1999]. I was so thrilled to get re-exposed to it. And then the band had its rebirth that led to “English Oceans,” with the current lineup, which is our longest standing lineup now.
Chuck: Wait. That’s funny. It doesn’t seem like the longest to me.
Patterson: Almost five years. Three albums, counting the live record. We've done three albums in a row without a personnel change. Yeah, the longest and the best. It's by far my favorite. When we rediscovered the missing tapes of “Alabama Ass-Whuppin’” and were getting ready to re-release it, Cooley and Brad and I made a conscious effort to look back at that Huck Finn lineup. There was something that lineup got right that we've never quite had since, that we wanted to reconnect with. And that's what this lineup does. This lineup is a lot better than that lineup was, but that lineup was so fucking punk-rock. It was the most punk-rock band I ever had. Until right now, because these guys can do anything. They still do it punk-style. You can throw us in any situation, and we'll just punk-rock the fuck out of it, and it'll be fine. I haven't had a band that could do that since the four-piece — Rob Malone, Cooley, Brad and me. The very first lineup was just … I hadn't had a band for years. I wanted a band. I got to put together my dream band based on who I was able to put together, and Adam Howell's fucking harmonies were so beautiful, and it enabled me to reconnect with Cooley and play with him again.
Chuck: But didn't I see an early Drive-By Truckers show or two that Cooley did not play?
Patterson: Yeah. Not many, but a few at the very beginning. But he was always in the band. He was living in North Carolina, and his life was hell, and we weren't making any money, and there was no money to get him there a couple of times. I think the last show we ever played without him was in Macon, Georgia, in ’96, and he had tried to come but couldn't make it. The next day, on the phone, he was like, "That's the last show I'm ever missing," and it was.
Chuck: There was something about that very first lineup that was really nice. The thing I remember most fondly about it was that I felt like y’all had a really remarkable range of dynamics in that band. It could be like all revved up, 90 miles an hour, but it could turn on a dime and be soft, I mean, like really soft.
Patterson: Matt Lane was the best backside drummer in the South.
Chuck: Explain “backside drummer.”
Patterson: Al Jackson [of Booker T. & the MG’s] is backside. The two beat is slightly late. It's in perfect tempo, but the two hits slightly behind the beat. It's like a little hesitation, and that's a lost art that few people can get, but Matt Lane lives there. Matt Lane leans that beat so far back that it sounds like he's slowing down, but he's not. It's such a beautiful art. Brad's a backside drummer, and Brad loves the backside. Brad was a great drummer when he joined our band, and he's gotten exponentially better every record, every year, without exception. I will flat-out say — on anyone's coffee table, in my boots — that Brad Morgan is one of the best drummers in the world right now. He is such a fabulous drummer. Anyone that sees him at the studio realizes just how fucking amazing he is. I mean, the reason we were able to make this record in six days is because every take was perfect with the drummer. He was perfect. He's just incredible. He can dial it in now, and he's got such a great feel. I mean, he is a great backside drummer. I've always had a thing about those kind of drums. Adam's House Cat had a drummer, Chuck Tremblay, who could do it, and both of the Trucker drummers could do it. The three drummers I've played with in my life could all do that. That was their thing.
Chuck Tremblay is an incredible player. I actually hung out with him a couple years ago, but I haven't seen him play in forever. I would love to see him play, because it was just something to behold. He was as good as any legendary drummer. When Roger Hawkins [the drummer of Muscle Shoals’ legendary Swampers] saw Adam's House Cat, Roger Hawkins took me aside and said, "Most bands have a guy that plays drums. Your band actually has a drummer."
Chuck: If Roger Hawkins says that to you, you can believe it.
Patterson: Yeah. And Roger Hawkins would say the same thing about Brad. He would totally sign off on Brad.
In 2009, DBT backed Booker T. Jones of the MG’s for his album “Potato Hole,” one of many turns DBT has done over the years playing with the progenitors of Southern soul music.
When we were making the Booker record, the song “Reunion Time” was the breakthrough moment. That was when that session became magical, and after we finished that, Booker looks over to Brad and says, "Al Jackson." Brad goes, "I love Al Jackson." He was like, "I knew you like Al Jackson. You did something on that song that I haven't heard anyone do since Al died." Then Brad … I mean, his posture changed. That was the ultimate compliment. He's so fabulous, and no one has any idea. Everybody talks about our guitars or the rude shit Cooley and I say to each other or whatever. They don't notice that we have, absolutely, one of the best drummers in rock and roll right now.
Chuck: Talk about the lineup that included Jason Isbell.
Patterson: That was a magical era. I'm trying to think how to put it.... You know how it feels when you fall in love? It was the musical equivalent of that. I mean, when I discovered that little fucker, we were at Dick Cooper's in Alabama. Dick used to tour-manage our band. He was one of the very first people we had to work for us, and he's an old friend from Muscle Shoals, who was a contemporary of my Dad's. A journalist. He covered the Civil Rights Movement in The Birmingham Post-Herald until he was getting death threats from Wallace's goons and moved up to Muscle. He got obsessed with what was happening in Muscle Shoals, music-wise. Went up there and just decided he was going to go work there because he wanted to be part of it, and so he basically moved into the studio (Muscle Shoals Sound) and just started working for them and did everything.
He was around for the Wallace era and around for the Skynyrd era, so we made him our ‘technical advisor’ on “Southern Rock Opera.” He ended up coming down to Birmingham when we cut it, and he ended up with a co-production credit on it. Then we needed his help, so he would hit the road with us. He worked for us for two long, miserable, years. We damn near killed him, bless his heart.
Chuck: I remember when y’all came through New York on that tour and stayed with us. I remember thinking to myself, you're pulling a 50-plus-year-old man around in that stinky-ass Ford Econoline.
Patterson: Dodge Ram. That era was the white Ram. Anyway, Dick had a house out on the lake, down in Shoal Creek, back home. I was getting divorced from D.J., and I needed to get the fuck out, and the band was fighting, too. We were getting along terrible, terrible. There was a huge rift in the band. We almost broke up finishing “Southern Rock Opera.” I was like, "Well, fuck this, I'm not going to hang out here where everybody will be an asshole to me." So I go hang out at Dick Cooper's. His roommate was Shonna Tucker [who would later join the band as bassist], and his other roommate was Scott Boyer, from Cowboy [a wonderful but overlooked band from the Allman Brothers era of Southern rock]. That's who Dick lived with. Shonna and Scott and I would hang out out there and just hide out for like a week at a time, sleep on the couch. We would sit up all night smoking dope, passing guitars around. Shonna was friends with Jason. They had grown up together, so they had known each other a long time. Every now and then he would show up, and we're all passing around the guitar.
I hand him the guitar, and he plays this song called “Superman Is a Damn Fool,” and I was like, "Fuck! Goddamn, that's a good song!" It was something he saw — graffiti written on the side of a liquor store in Memphis, “Superman is a damn fool” — and he made it into a song. I was like, "Goddamn, man, I want to produce you! I'm going to discover you!" I fell in love with him and his music, and so whenever I would be up there, I would book some shows, playing Birmingham or wherever, and he would just go with me and hang out and take his guitar, and then he would back me up for about half of my set and do a couple of his songs.
He was in the audience on the night during the “Southern Rock Opera” tour when Rob decided to go with his girlfriend to New Orleans instead of playing a house concert at Dick Cooper's house. Spin magazine flew Eric Weisbard and a photo crew in to document that show, because they were going to do a feature on “Southern Rock Opera.” It had just come out, and this was like the very first spark of the ship looking like it might take off. We needed a place to play for them to see and write about. They wanted to do it in Florence, but there weren’t any venues there then. There was nowhere to play. So Dick Cooper threw this house concert in his living room for Spin, and Rob went to New Orleans and blew it off. That's why he got kicked out of the band.
Jason was sitting in the audience that night. We were all sitting down for the show, and there was an empty chair. We had done about eight songs, and I kept seeing him sitting there and I’m thinking, “He knows every goddamn one of these songs.” Finally I was just like, "Hey, you, fall in. Tune up and fall in." He grabbed a guitar, and he played with us. That was it. He got in the van two days later and went on tour. His mama dropping him off at the van for us to leave for that first tour, it was just like a scene from “Almost Famous.” It was just like that scene where it's like, "Please don't kill my boy. Please bring him back in one piece." I mean, she was just about nearly in tears, and she's my age. She was probably a senior when I was a freshman in high school. She went to a different school. I didn't know her personally, but hell, she went to high school with my first wife. She was like, "Please don't hurt my boy." I said, “I promise we'll bring him back in one piece, ma'am.”
Anyways, so we get him in the van, and he's driving. We're driving to Oklahoma City. It was the first show with him after Dick's house, so we had a two-day drive to get there. He’s got a headset and a Walkman, listening to all the songs and taking notes, because we don't use a set list. It was like, at that time there were about four albums’ worth of stuff, plus we already had songs we were doing from what became “Decoration Day,” and it was magical. It was great, man. It was so fucking ass-kicking badass.
Chuck: Did Cooley fall in love with him, too?
Patterson: Yeah, of course. We all did. He was great, and he was lovable. He was a kid, man. He was like our son, almost, or our little brother or something. He was so talented, and he was fun. He was obviously smart and so fucking talented, just so talented ...
Chuck: He's certainly made that pretty clear the last few years.
Patterson: Some things ain't meant to last, you know. I can think of … certainly there have been girls in your life that you've had relationships with where it was just fucking awesome, briefly. It was incredible, but it wasn't meant to last. There was nothing about it meant to last, and it might of ended horribly. But it was great for a while, you know? That was kind of like that. It was a magical moment in time, for where we all were at the time. I mean, he was never meant to be a third guitar player in anybody's band. He was meant to have his own thing, but we needed a guitar player immediately, and he was more than qualified, and he didn't have anything else to do but say, “Fuck, yeah.”
What a great coming-of-age story that was. He got to come in there, and immediately this whole thing was happening. It was just as the band was starting to show the first signs of blowing up, and he was young and hungry and eager and limitlessly talented. He wrote “Decoration Day” the second day on the tour, and he wrote “Outfit” about two weeks later. He brought such a great thing to it, because we had Cooley doing his thing and me doing my thing, and what Jason did blended it all really well. We did two albums that were great, that will be forever amongst the greatest things we'll ever do, absolutely. But that was the end of it. It was over, in retrospect, by the end of 2004. That left us two more years of just playing a lot of shows, and we played some real good shows. We made another album that's got some wonderful moments on it, but it didn't quite work. He had moved on. He needed to do what he was. He wanted to do his thing.
He didn't want to be hanging out with the old fuckers anymore. Hell, he's as old now as we were then, but that's a whole other thing.
Anyone who becomes friends with Patterson Hood and who possesses a certain depth of knowledge about musical history must come to terms with the fact that you’re now only one degree from the historical, one degree from some of the most magical music ever made in the South. After all, when you hear Aretha Franklin singing “I Ain’t Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You),” or when you hear Etta James roar through “Tell Mama,” you’re hearing David Hood’s bass. For many years, I wanted to have a long talk with Patterson about what it was like to grow up among such artists. I wanted to know what he thought accounted for the multicultural magic that happened in Memphis and North Alabama in the 1960s. Turns out, he’s as mystified as anybody else.
Chuck: Playing with somebody like Booker T. Jones must feel just like going back and tapping into the holy. I know you're an atheist, but you know what I mean.
Patterson: I'm not when it comes to rock.
Chuck: Right. You believe.
Patterson: Yeah. I believe.
Chuck: There is something over there where you come from — North Alabama, Memphis, North Mississippi — there's something musically weird about that place. Did I tell you about Jody Stephens [Big Star drummer and studio manager of one of Memphis’ legendary recording venues] taking me on a tour of Ardent?
Patterson: No. But it sounds awesome.
Chuck: It was amazing.
Patterson: He took my band on a tour of Ardent. I missed it. I had do some press or radio thing and missed it. I came back, and they had all just gotten back from Ardent. I was like, "Fuck y’all."
Chuck: On the tour, he took me back to the mastering lab. They still do vinyl mastering in there, and he introduced me to the guy who ran the mastering lab. He said his name was Larry Nix, and it clicked in my head that one of the white guys in the Stax horn section was a guy named Don Nix …
Patterson: He wrote “Black Cat Bone” and “Going Down” [a classic tune that’s been covered by everyone from Deep Purple to Bryan Ferry].
Chuck: Well, I said, "Any kin to Don Nix?" He said, "Yeah, that’s my brother." What struck me is that, when you talk to guys like him, it's like talking to any good old boy who’s a car mechanic or something, but they’re in the music business. There's no other place like that I know of. And you got to grow up in that. How would you explain it?
Patterson: I can't explain nothing. Really. I know exactly what you're saying, and it's like one of the great, beautiful mysteries, you know? It's like the story I told last night about my family's farm, about the homestead, the Johnson homestead where I grew up. Two farms over was [Sun Records founder] Sam Phillips’ farm, that he grew up on.
Chuck: I remember you telling me that.
Patterson: Two farms over. I just read [Peter Guralnick’s] Sam Phillips book, and it's talking about him being out as a little kid, watching the black people pick cotton and listening to them sing to each other. The way they would sing and talk and communicate in song, back and forth while they're picking cotton, that sound was in his head. It's like he became obsessed with presenting that sound, that memory, to the world, and that's how rock and roll was born. That's two farms over, at the exact same time that my people, that my grandmama is out picking cotton with the black folks that lived out there because they all picked cotton. As a kid, you got out there at picking time, you went out there and you fucking picked cotton with the neighbors. The black neighbors and the white neighbors, they all picked cotton, and it was happening at the exact same time, two doors down. That's crazy to think about. McGee Town, Alabama.
What is it about that area? Why do they play that way? No one plays like those people, and I'm thrilled to be amongst those people because I love that aspect of what my band does.
Chuck: I think that sound just goes out and gets people and brings them in. But it’s also something that propelled people through the whole fight we’ve been talking about. Nobody gave a shit about color inside the recording studios.
Patterson: Sam Phillips was fighting the fight. Have you read that book yet, Guralnick's book?
Chuck: It’s in the stack.
Patterson: Yeah, it's a long read. It takes a little while, but it’s great. I don't know how great it would be for someone who isn’t obsessed with some of the things that I would be obsessed with — and that obviously Guralnick's obsessed with — but it was fine with me. It was like a history of my hometown. I learned shit about my hometown I never knew, a lot of shit I never knew about my hometown.
Patterson: I knew a lot of the people in the story. I mean, a lot of them. I was amazed at the number of people I knew in the book. The band director that Sam Phillips loved so much when he went to Coffee High School, which is where I went, he was retired when I was in high school, but he would substitute. He would come in and substitute whenever our band director was out. I knew him, and he was Sam Phillips’ band director, who mentored him. It's where he got some of the key things that he took to do what he did. It's crazy, reading all this hometown history in a book like that.
Chuck: It's funny. Guralnick is a New Englander, but I always argue that his “Sweet Soul Music” is one of the most enlightening books you can read about the South as a whole. It’s about much more than music. That book was the first time the connection really dawned on me — how music was a way over that racial barrier, in a time when you weren't supposed to go over it in the first place, ever. It makes you feel a little bit better about the place, prouder of where we’re from.
Patterson: It sure does.