Drive-By Truckers Walk the Bloody Streets

With the election just over a month away, the band puts out its most political album yet

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Drive-By Truckers Walk the Bloody Streets

The Drive-By Truckers had no plans to release a record this year. But the band’s two co-founders, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, were so agitated by this tumultuous period in American history that they couldn’t stop themselves from writing a bunch of new songs. And the songs were so good and so timely that they couldn’t put off going into the studio. The new album, American Band, is the result.

The two men write their songs separately, but when they shared their recent output, they found that their new material had a lot in common—not only in what they wrote about but also how they wrote about it. Hood and Cooley had so much to say that they found themselves cramming two songs’ worth of words into each tune. To contain this overflow of ideas, they each fashioned long lyric lines, densely packed with language.

When Cooley, for example, wrote about changing gender roles on “Filthy and Fried,” he began with this image-soaked couplet: “Bottles falling in a dumpster and a stale smell rising through a sickening summer haze/To the rhythm of a boot-heeled hipster cowgirl’s clunky sashay of shame.” And when Hood addressed school shootings on “Guns of Umpqua,” he pivoted on this word-stuffed couplet: “Now we’re moving chairs in some panic mode to barricade the door./As my heart rate surges on adrenaline and nerves, I feel I’ve been here before.”

“That’s not on purpose,” Hood says. “That’s just how we both were writing. That density of the wordplay is why I like hip hop so much; I love that collage of imagery. On past records, I was probably making a conscious effort to write shorter lines, to strip back the wordiness. I guess I felt strong enough about what these songs were doing and what they were saying to leave them alone.”

“I love the way in hip hop the cadence develops,” Cooley adds, “so you can bounce syllables from one line to the next. I was young when I heard ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash on the radio in rural Alabama. Even though I was this rural kid who didn’t understand everything they were saying, I loved the way they were saying it. When that cadence takes over a song, every word has to fit into it, or it doesn’t sound right.”

It’s not that American Band sounds like a hip-hop record. The quintet is still a rock ‘n’ roll band with live drums and two or three guitars on every song (Jay Gonzalez splits his duties between guitar and keyboards). In their compulsion to say everything that’s on their minds, however, Cooley and Hood inevitably turned to hip hop’s long, language-crammed lines to get it all out. And more often than not, they pull back on the tempos and noise to make sure the words come through clearly.

Hood’s “What It Means,” for instance, starts off by referencing the recent deaths of young black men at the hands of police officers. “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks,” Hood sings, “well, I guess that means you ain’t black…You don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.” Hood jumps from Ferguson to Baltimore, from Chicago to Miami, turning TV news images into rock ‘n’ roll lyrics. but just when you think you know what the song is all about, Hood leaps into outer space.

What does it mean, he asks, that we’re smart enough to land a rocket on a comet, but we’re not smart enough to stop killing unarmed kids? “We’re living in an age where limitations are forgotten,” he sings. “The outer edges move and dazzle us, but at the core is something rotten.” It’s not the only time the songwriters stretch themselves to accommodate both despair and optimism within the same song.

The song had its genesis in 1995, right after Hood moved to Athens, Georgia. A naked black man named Edward Wright was shot by the cops on the Ruth Street mentioned in the song. There was no cell-phone video of the shooting, so it didn’t get much national attention, and the police were never charged. But the man’s mother lived across the street from Hood, who never forgot it.

“This stuff has been going on forever,” he says, “and these new events stirred up that memory in me. The best way to respond to politics is to make it personal, because politics are personal. For example, I couldn’t get affordable health care for my wife until Obamacare came along. That’s what bugs me about people who complain when you do political songs. When they say musicians shouldn’t talk about politics, I go, ‘Fuck you. Who’s got the right to talk about politics? Bankers? Lawyers?’”

“What It Means” was released on the web before the album was released, and it proved polarizing among the band’s staunchest fans. Some loved it, but others hated it, complaining that the Drive-By Truckers shouldn’t get involved in politics. It was a strange reaction, considering that this is the band that released the most ferocious anti-Bush anthem of all, “Putting People on the Moon,” the class-conscious “Uncle Frank,” and the incisive analysis of segregation on “Three Alabama Icons.”

“We’ve always had a certain political undercurrent to our stuff,” Cooley agrees, “but this is the first time it’s out there from first to finish. We released Southern Rock Opera in 2001, and that’s the album that got us touring from coast to coast, so our career has basically taken place in a post-2001 America. We weren’t naïve; we knew there’d be a backlash to Obama’s election, but it went far beyond what we expected. To see it exploited to people who should know better for their own Machiavellian purposes was hard for me to swallow.”

“I’ve always considered ourselves a political band,” Hood adds. “Most of the music I’ve loved I’ve considered political, whether it’s the Clash or Bruce or Curtis Mayfield. When Obama won in 2008, a lot of us convinced ourselves that we’d turned the corner and put all this race stuff behind us. And then the most disgusting stuff happened. It’s like when you turn on the light in the basement and everything scampers. But the negativity this record has inspired—even the pushback from long-term fans—that can be the start of a much needed conversation.”

Like Hood, Cooley watches the news a lot, and he noticed that two topics kept popping up again and again: guns and the Mexican border. What connected the two? he asked himself. At first he thought about writing a satirical song about NRA supporters who form volunteer militias and go down to the border to do ad hoc patrols. But that got him thinking about the National Rifle Association, and its strange transition from a gun-safety/marksmanship organization to a right-wing lobbying group.

The key figure in that changeover, Cooley discovered, was Harlon Carter, the NRA vice president from 1977 through 1985. A little further digging revealed that Carter was set free in 1931 after shooting and killing a 15-year-old Mexican boy, Ramon Casiano, in Laredo, Texas. Suddenly it all fit together, and Cooley quickly wrote “Ramon Casiano,” the album’s lead-off track. Cooley made sure to connect the story to the present day by singing, “It all started with the border, and that’s still where it is today. Someone killed Ramon Casiano, and the killer got away.”

“I did more songs based on specific stories for this album than I ever have in the past,” Cooley says. “I like writing with parameters. In interviews, songwriters always say, ‘I don’t want to put limits on myself,’ but that’s bullshit. Eventually you have put parameters on yourself, or you’re all over the place. If you have nothing to start with, that can be frustrating because you can go for days without thinking of something to write about. But give me something to write about, and I know what to do with it.”

“Ramon Casiano” is a noisy-guitar rocker, and so are the two songs that follow: “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” and “Surrender Under Protest.” Hood wrote “Darkened Flags” right after penning a column on the Confederate flag for the New York Times Magazine and the song is “very much the companion piece to the essay,” he says. Both of the latter songs were written right after Dylann Roof, who often posed with the Stars and Bars, shot nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2015.

“When it comes to that subject, Cletus is all of a sudden a history major,” says Cooley, referring to the nickname for the Southern stereotype. “It’s all these stories told in our families, from as soon as the war was over. You hear this excuse over and over: ‘Most of the people who fought for the South didn’t even own slaves.’ Well, that’s right, but so what? They were fighting in defense of the people who did. I’m struck by how the politics of the South have gone national. The Dixiecrats didn’t become Republicans so much as the other way around.”

After the opening trilogy of songs, however, the album quiets down quite a bit. One of the frustrating things about the Drive-By Truckers has always been that the lyrics that are such a strength on their recordings are almost indecipherable in the band’s live shows, drowned out by the roar of unrestrained guitars and drums. On this recording, at least, there’s been a conscious effort to push the words to the foreground, as on a hip-hop record, a recognition that the lyrics are a crucial part of what the band has to offer.

The first of the quieter numbers, Hood’s “Guns of Umpqua,” is perhaps the best example of the band’s quest to incorporate both the best of America and the worst into the same song. The track takes its title from the incident when Chris Harper-Mercer, a student at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, shot and killed a teacher, eight fellow students and finally himself on Oct. 1, 2015.

It happened soon after Hood moved his family from their longtime home in Athens to Portland. Hood and his wife had spent the previous weekend camping and hiking in the Cascade Mountains, and the gorgeous fall weather was still around when the news came on the radio a few mornings later. The song juxtaposes the view outside his window (“birds soaring through the clouds”) against the reports on the radio (“the sound of shots and screams”). Whether we are optimists or pessimists by temperament, Hood won’t allow us to focus on just one half of that American paradox and ignore the other.

“I had spent a night at a motel in Umpqua,” Hood says, “so I knew what those hills looked like. So much of the thought process of that song was asking, ‘How could something so awful happen on such a beautiful day?’ That combination of light and dark really struck me, and I just went with that. You know, there are aspects of this time in history that I really like. I wouldn’t want to live in another time, but I’m scared of where some of those other things might lead us.”

A big geographical shift often gets a person thinking about the place left behind with renewed interest and from a different perspective. That happened to Hood after his move to Portland. The new song, “Ever South,” for example, began as a song about immigrants in America, but ended up as an autobiographical tale of his own ancestors who came here from Scotland and Ireland and moved down the Appalachian Mountains “ever south.” Once they settled in Alabama, they remained “ever Southern,” even the ones that moved to Oregon.

“That’s a song I never would have written if I hadn’t moved,” Hood admits. “That’s the best thing about a change of scenery: It opens up the floodgates, and the songs start pouring out. Homesickness is familiar to me, because I feel it all the time on the road, but it was new to my wife and kids. We were feeling like frontiersmen, wrestling with that question: What do you bring with you and what you leave behind? My wife and I were feeling homesick when we saw Brooklyn, a film about homesickness. That definitely was part of the inspiration.”

Hood and Cooley grew up in North Alabama’s Quad Cities (Tuscumbia, Sheffield, Florence and Muscle Shoals) along the Tennessee River. Hood’s father David was the bassist in the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, but the son preferred the Replacements and The Clash, and played in a series of forgotten garage bands. He was 21 in 1985 when he met the 21-year-old Cooley and they formed Adam’s House Cat. Cooley wasn’t writing yet, and Hood hardly ever wrote about the South back then.

“I didn’t start writing the Southern songs till I was in a band that toured outside the South,” Hood explains. “’Buttholeville’ was the only song from that 10-year era of my life that was steeped in its own geography. Everything else I wrote in that time was about wanting to be somewhere else other than where I had always lived. It’s that youthful thing of hating your hometown and wanting to get away from it.”

“It was a very Southern band,” Cooley says, “but we never wrote about that. When you’re young, you just want to get out of the South. We wanted to throw the baby out with the bath water back then. TV and the movies didn’t help; even today the one racist in the story always has a Southern accent. That’s why I’m so glad to hear these younger bands embracing the good things about the South.”

Adam’s House Cat recorded an album but never released it (though Hood promises to someday remix those tapes and put them out). The band broke up in 1991, and after a few subsequent projects went nowhere, Cooley and Hood went their separate ways before reuniting in 1996 to co-found the Drive-By Truckers. But some of those early songs refused to die.

Last year Hood and Cooley decided to celebrate their 30 years of making music together by releasing It’s Great To Be Alive, a two-LP, three-CD concert album recorded over three nights at the end of 2014 at the Fillmore in San Francisco. They made sure to include two Adam’s House Cat songs: “Lookout Mountain” (re-recorded in the studio for 2004’s The Dirty South) and Hood’s favorite pre-Truckers composition, “Runaway Train.”

It was also a chance to showcase the current Drive-By Truckers line-up: Hood, Cooley, Brad Morgan (drummer since 1999), Jay Gonzalez (guitarist-keyboardist since 2007) and Matt Patton (bassist since 2012). As a live unit, this group had refashioned several songs so dramatically that the new versions deserved to be documented. The set also captures some of Hood’s spoken monologues that are often a highlight of the live shows.

“I got that from growing up listening to Clarence Carter and his long, rambling stories in the middle of his songs,” Hood says. “Bobby Womack did the same thing on his cover of the Carpenters’ ‘Close to You.’ My dad’s on that record too. I loved those Springsteen shows when he’d tell those stories to set up ‘Independence Day’ and ‘The River.’ I’ve always loved storytelling. I definitely fine-tune those monologues, trying to find that fine balance where you’re hitting the points without sounding overly rehearsed.”

“We’d only done one live album,” Cooley says, “and some of these songs we do so much better now. Usually by the time we’re done making a record, I never want to hear the recorded version again. Because as soon as you start playing a song live, it gets better. That’s the frustrating thing about what we do. In the past, it was customary for artists to try new material out on the road, but you can’t keep anything a secret anymore. The set list is on line before the amps cool off.”

Hood may live in Portland, but Cooley still lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and American Band is their most concentrated look at the South since the band’s breakthrough 2000 album, Southern Rock Opera. Cooley’s “Kinky Hypocrites,” a shot at right-wing Christians who “party harder than they like to admit,” sounds like classic Lynyrd Skynyrd, with Gonzalez’s boogie piano pushing the guitars to the limit. Even more Southern, perhaps, is the gospel piano that Gonzalez adds to Cooley’s “Once They Banned Imagine,” not only echoing the hymnal quality of John Lennon’s original song but also reinforcing the same quality in Cooley’s tune.

“After the 9/11 attacks,” Cooley recalls, “Clear Channel put out that list of songs that their stations shouldn’t play. I couldn’t get my head around the notion that John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was on that list, that it was something we didn’t need to hear at a time when it was exactly what we needed to hear. The Red Scare, the War on Crime, the War on Terrorism, they’re just excuses for cracking down on anything the establishment finds objectionable.”

That’s the thing about the South. It’s the source not only of the ministers who burned Beatles records in the ‘60s, but also of the gospel music that inspired “Imagine.” It’s the home not only of Donald Trump’s most fervent supporters but also of the Civil Rights movement that triggered the backlash. It’s a place where state governments try to suppress the truth with bathroom laws and textbook laws even as Southern storytellers from William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor to Ronnie Van Zant and Lucinda Williams have made the truth irresistible.

“What’s confounding about the South,” Cooley says, “is that most of the people you meet down here aren’t the people you see at the Trump rallies. They’re nice, polite people with no more meanness or intolerance than anywhere else in the country. But people here are drawn to authoritarian leaders; maybe it’s a daddy thing. It’s like we’re not arguing about big or small government; it’s more arguing over which parent will get custody of us.”

The final track on the new album is Hood’s song “Baggage.” At first, it’s a message to Robin Williams, written right after the comedian’s 2014 suicide, thanking him “for the joyride that you took us on” despite “the demons that you fought.” By the end of the song, though, Hood is addressing himself more than Williams, acknowledging his own baggage of Southern history and family depression. He referred to that same “baggage” on the earlier song, “Darkened Flags,” but now he’s pressing himself to “toss it in the river” so the “sweetness locked within” might be freed.

“Marvin Gaye is someone I thought about in making this record,” Hood says. “What’s Going On was recorded two years after Martin Luther King was killed. There was a lot of strife in this country about whether to follow King’s path or another path, and Marvin turned all that into a thing of beauty. I’m not comparing myself to him in any way, but we had a similar mindset on this album. We wanted to translate what’s going on now into words and music—and perhaps a little beauty.”