Patterson Hood is a bear of a man. On stage, he’s all stomping, sweat and spit, his curly mop and generous beard forever dripping with the evidence of his hard work. He preaches with the zeal of a tent revival evangelist from behind his microphone stand, regaling fans with tales of darkness, depravity and the triumph of the maladjusted human spirit. He just celebrated his 50th birthday and is creeping towards the 20 year mark as one half of the driving creative partnership behind the Alabama-bred rock band Drive-By Truckers. He and his steadfast co-pilot Mike Cooley (along with drummer Brad “EZB” Morgan) form the backbone of DBT. Over the years, the lineup has seen dramatic shifts and exits (the most notable of which was that of one- time third guitarist and songwriter Jason Isbell, now an established indie talent in his own right). With the release of their 10th studio album, English Oceans, DBT is moving into a new phase of their career. Seeming to have finally settled into a groove that works for everyone, they’re back on a creative high and hitting the road for their customary hard, non-stop touring. I spoke with Patterson in advance of their two-night stint at the Civic Theatre this month and we talked about his approach to songwriting, the possibility of reuniting with former members and the angst of growing up a socially liberal, churchless heathen in Civil Rights-era Alabama.
You had a few bands before DBT formed, and much of that time was with Cooley as well. You’re entering into your third decade working with him. How has that relationship evolved over the years?
Really well. We started playing together when he was a teenager and I was just barely not a teenager, so at that time it was basically based on fighting. We both were hot-headed kids who thought we knew everything, so we just drove each other crazy for a long time. But even then, there was a chemistry. Deep down we both sort of grudgingly knew and accepted that. We weren’t necessarily happy about it, but we knew and accepted it. We had people that we looked up to sit us down on numerous occasions and say, “you know, the two of y’all together are better than either of you are apart, so y’all should just learn to get along.” At around ten years together, we kind of figured that part out. Our eleventh year together was when we started the Truckers and by then we were pretty much past most of our fighting and we got along pretty good. But it’s gotten better and better as the years have passed. Once we both started having kids, that kind of changed something too. We’re great partners and super close friends now. And it’s pretty awesome.
When I spoke with him last year, he noted that time apart and the physical space of not living in the same city helped to keep the partnership afloat as well.
Yeah, we were roommates for five years, so that certainly didn’t help. [laughs]
Having that separation though, do you find it difficult to get in that groove when you get back into the same place and are working on new material or getting ready for a tour?
Not at all. It’s instantaneous. It finally occurred to us that part of the secret is that if there is anything that is taking away from that, then it probably needs to be fixed. It’s better when everything is playing into the partnership that we have instead of distracting from it. The band right now is just smokin’ good. It’s the best band we’ve ever had and he’ll tell you that too. 29 years of having bands together and this right now is by far the best band we’ve ever had. It’s on fire and we had a really great time making this record. I’m really proud of it and I think it’s definitely one of our very best.
You have a penchant for creating songs based on tales of true life weirdness. Whether it’s incestuous siblings or a wife murdering her kinky preacher husband and getting away with it, you seem to have a real knack for finding bizarre source material. Do you scour the papers looking for the most fucked-up things you can find? Or are these just stories that jump out at you when you hear about them?
It’s never an obvious thing about it that makes it resonate with me. It’s not the sensationalistic part of it. And you might notice, there’s not much of that sort of thing at all on this new record. There’s a bit of a subtle hint of it on “When Walter Went Crazy,” but even that is not necessarily literal. It’s never stated that he literally burned the house down; it’s alluded to almost in a dream-like state. I kind of got tired of people thinking that I just looked for the sensational. To me, the sensational is like putting Tabasco in the chilli––it’s not really the chilli itself. People are always sending me articles and saying, “you should write a song about this crazy, fucked-up shit” and I never do, because it doesn’t resonate with me. “The Wig He Made Her Wear” was a song on The Big To Do about a woman who killed her preacher husband and the subsequent manhunt for her. The reason for that song is that I was watching TV, which I never do––Court TV of all things!––in a motel room in Hernando, Mississippi the day of the trial and when they pulled out the wig, I could literally hear the gasps in the court room. The town where they lived was 30 miles from my hometown and it so resonated with me, all those small town mores that I grew up around. She shot her husband point blank with a shotgun and the moment I saw that wig, I knew she was gonna walk. It was, oh, but he was kinky and he liked her to dress up funny when they got it on. So because he was a little kinky, it makes it okay that she did that. And that’s the reason I wrote it. The working title of the song was “The Audible Gasp,” and I couldn’t figure out a way to make that the song. But it was definitely the inspiration for it… The incest story [“The Deeper In”] was just so sad to me. It’s not like they grew up together as brother and sister gettin’ it on. They didn’t meet until they were grown ups and it was just such a sad story. A lot of the people I write about are nothing like me, but there has to be some aspect to them that I can feel a certain empathy for or else I’m not interested in writing it. At that point I’d just be telling a bawdy story or doing something condescending. I try never to be condescending to the characters I write about, even the really shitty ones.
You’re pretty much the only person I think who could pull off writing a song about incest that actually made me feel bad for the perpetrators. It’s just so sad.
It is. It’s a sad song, but it’s a pretty song. That whole album is really about love and loss and the choices you make. Dealing with the consequences of the choices you make is a huge overriding theme in Decoration Day. I was going through a divorce when I wrote my songs for that record and I think everyone in the band was going through a lot of personal relationship angst at the time that the record was being written. Most of the records seem to end up having a mostly unintentional theme. I’m sure it’s just a product of the amount of time we spend together and traveling and all that, the same things seem to resonate with us and inspire a set of songs.
Do you have a process per se? Is it different for every song or is there a specific way you like to work?
The best ones happen like someone’s playing a radio station that only I can hear. And I hear the whole song and write it down as fast as I can––lyrics, music, the whole thing at one time. And that happens less and less now because I’m so busy that I get to spend less and less time with my antenna up like that. Because when my antenna’s up, unfortunately I’m not much good for anything else. I’m gonna miss that press thing; I’m gonna forget the lyrics to that song during the show; I’m gonna forget to pick up the kids at school. I’m pretty worthless when I’m in that mode. When I was younger and I didn’t have responsibilities and nobody really gave a shit about my band, I could spend all day, every day with my antenna up. And I wrote an enormous number of songs. I wrote 200 one year and many years I’ve topped 100 for the year. I didn’t have anything else to do. I had some shit job I didn’t care about, you know. But now I spend so much time dealing with having a band that people like and touring and I’ve got kids. So I have to spend a lot more of my creative time working to make up for the fact that I no longer have that “sitting around/do nothing ” time that’s actually a very valuable asset for a writer. It’s all still a work in progress, but hopefully by the time the kids are grown, I will have figured out how to make all that work. [laughs] Right now, though, it’s all I can do to get everything I need for the next record. So far it’s worked out. And I got particularly lucky this time, as I thought we had a pretty great batch of songs all around for this record.
I asked Cooley this question and was intrigued by his response, so I wanted to ask you as well. What song in your catalog put up the biggest fight? Which one was the biggest bitch to get from conception to reality?
Life’s too short to play for a bunch of assholes
So we lost a song from English Oceans when it got added on?
Yeah, I took a song off that’s actually on the EP we put out for Record Store Day this year. There’s a song called “Rock Solid” and I like the song a lot––enough that it was in consideration for the record––but it was a low-impact song and it’s kind of a subtle thing. And the record needed something that wasn’t; it needed something that rocked and kind of grabbed you by the lapels a little bit. And I’m pretty conscious of that. When we’re making a record, I try to think about what’s being filled. What part of the spectrum is being used and what’s not being used and what does it need, you know?
You once said that it was far easier for you to write sad songs than happy songs. Is that still the case?
Probably. I don’t know why. I’m not exactly happy about that.
Maybe it’s just harder to can happiness for consumption. Or maybe it’s a more shallow emotion?
There’s this new record by Sun Kil Moon that I’ve been really in love with this season and it’s easily been my most played record for the last few months. And he’s got a song on there where he talks about how he’s always been drawn to melancholia and he’s just a melancholy guy, but he’s come to terms with that part of his personality. And I’m not a downer guy––I think I’m actually kinda fun and I don’t sit around depressed a lot, but I think having that outlet in music for that side of me is what enables me to not sit around and be a downer. So much of my learning to write was about having an outlet for my teenage angst or whatever was making me unhappy at the time. And most of the music that I really love to listen to has a kind of darkness in it, almost without exception. I don’t know what that says about me, but that’s just kinda who I am. I mean, look at the concept of “the blues”: the idea of turning your troubles into something you sing about at a juke joint on a Saturday night and everybody dances and gets drunk to it. While you can’t technically call what we do blues, that’s where we come from and I think that aspect applies.
I have a song-specific question for you regarding “Sinkhole,” one of my favorite Truckers songs of all time. The album version is this punchy, searing thing but in a live setting, you guys play it in this very monolithic and almost sludgy fashion. What was behind the choice to play it live differently than it was recorded?
I don’t know. It just kinda stretched out. It’s a fun song to play and we just started stretching out the ending a bit. Do you prefer the old version?
Honestly, I like both. It depends on how I’m feeling that day. I just always wondered if you guys ended up regretting how it sounded on the album and you took it in a direction live that you felt it should’ve always gone.
Oh no, not at all. Songs just evolve like that sometimes. Very often the version on an album will be the first version that we learn of a song. In the case of “Sinkhole,” it was a relatively new song and we had probably played it a few times at shows, but we went into the studio to demo songs for our next record (the record that became Decoration Day) it was the first thing we played. The version on that record is the literal first take of that day. And it was just BOOM… well, okay, we did that. And we all thought “Well shit, this is gonna be a fun record to make.” So that was the original thought process behind it, but we’ve played the song a thousand times since then. Over the course of those thousand times, some thing stretch, some things slow, some things speed up. And that song has everyone’s attention usually, so we’re able to morph the ending into a more stretched out thing. But I think it’s still true in spirit to the original version. You know, we played that song last week at the Greek Theatre with Willie Nelson, and Mickey from Willie’s band played harmonica on it and it was cool as shit. I would love a good recording of that version of it, because what he did with that song was so fucking cool. If we do a live record, we may have to make that work.
Speaking of collaborations, you guys did a stint with Booker T. and you’ve worked with some other legendary soul artists. What drew you to those partnerships and do you have a wish list of folks you’d like to work with in the future?
Yeah, for sure. We did a record with Bettye Lavette and I’m really proud of that record. Working with Booker was a dream come true on every level. He is the sweetest guy and the word genius gets tossed around too much, but not for him. [laughs] He truly is a genius. The more you’re around him, the deeper you realize he goes. Every minute some new facet would be revealed and you’d think “God damn, he does that too. Holy shit!” It was pretty awe-inspiring and it really changed us as a band. We spent four days making that record and we came out of it a different band than we went into it; and I think it’s affected everything we’ve done since. As for a wish list, I want to do another one with him! That’s top of my list. I’ve always wanted to do something backing up one of the great country songwriters, especially Tom T. Hall. I’m just such a fan and we actually play pretty good country when we make an effort. [laughs] We make a decent country backing band, I’ll put it that way. I don’t sing country, but Cooley actually can. After a couple songs though, he’s ready to turn it up and rock out. But he might someday have a solo country record, as he’s hinted at that from time to time. But yeah, to do something like that with one of the master songwriters of that genre would be really great.
You guys are a pretty left-leaning/ liberal band for a bunch of dudes from the Heart of Dixie. Do you think the fact that your father was immersed in the Muscle Shoals scene, working with all these black musicians that came to town, gave him a unique perspective to pass on to you?
Of course. Very much so. We grew up in a very conservative, blue collar, buckle of the Bible Belt town, and my dad made his living playing bass on soul records during the Civil Rights era. The amount that I felt like an oddball and out of place there as a kid is something that I still draw angst from. I felt like I was out of place, out of time. There weren’t really many people that understood me in school because I was coming from such a totally different upbringing than the rest of them and kids aren’t always kind about such things, about differences. I spent a lot of my childhood getting the shit beat out of me for being a weirdo that didn’t go to church, so all of that has certainly informed my grown-up viewpoints and I’m sure that’s where the deep roots of my liberalism come from. And it may have been worth it for that, because I’m pretty happy with my viewpoints.
The whole time we were making the record, I had this nagging feeling that there was
a missing piece. I knew what it sounded like. I knew what it felt like. Hell, I knew what it tasted like. But I didn’t have it.
Oh yeah. [laughs] Still am and I might yet! I’ve been here 50 years, but I might just yet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of some of our better traditions. As far as the literature and the music and arts that come from the South, those are my favorite types of those things in the whole world. So I’m very proud to be from where those things originated, but I don’t necessarily have to live here the rest of my life. My reasons for staying now really have more to do with not wanting to be so far away from my family. My sister is in Birmingham and the idea of being across the country from her is definitely a hard one. My dad is still in Muscle Shoals and I’m a six hour drive from him now, but I’d love to be able to see him more. I mean, I’m very close to my family and I love my people, but they do make airplanes! I spend all my time in airports anyway, so it doesn’t really matter where I live. It’s more a matter, at this point in my life, of what’s the best fit for my wife and kids and what’s gonna make them happy. Honestly, I spend half my time on the road anyway, so what I come home to is really a matter of: I want a comfortable bed and a cool bathroom. If the bed and the bathroom are happenin’, then I’m pretty okay with whatever geography it’s in.
I was re-watching Secret to a Happy Ending [a 2009 documentary about DBT] the other night and it’s very honest about the tensions that existed within the band at that time. There has seemingly been a lot of healthy growth and change internally since then, but do you feel like the possibility of future collaborations or shows with past members is realistic? Is it something you guys would ever consider?
On a one-off basis, Jason and I could definitely end up doing something together.
In the movie, the split with Jason is framed as being based on artistic diversions, but in the last few years, Jason has been very vocal about the source of much of the tension being his drinking problem. Now that he is sober, a lot of DBT fans have echoed a hope for future collaboration with him.
It sounds weird for someone to say they left the Truckers over their drinking when we all were drinking a lot, so it was not so much what or how much he was drinking, but how he was drinking. It was more the mindset. But you know, he and I are great. We’re friends again and I’m very happy about that. I’m so proud of him and what he’s done on a personal level, and I think Southeastern is a fucking phenomenal record. “Elephant” is one of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard anyone write. Whether it’s someone I know or not, it’s just a great caliber of song. I couldn’t be prouder of him. But he outgrew his position in the band. When he joined us, he was 21 or 22, he’d never really played in a band before, especially not a serious touring, real band. He was just a chubby kid who was really, really fucking talented. We had an open position that he stepped into on literally a moment’s notice and hit the road with us and the second day on the road he wrote “Decoration Day,” and a week later he wrote “Outfit” and we would’ve been crazy not to utilize those in the next record we made. Because those are great songs and we’re all about great songs. But, by the time we’d been touring for six months or so on Dirty South, he was writing at such a pace… And there’s still that partnership to deal with; me and Cooley have been together so long and kinda had our thing and he was wanting to go in directions that just didn’t appeal to us. And some of them might have been misguided, but it was still his right as an artist to want to do it. And by him leaving and being free to do that, it allowed him to get whatever he needed to get out of his system to enable him to now be the artist he’s become. And he wouldn’t have become what he’s become if he’d stayed in the band. The first night I saw him, I saw the potential in him to become the artist he is now. But I can’t say that along the way, I didn’t have moments where I thought he would never reach it. There was a period where I kept thinking, “Damn, he had all this potential…” And he wouldn’t be the only one. You see a lot of really talented people along the way never come into their own because they can’t get control of those demons. You know, those demons that make you great will also destroy you and that’s a tough thing that some artists never, ever get. Hell, what would Kurt Cobain be doing today if he’d been able to live through it and come out the other end and write from the other side? What great music could we have gotten out of that? Some people just never get there, and it’s sad. And I’m really grateful we didn’t see another case of that with Jason. So yeah, I could see us doing something together down the road. The door’s open and like I said, we’re good friends, but none of us are really into looking back. Everything we’ve done has brought us to where we are now. He’s in a good place, we’re in a good place, and I hope all of our other former members are in a good place and I wish them all well.
Many of my best concert memories come courtesy of late night sets you guys played at Tipitina’s, rolling into town during Mardi Gras or Jazz Fest and playing from 2 a.m. to sunrise. Sadly, I feel woefully unable to handle that kind of show anymore. Are you still up for that sort of thing, or is that a relic of the past now?
It would be harder to do at this point, honestly. I’m not gonna said I couldn’t do it, but it wouldn’t be as fun as it was back in those days. There was a level of partying back then that I simply don’t have in me anymore. And frankly, I don’t have any desire to have it back at this point. [laughs] I like to have a few drinks and I’m a pretty good-time guy, but as far as the “up all night” thing, I’m too old for that shit. I can’t do it anymore––it’ll kill me.
Do you think the fan base is aging with you guys? Or are you still seeing young faces in the crowd? Are you still being discovered?
It depends on the town. We played New York the other day and our audience was extremely diverse. And there were a lot of young people, a lot of girls. It was awesome. I’ve always predicted we were gonna end up with a Willie Nelson type thing if we survived and hung in there long enough. At a Willie show, you see kids and their parents and teenagers and middle-aged people and old people. You see people who have been going to see Willie since the ‘60s and they weren’t necessarily young then! And everything in between. All walks of life and demographics and political beliefs. That’s how Willie’s shows have been for years and years. And we might have that yet, because our crowd is really, really diverse. Some towns it’s definitely older and more male than others; but in bigger cities, it’s pretty crazy diverse. New Orleans is a great example. I’m very inclusive. As long as people are being cool and having a good time, I’m all about it. I would hate to pull a fan base that was a bunch of meathead assholes that are all mosh- pitting and and being aggressive. That would be the worst thing ever. I would quit if it got to be like that. If I walked out and every night it was that? I mean, we have those nights occasionally, but fortunately it’s so rare now that it really stands out when it happens. But we can be assholes too, you know. We’ll throw em out. We’re not gonna put up with people acting like that out there. I have no desire to be in a room with them and I’d just as soon kick ‘em out quick. I don’t need their money. Life’s too short to play for a bunch of assholes.
Parting question. If you could only be remembered for one song, one piece of art that you created, which one would it be and why?
I think it would have to be “The Living Bubba” or “Grand Canyon.” I think those are the two best songs I’ve ever written. Ironic because “The Living Bubba” is on our very first record and “Grand Canyon” is on the newest one. Those two songs have a lot of common ground. They’re both sort of life- affirming in that they focus on that one thing that keeps you alive. They’re both about finding that thing that makes it all worthwhile and just doing it. It’s obviously something that resonates with me pretty deeply. And they were both written as tributes to fallen comrades that we loved very much. “Heathens” is probably one of the other better ones that I’ve written and it’s right smack in the middle between them, so maybe every ten years I get it right.