KEEP ON TRUCKIN'
The Drive-By Truckers Contribute to the New Mythology
by Dick Cooper
BELOW: The building where "Southern Rock Opera" was recorded.
"Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers, and they've been known to pick a song or two..." As the offspring of one of those Swampers, Patterson Hood has lived in close proximity to the legend that has risen around Lynyrd Skynyrd, and is the prime force behind his band's recently released multi-CD Southern Rock Opera version of that myth.
The opera explores myths about the South and the multi-faceted realities of "The Southern Thing."
HOOD: As the record took shape, Act 1 became more about southern history and misconceptions. The duality of the southern thing. As in the fact that Muscle Shoals was this Mecca for recording some of the most beautiful soul records on Earth, with mostly white musicians backing up black artists at the exact time when TV sets across America were showing police dogs and fire hoses being turned on Civil Rights workers in Birmingham.
Act 2 was more about the fictional band, based largely on Lynyrd Skynyrd, who worked their way out of the swamps of Northern Florida, only to crash in a swamp outside McCombs, MS.
Hood, Mike Cooley, Rob Malone, Earl Hicks and Brad Morgan have barnstormed across the country for the past few years as the Drive-By Truckers.
Hood and Cooley roomed together as students at the University of North Alabama, eventually creating Adam's House Cat in 1985. The band was a first place winner of Musician magazine's "Best Unsigned Band Contest" in 1988, judged by Elvis Costello, Mark Knopfler, T-Bone Burnett, Mitchell Froom.
HOOD: Cooley and I had our 16th anniversary recently. That's longer than all the wives combined. We rode together to Birmingham, (at the end of August where the Truckers opened for Ted Nugent and Lynyrd Skynyrd) and we laughed all the way. It was a good reminder why we have put up with each other so long.
Malone and Hicks, also of the Shoals area, were long time friends before joining the band, and Brad Morgan, a native of Greenville, SC, became acquainted with the band while playing the same club circuit.
MALONE: Patterson was living in Athens and he would stay with me when he came to Muscle Shoals. He would always nag me to move, tell me that Athens was a great place to be. Well I did, and he was right. Two days after I moved there I was on the road with the Truckers. I'm beginning to think that was his plan all along.
HOOD: I thought it was always in Rob's plan to end up in DBT even before he moved here. I mean he is the Devil.
The Southern Rock Opera has been in the works for a long time. How did that come about?
HOOD: Shortly after I moved to Athens, Earl joined me there. We were driving back to the Shoals to pick up some of his stuff and began having this long rambling talk about the mythology surrounding Lynyrd Skynyrd. Neither of us had ever been fans, but after I moved to Athens I started buying their old records used and was amazed at how incredible they were.
HICKS: We were just riding along drinking, smoking and talking about how we didn't really listen to the music from "our high school parking lot." But now that we have moved away, we could really enjoy and appreciate how good it really is and how misunderstood it was by most of its most fervent fans.
HOOD: The idea was developed through long conversations on the road between gigs. Cooley and Rob both wrote songs for it.
COOLEY: I got my first Skynyrd record when I was 11 or 12. It was "One More From The Road." I loved it as soon as the needle hit the groove. I still have the same copy and learned a lot of what I know about playing guitar as well as what I wanted to do with my life by listening to it.
HOOD: Ronnie's songs were among the most unpretentious and beautiful songs I had ever heard. Earl and I decided on that road trip that we should make a movie about them. Later, when we sobered up, we realized that neither one of us had the means to make a movie. But soon after I had a band, I began talking about the idea of turning the story into a rock opera.
In telling the story, one thing led to another. One of the bits of folklore concerned the fact that Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young had become good friends. The Skynyrd boys had loved Buffalo Springfield and were all Neil Young fans. Ronnie had written "Sweet Home Alabama" to answer Neil Young's songs "Southern Man" and "Alabama." The song took Neil to task for putting down a place he hardly knew, while Ronnie had met so many good people there. People who weren't racist or caught up in the hatred that so may people associated with Southerners.
Exploring this led to me writing "Wallace," which I wrote the night after George Wallace died. Later I wrote "Ronnie and Neil" about all of that and the friendship it inspired.
As the son of David Hood, a founding member of the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, you grew up around the recording industry in Muscle Shoals When did you realize your Dad was a musician?
HOOD: I can remember, probably around 3 or 4 years old, I was riding down the road in the car with Mom and a song came on the radio. Mom said "That's your Dad playing on that song." I thought that he was at the radio station, playing the song.
I never got to hang around the studio as a kid. Dad really tried to keep all of that private and I was staying with my grandmother and great uncle a lot. I was sore about not getting to hang out with the Stones and Skynyrd, because I always thought that Jay (Guitarist Jimmy Johnson's son) was always getting to catch the action. I was all about the Rock, even as a small kid. I really never wanted to do anything in my life except be a rocker, or maybe a film maker.
COOLEY: I don't remember any specific songs or artists that were recording in Muscle Shoals when I was growing up. We have always talked about the fact that the people who live there know the least about it, and I was one of those people. My earliest memory is being in the car with my parents and driving past FAME Studio. I knew something was going on in there and it was something I wasn't supposed to ever be involved with...and you know, I'm not talking about the music. I was already drawn to music, and that combined with a little forbidden fruit was all I needed.
HICKS: I first came to the Shoals in the early Summer of '81. My Dad got a job in Russellville, we were looking for a house and I saw the 'Hit Recording Capitol of the World' sign. Didn't believe it. I had done a recording project in the 6th grade band the previous year, and I remember being kind of befuddled by the whole idea of hit records being made there. I'd lived all over Alabama by that time and couldn't believe I'd never heard of it. Then I just started learning more about it.
MALONE: I was eight or nine years old riding in the back of my Mom's big ass Buick. The radio announcer would say "this is Muscle Shoals Music," or "this was recorded in town," or something like that.
Songwriting is the most obvious strength of the Truckers. How long has this been going on?
HOOD: I started writing songs when I was in the third grade. I guess they were always there, I was just eight before I thought to write them down. The realization that, 'Oh, those voices are songs,' before that I just figured I was crazy.
COOLEY: I didn't really start writing songs until 1991. It was right after Adam's House Cat broke up. Patterson and I had moved to Memphis and I had just turned 25. I guess the first song I ever wrote that I consider a finished product and actually played for anybody was a song about going home for a family visit. I've still never officially titled it but that year I was really down and dreading Thanksgiving and that's where it all came from.
HOOD: In the song Ronnie and Neil (on the new album) we pay tribute to Jimmy Johnson for being the first to produce Skynyrd. We all unanimously think that "First And Last" has the most bitchin' guitar and most real vocal sounds of any of their records. Jimmy produced and engineered the Stones' "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses." No one's anymore proud of the Shoals area's musical heritage than we are.
MALONE: I wrote "Cassie's Brother because Steve Gaines was my hero. He was an incredible guitar player, singer, songwriter, musician, person.
There are some pretty incredible rumors spreading about your live shows. Want to talk about some of them?
HOOD: We played once a month at the Nick in Birmingham. It was always on a Monday night and it rained every single one of them. The first time we ever got a decent gig there, someone was killed in the parking lot the night before. That story inspired the second verse of the song "Birmingham" on the new album.
HICKS: It is hard to beat the girl getting up on stage at the Caledonia (Athens, GA) and taking off her clothes. The original 'Get Them Pants Off Tour' in the fall of 2000...need I say more.
The Truckers have been together for a couple of years. How was the band formed?
HOOD: I got the idea to form a loose confederation of musicians, which would probably change nightly, but with a core and common idea, named Drive-By Truckers. I saved up for a day of studio time at Andy Baker's studio in Athens and invited all my favorite musicians to come record for a day. I did sound at the High Hat in Athens and had met a bunch of great players there. I invited Cooley and Chris Quillen from the Shoals, but Quillen was killed in a car wreck on Memorial Day weekend (5/25/96). The recording session became a sort of wake for him. Half of the musicians there were close friends and comrades. The other half had never met him, but everyone there felt that something very intense and special had just happened. We recorded "Margo and Harold" at that session. (It was later released on the second DBT album "Pizza Deliverance"). We also recorded our first single, "Nine Bullets" / "Bulldozers and Dirt" that day.
After the session, I asked everyone if they'd like to do a gig sometime. Then I just started booking as many shows as possible, and whoever could make it was the band that night. It pretty quickly solidified and to the lineup that played on our first album "Gangstabilly" (1998). (Cooley, Adam Howell on bass, John Neff on Pedal Steel, Barry Sell on mandolin, and Matt Lane on drums).
After Gangstabilly was released, the band hit the road, but as some of them also played in other bands, personnel changes were inevitable. As folks would leave, they all seemed to get replaced by former Shoals musicians. Rob, who I've known longer than Cooley, joined on guitar. Later he switched to bass because we already had two guitarists and needed a bassist. Now he's back on guitar, and Earl is playing bass, and Brad Morgan is playing drums.
After "Pizza Deliverance" came out (Spring 99) we hit the road and played 400 shows in 40 states in 2 * years.
Amazingly the band has survived many pitfalls, especially in light of the fact that you have never had a record label to fall back on.
HOOD: The van broke down more times than I can remember. We rode into a gig in Houston on the back of a tow truck. It was broken into in NYC playing CBGB's. We had thousands of dollars worth of stuff stolen in Chattanooga. We broke down in Pensacola FL., rented a car to get to a gig in New Orleans, and when we got there the show was canceled so we hauled ass back to Pensacola, where they let us play. We played until 7 a.m. then staggered out into the street and had a brawl in the middle of the street. The next day the bartender fixed our van for free while I puked in his yard. We dedicated our live album ("Alabama Ass Whuppin'") to him.
I understand you generally stay at the home of friends and fans while on the road. The proverbial "couch tour."
HOOD: We slept on floors almost every night. Met some amazing nice people, and a couple of really scary ones too.
COOLEY: In Oklahoma earlier this year these really nice guys took us home and put us up. It was one of those nights that I couldn't go to sleep without seeing how far my size 13 foot could go into that drunk rambling insulting sewer I call a mouth. The conversation turned to women's magazines and how we all enjoyed picking one up every now and then. I couldn't resist. I said, "You know reading a Cosmo or something every now and then is one thing, but if you have a copy of Maxim in you're house you're a fucking fag!" The words weren't out of my mouth until I looked over at Patterson and he had a really sick look on his face and the room got quiet. I knew what I'd done. I said "OK, where is it? Patterson started laughing his ass off, pointed underneath the coffee table and said, "It's right there."
HICKS: I like to sleep in the van.
The band certainly has it's unconventional streak. How have you managed to release your second album first?
HOOD: The songs from our second album were supposed to be our first album, but a couple of days before we decided to scrap it and record a batch of brand new songs instead.
After Gangstabilly, people would always ask us why "Nine Bullets" and all their favorite songs weren't on the album, so we went back and recorded the first album (Pizza Deliverance). But, by then we were out playing them like a loud belligerent rock band. Around the middle of that tour, we decided that we needed to document what we were doing live at that time. We had already been writing and planning the record that is now coming out (Southern Rock Opera) and even though we hadn't begun recording it yet, we knew that it was going to be a big departure for us musically, so we wanted to document what we were doing before we moved on. Earl, who was our producer then, suggested we do a live record. He actually put it together and did all of the dirty work while we were out on the road. We recorded all of our Athens shows and one Atlanta show during a six month period. Cooley felt particularly strong about getting the live album out.
You never sit still long. What's in the future?
HOOD: We plan to put out an EP of arena rock songs, much like what the fictional band would have played, in the spring and we want to put the rock opera out on DVD by next summer. We also have been writing a Christmas album and have over 20 songs already written for the next official Drive-By Truckers album. The working title is "Heathens," and it will be coming in early 2003.