PATTERSON HOOD of THE DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS
by Michael Buffalo Smith
The Drive-By Truckers are taking the music world by the short hairs, rocking hard and doing it their own way. Their successful Southern Rock Opera CD set, based around the modern day mythology that stemmed from Lynyrd Skynyrd and their 1977 plane crash, helped to grow their fanbase to magnum preportions, and now they are back with a brand new album, Decoration Day, and a new label, New West.
We spoke with Trucker Patterson Hood from his home in Athens, Georgia.
Where were you born and raised?
In Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and I lived there for about 28 years and have been living in Athens, Georgia for about 9 years. I also lived in Memphis for a while and Auburn, Alabama for a while, but I look at Athens as my home. It is amazing all the music here; and the clubs here are supportive of what the bands are trying to do. You get bonus points for being more original.
I was hanging out down there when the B-52s were getting started and R.E.M. and all that. Then later came the Widespread Panic phenomenon. Are they still based in Athens?
Oh, yeah. They are inspirational to us all. They have set up their business and ties here. Widespread and their employees are very good, honest people.
What was it like growing up in Muscle Shoals with your dad being one of the Shoals rhythm section -- one of The Swampers? You must have been exposed to some great music early on.
It was so cool and the record collection dad had was the big thing. He was gone a lot and busy doing what it took to do all of that. I didn’t really get to see a lot of it first hand and didn’t get to hang out at the studio at that time. It was not in the cards for me to do that but I did get a lot of time to raid his record collection and got turned on to some great music. It was a musical education at a much younger age than most people get it, and I guess that was the biggest impact that was made. I saw them doing things that I dreamed of someday doing and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be able to do it, too. I didn’t bother very much with school and studying and that was a bone of contention with me and my family. I stayed in trouble a lot over my grades. I think a lot of it was that I saw dad as a musician, not using his college education and thought “I won’t need one either.” It never occurred to me that I might not make it or that I would be pushing 40 and not really have any choice but to do what I have done. Now that it is all working out okay, I guess it is all good, but I would be lying if I didn’t admit that there were times when I felt like I might have really messed up. Sort of around the second divorce you are thinking is this really worth it? It tends to make you question those things.
What were two or three records that really pop out in your mind from your dad’s record collection - that when you played them on the turntable you thought were just great?
I became a Neil Young fan at a very early age and became a huge Todd Rundgren fan and still am. I am particularly a fan of one of his records more than a fan of him in general. The record he really got right was Something, Anything and that is definitely one of my desert island records.
Oh, that is a great example of artistic creativity. Not that many bands these days are coming up with something totally original like David Bowie and Todd Rundgren did back in the day. What else in the record collection had a definite influence on you?
I am a big Curtis Mayfield fan. He was a big influence. Then when the punk rock thing happened I got into that. I was huge Clash fan, Elvis Costello, and a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. I didn’t get that from dad, or the punk rock from him. He didn’t get that. I had a friend that ran a record store and she turned me on to Springsteen and I was a huge fan of him as a teenager. Around the time of Darkness On The Edge of Town and Nebraska.
That sounds like me because I got turned onto Springsteen, Elvis Costello and Kate Bush at the same time. What drew you to Springsteen, lyrics or attitude?
I think it was lyrics more than anything, I just really related. Like the Darkness On The Edge of Town era, and he was almost in like a preacher role but his church was rock. I think that I bought into that as a teenager and related to that. I was not particularly religious although everyone needs something to believe in. He kind of preached that words that I bought into. Probably rock for me did play that role in what a lot of people get out of religion or whatever. There was a kind of thing that when I was a miserable teenager and couldn’t get the first choice girl, or second or even third choice girl I liked and felt like a misfit wherever I was. But when I went to the rock show everything made sense to me and when I grew up I wanted to be the one that was up there. Luckily, I have been able to do that maybe on a much smaller scale than I imaged at 15. But, you know, it was really cool, about one year ago we opened for Widespread Panic -- actually it was the only time we ever opened for them and it happened to be at the Huntsville Civic Center. That was the place I went to all the concerts I saw as a teenager and that was a dream come true playing on that stage. An amazing experience.
Tell me a little bit about when and how the Drive-By Truckers band was formed. How did you come up with the name?
I don’t even know about the name. It was kind of a joke but it was catchy and we wanted something that didn’t necessarily pigeonhole us into any one thing. I don’t know if that really works on that level or not. In 1995, I thought of it and I didn’t know I would still be doing this with this band and still have that name that many years later. It does get the job done. A name is important and is a tough thing. I actually had the name before I had the band. It’s kind of like half the battle to find a name that doesn’t suck and one that no one else has, as far as you can tell. You had better hold onto it if you find one.
You have to be pretty eclectic nowadays to find a name that has not been used.
You have to go so far out there just to have something no one else has. Mike Cooley, who is in this band with me, we have played for 18 years together now -- and this sort of answers the other part of your question -- we had a band for six years called Adam’s House Cat and that to me is not a name that you would think anyone else would have, and it’s not that great of a name but I know of about two other bands using the same name. I met one of the guys in one of those bands. Our band was the oldest of the bands but it is really hard to find a name that someone else has not thought of.
Your drummer played with some of my friends here in Greenville with a band called The Dog Killers. Did you know about that?
Yeah, he’s told me about them.
I used to write about them in the local papers. He is a great drummer.
He is a great drummer and we are blessed to have him in the band. He is not the original drummer, Matt Lane played on the first two records we made and Brad joined about the time we finished the second record. He has been a joy to play with. He is a personal asset to the band even if he was not such a great drummer. But he is.
Where did you come up with the idea for the Southern Rock Opera?
About a year before the Drive-By Truckers even started this guy, Earl Hicks, a long time friend of mine of 12-13 years, had just moved to Athens and we were going back to North Alabama to pick up a truck load of stuff. We didn’t even have a radio in this truck so, over the course of our drinking and driving conversation we ended up talking about writing this screenplay loosely based on the stories and mythology surrounding the Skynyrd story. Similar to what Cameron Crowe did with Almost Famous, having this fictional band but telling the stories of all the stuff he had seen. It was a composite character of all these different bands that he interviewed during those years growing up. It’s kind of comparable to that but this was in 1995. That is how it started out and we would meet and work on an outline on this screenplay idea and he later became our producer and I got busy with the band. He produced Pizza Deliverance and Alabama Asswhoopin’ and he was going to produce the Southern Rock Opera but the bass player that we had set to join the band fell through at the last minute and he ended up joining the band. That is kind of the way things have gone, where we start off doing one thing and it kind of bleeds into something else.
I read somewhere, and I wanted you to tell me if it was true, that when you guys got ready to put that record out you got your financing from fans or friends?
Yeah, we borrowed money from fans more than friends. I knew three or four of the people personally and a couple I have been friends with for many years. But some of them I have never met yet in person, other than trading e-mails or something. We were making the thing and everybody we had talked to about it said that it was a bad idea and we were crazy and that it wouldn’t work. We knew better than to try to get financing to make the thing and we had to come up with money any way we could. Then, we would go out on tour and all sleep on the floors and try to get some money together any way we could. We would use that for recording. Then, once we had this thing recorded, we thought that we could find someone to put it out. We went out and shopped it. Then we heard from record companies we needed to play down rock opera poart and play down the Southern thing, too - basically redo the whole thing. We literally got one true offer to put it out and it was such a terrible offer it would have bankrupted our band if we had taken that deal. We didn’t have any other ideas of what to do and we put our word out that we had this record and what our situation was and if it was ever going to come out we would need some help. Then people just came out of everywhere -- and we were much more obscure at that time but had been out on the road for years and had built a following. So, people just came out and offered us money to loan for it but we told them that they need not use their savings but we were as good a bet as the stock market and if it is money that you feel good about investing, okay. We told them we would pay people back with interest and put it out the way we wanted to put it out. Which we did. Lost Highway picked it up and rereleased it about one year later and here we are.
Playing with Skynyrd, did you hear any reaction from them about the project?
They were very nice but it is not really their cup of tea. My fear was that they would hate it or be angry about it but that didn’t happen. I don’t suspect that they sat around the tour bus listening to it and it is probably a little creepy to them. In retrospect, and I didn’t think about that aspect then, we were just trying to make this record but it is kind of creepy having some people that don’t know you write these things about your band’s personal tragedy. I am not 100% comfortable about that myself, but that is what we did. We can maintain all day long that our story is fictional but we definitely drew from their story and made no bones about it. I am sure it is a little weird for them. They have never been anything but nice and they have never publicly commented on the record. We have opened the show for them on occasion and Gary Rossington came backstage and met the band and was very supportive and nice and all of that, so I am very happy about that.
Did most of the songs on your new album come from personal experiences?
Yeah, it was very much inspired by the bullshit that happened around the time we made the Southern Rock Opera. I got divorced and another member of the band got divorced and another member of the band managed to stay together and that was not small feat in its own right because we spent so much time on the road everyone pushed their personal lives beyond the breaking point. It was almost the aspect of why one couple made it and the other couples didn’t make it were aspects of these songs. Some people will listen to the album and got something totally different out of it though. None of the songs are so tied to what inspired them and I think that they can hold up on their own just as songs that someone can listen to and get their own story out of and because of that I have not been delving too deep into these songs as to what they mean and I would like them to stand on their own that way. Definitely it was a very trying time that almost destroyed the band itself and we somehow managed to keep it together and come out the other side and now we are doing pretty good. We are getting along well and playing good shows and all of that but it was definitely a tough time that we went through before the making of this record. By the time we made the record we had a great time making it. The songs themselves are kind of dark and sad but we went into the studio and had a great time making it.
It is a good one and I wish you the best of luck with that one. I am still turning people onto the Southern Rock Opera and I personally think it is great Southern mythology. Forget Tommy. Let’s do something Southern.
I am not a Tommy fan either and nor am I a rock opera fan. That was really part of the equation that it was a rock opera done by people that don’t like those things. Even the title itself was a little bit tongue in cheek and if some people want to walk away from it thinking of it as a rock opera that’s fine or if someone wants to think of it as making fun of that that’s fine, too.
Not just with the Rock Opera aspect but you can take it so many different ways. I can see that. I have had people e-mail me and say that that is almost sacrilegious towards Ronnie Van Zant and all this and I respond that no it is not.But the larger percentage of people will remark on how creative it is and that it is representative of a tribute to the Southern culture.
How can anyone feel that it is sacreligious to Ronnie Van Zant? Oh, the Betamax guillotine...
That whole aspect of it was a tribute to Ronnie’s dark sense of humor and that is what when I became a Skynyrd fan at a rather late age, and people have said that I probably grew up hating them. That is not true. It was not my thing. I was in junior high school when the plane went down and had at that time three of their records and loved them. I bought Street Survivors the day it came out and that was the day before the plane crash happened. I did legitimately really like them and their music but at that time the Lynryd Skynryd as we knew and loved them was over. Now they are out touring and doing what they do now and that is great and I wish them the best on all of that, but during those years I was in high school there was no Lynryd Skynryd. It was the Rossington Collins Band which I actually felt was kind of underrated and I felt those records were better than what they got credit for, but again people couldn’t get past the fact that it wasn’t Skynryd. In their own right those are pretty cool records and even the second was better than it has been given credit for. I liked Pine Box particularly. But around that time I was listening to other things and doing other things and the whole Free Bird thing was overplayed on the radio and made you run from it, and you couldn’t help but run from it. Then in my 30s I went back and rediscovered it all and I realized how cool and overplayed and underrated it all was. The aspect of Ronnie’s irreverent sense of humor is more irreverent than anything in our record. The line “oak tree you’re in my way” is the exact inspiration for us naming the band in our Rock Opera that, it was that exact sense of humor. After they were martyred and canonized and all of that from the plane crash they all took on these larger than life personas and a lot of their fans after that kind of missed that aspect of it. Once you are killed in a tragedy you become so much larger than life and the human aspect is forgotten. They were very much a human band.That was the beauty of it and that’s the part that I connected with and made me become a fan as a grown man who was way older than the people were buying their records pre-plane crash out there. I was apprehensive that they may have felt we were making fun of them or something and nothing could be farther from the truth and there is not an ounce of that anywhere in our band and we wanted it to be truer to the ideal and vision was and at the same time if you listen to the record there is no misunderstanding that the love it in it.
Oh, I totally heard the love in it when I first listened and sure there is some dark humor in it and nobody was better at that than Ronnie. All that about Neil Young and they were both good friends.
Oh, right and I have always been a Neil Young fan because he always had this sense of humor in those dark songs of his and, to be honest, "Southern Man" is a funny song. I didn’t agree with some aspects of it. In my memories of where I grew up nobody was being tied to a tree and whipped that I ever saw but the song was not written without humor. He has a great twisted sense of humor.
(Laughs) He is another artist people either love or hate but I just love his voice and his weird guitar style. He is just all over the place. I could pick up some of that influence in the Truckers.
Oh, in my guitar I am very influenced by him. Out of the four of us I have the most noticeable Neil Young and Rossington influence. I play the Rossington role in the three guitar attack that we used for the rock opera. Not any one of us plays like the one we represented but we did play those roles and what type of guitar player that you bring into the thing. I played the slower more melodic solos which were pretty comparable and I am not a fraction as good of a guitar player as Gary Rossington in my wildest dreams, but that is what I was shooting for on those songs. Cooley played the psychotic lead guitar player, as Allen Collins was and I don’t mean personally, but in the approach. Rob was extremely technical and extremely talented technically in every other way, and Steve Gaines was the one he related to. Ironically enough, Jason’s favorite guitar player was Ed King in Skynyrd and he has always been the big Ed King fan and that’s the one he related to and we did the reverse Skynyrd on our influences.
(Laughs) That’s cool. You guys did a run over in Europe and I was getting email from people and heard from one guy on email that you stayed at his house over there and it just thrilled him. What was the experience like for you over there?
It’s incredible over there and the people are so passionate about the music they love there and go into it in such a detailed way that the American artists just don’t. It’s like any other generalization there are certainly as many exceptions as there are rules. You may meet someone that speaks broken English and you wonder how does he pick up on this stuff but he can sit there and tell us these miniscule details of something we did or said in a song that nobody outside of the immediate family would know about and then they study it and it is really amazing to go over and play for them. The American audiences either like it or not and it doesn’t go very far beyond that except for a few diehards.