By NATHAN RIZZO // Living in Portland: Compelled but not defeated
He may say he’s exhausted, but Patterson Hood isn’t tired. If he is fatigued, it is justifiable - Hood is juggling album release obligations and the slow grind of a nationwide tour in the midst of his family’s permanent relocation to Portland. However, the 52 year-old Drive-By Truckers frontman is flatly unwilling to swear off the burden of yet another formidable responsibility: that of a liberal standard-bearer in the aftermath of 2016’s capstone tragedy.
The vast societal turbulence consummated by Donald Trump’s once comically unfathomable ascent to the White House is at the fore of American Band, the Truckers’ September release and a full-fisted swing at this latest dark masterwork of the silent majority. It also driving Hood, the bespectacled scion of rock and R&B royalty (his father, David Hood, is a tenured Swampers bassist and founder of Muscle Shoals Sound Studios), who avers that his fight is only beginning - and that his band has never been more ready for it.
Drive-By Truckers, for whom Hood shares songwriting duties with guitarist Mike Cooley, have never shied from the overtly political. Now approaching their 21st year, the Athens, Ga. five-piece, whose lineup once featured Grammy-winning songwriter Jason Isbell, have maintained a steady reputation for gritty Southern alt-rock with a now-prescient class-conscious bent. In a recent profile, The Los Angeles Review of Books credited them as “adept dramatists of American historical consciousness,” singling out 2001’s Southern Rock Opera for “[giving] voice to a white working class left behind by deindustrialization,” contesting the South’s “irredeemably racist” character (a subject Hood addressed at length in a thoughtful New York Times op-ed), and for seeking “solidarity among blacks and whites along class lines.”
On American Band, Hood and Cooley peer beyond these themes, but do so with a searing poignancy rendering it the Truckers’ most galvanized and piercing statement to date. In something of a nod to The Ghost of Tom Joad, American Band also introduces substantive elements of historical context, a realm largely unknown to popular music’s wholesale delinquency. “Ramon Casiano,” the Cooley-penned leadoff cut, recounts the 1931 killing of Casiano, a Mexican teen shot to death in Laredo, Tx. following an encounter instantly reminiscent of Trayvon Martin’s 2012 homicide. Freed by the Texas Court of Appeals on account of a legal technicality, the assailant, Harlon Carter, would go on to lead the National Rifle Association in several capacities until 1985.
Holiday solo appearances have become something of a tradition for Hood, who will perform at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge on December 1, an occasion to articulate American Band’s subtle earnestness and reflective qualities, and perhaps a reprieve from its blistering indignation. Hood is certain to draw from the album - “The Guns of Umpqua” touches on the 2015 mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg - while tracks from Hood’s Drive-By Truckers and solo discographies are similarly likely to see ample daylight. Interviewed in advance of this performance, Hood speaks to his Portland move and to American Band, extemporizing at length on music’s role in our arrival at the nadir of American electoral history and hinting at a forthcoming chapter of redemption.
What led to the run of solo performances? I saw that you and Mike [Cooley] are going to split off and play some dates independently.
We’ve been doing it every year for the last several years. We both do some solo dates usually right before Christmas. It’s fun because it gives us a chance to try some things out in more of an intimate setting compared to what the band does. I can tell some of the stories and it’s just a little more of an intimate interaction.
Last year, when we did it, I was also road-testing a lot of the songs that became this record. I don’t have a whole ton of new songs this year because I’ve been busy working on this, but it still gives me a chance to present some of these songs in a different way. Plus, I have three solo albums worth of material, too, that I can pull from.
I remember you’d done a residency at the Doug Fir a couple years ago.
You know I’m living in Portland now?
What you’re referring to was when I was there and my family came for a couple of months and we rented a house to test the waters. I thought we should come during the winter for a couple of months and see if that weeds us out. [laughs] And it didn’t, you know? I don’t really mind the rain. It’s more than worth it for the summers we have. That was kind of when we knew we were supposed to probably be there.
So Portland’s home now?
Yeah! It’s home. During that last break between tours, in addition to playing the one solo show, I also moved into our house! So I’m running on fumes right now.
I thought American Band was a fantastic but sobering record - especially in the context of the election. A Rolling Stone piece seemed to imply that it represented something of a paradigm shift for the band in terms of a more pronounced emphasis on identity politics. In retrospect, was such an emphasis well-placed given the deciding factors in the election, with states like Michigan and Pennsylvania going for Trump?
God, I don’t know. I still haven’t been able to process it yet. I’ve been kind of walking around in a Dawn of the Dead stupor. It’s like, “Holy shit, the zombies have taken over!”
We spent election day in Philadelphia and played that night. And I think it dawned on us at some point during the next night that our record has taken on a whole other level of timeliness. Because we’re going to be touring behind this record all year and next year, too, we were kind of wondering, “God, no one’s going to want to hear all this shit after the election is finally over.” But now it’s become apparent that we’ve only just begun the fight.
This has been a huge setback for anybody who has a progressive worldview trying to think of ways to make our country a better, more equitable place for everyone to live - not just for rich white dudes. So, I’m still trying to process it, to be honest.
“The Ghost of Tom Joad” was something that kept coming to back me when the election results were set. In terms of something with the prescient quality you’d alluded to, I feel like everything Springsteen did from Darkness on the Edge of Town through Born in the USA has taken on a new significance. Have you been listening to anything that has captured or embodied your feelings in the same way?
I’ve been listening to A Tribe Called Quest and the Solange record [A Seat At The Table]. Those have been pretty much my soundtrack; a little bit of Leonard Cohen and some Leon Russell. But probably the Solange record and the Tribe Called Quest record [We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service] are probably the two records I’ve listened to the most in the past couple weeks. They’ve been kind of on non-stop rotation.
I haven’t listened to the Tribe record. I’ll have to check it out - I don’t know hip hop well. Q-Tip produced an album for Kurt Rosenwinkel several years ago [Heartcore], and it’s become a favorite.
Oh, it’s great! I saw them on Saturday Night Live and they were great. It’s a great record; very timely - as is the Solange record. Her record is really fantastic. It’s about black identity and female identity at a time when it’s obvious that a huge swath of the population is intentionally trying to turn a blind eye to both of those issues. So it’s been a big part of the listening.
Do you have any thoughts on how music is going to respond to the election?
I don’t know. I expected there to be more bands speaking out before the election, I really did. There’s certainly people in other genres of music speaking out, like hip hop artists. Pop artists are speaking out; Beyoncé turned her Super Bowl show into this political statement. It was amazing and incredible. Yet, the so-called rock n’ roll world has been largely silent about it. It didn’t really occur to me when we were planning on releasing our album this fall that there wouldn’t be a bunch more records mining the same territory. I’m still kind of taken aback by that, honestly.
I know that we’re hunkering down. We’re going to continue to go forward with what we’re saying and what we’re doing. We’re probably playing the best shows of our 20-year lifespan. And I’m really proud of what we’re doing and where we are, and how united we are as a band about doing it. So, we’re going to continue providing a soundtrack to whatever happens in the next few years. Hopefully progressive-minded people hunker down and rebuild and take this shit back.
In your opinion, does music still possess the social capital to make an impression on the public conscience?
You know, I don’t have an answer to that. I know that we do what we do. I’m proud of what we’re doing. Nobody will be able to question where we stood on all of this. We’ve made it very abundantly clear about where we stand on all of this. Judging from the shows every night - because we’ve been playing for really good crowds every night of this tour - it obviously means something to them. And if it grows beyond that - if it just provides some area of comfort or solace or spunk for the derring-do for the people who like our band, that’s really all I can ask for.
I don’t know if our modern culture is set up for something like “For What It’s Worth” or one of those songs that were so of-their-moment. I don’t know if it’s set up for that. I’d like to think that what Beyoncé did at the Super Bowl was a start; I know it pissed a lot of people off. And the people it didn’t piss off, I would like to think they were blown away by it. Even if it makes some people think, that’s probably all you can ask for, because some people aren’t going to think.
There’s been a serious dialogue about the media establishment’s broader lapses. Should artists and musicians shoulder some of the responsibility for failing to see this coming or to otherwise proactively explore the forces that could lead to someone like Donald Trump being elected President of the United States?
I don’t know the answer to that. The music I grew up loving has always had a certain social relevance and a political relevance. I’m a huge, lifelong Clash fan. They blew up when I was in junior high school, just as I was first wanting to learn guitar. They were one of the first bands that made me say, “They stand for something. They mean something.” As a little punk kid in redneck north Alabama, I didn’t always know what they were talking about, but it inspired me to want to learn about it. “What is a Sandinista? What does ‘Rock the Casbah’ mean?” And so I would seek out and try and find out what they were singing about and what they were talking about.
A generation later, Rage Against the Machine probably had the same effect on kids growing up right at that time. I was already an adult by then and they weren’t really my thing, but I appreciated it all. To the kids seeing them at Lollapalooza, that must be how I would have felt if I could’ve seen The Clash, you know? The Clash didn’t come anywhere close to my hometown. [laughs] When I was old enough to travel to their shows, they were done.
But yeah, Bruce Springsteen - that’s particularly timely right now, as you referred to; his late 70’s and early 80s records where he’s singing about the disenfranchised working man as they were closing all the factories. Springsteen said it in ‘84 in “My Hometown:” those jobs are going and they ain’t coming back. I think part of what happened is an overdue bill on that. People are angry and they don’t always know where to vent that anger towards. They just know that something needs to change, so they made a choice that I personally feel is abysmal. But I definitely feel like that’s a part. And I understand! We have built this new economy and there is a whole wide swath of people who have been left behind in it. They’re angry and they don’t know who they’re angry at.
I know that Mike [Cooley] and you were vocal supporters of Bernie Sanders and appeared Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ event around the time of the Democratic National Convention. How do you balance acting on behalf of something you believe in without aligning yourself too closely with a nominal figure or establishment and surrendering your objective voice?
I guess it’s a bit of a tightrope, you know? I mean, I have three different jobs. I take each one of them seriously, and they each have their own rules and their own boundaries. When I’m a writer, which is the foundation of everything I do, my job is to be true to the voice in my head and the things that are moving me to write the best way I possibly can. I’m not really allowed by myself to have any other considerations other than serving the song in my head. It doesn’t matter if the band’s going to like it, or if the fans are going to like it, or if it subscribes to a specific political view. It’s all at the service of the song; following the voices or the radio transmissions that my antenna picks up, wherever they come from. I’ve been writing since I was eight - in 1973 - and I still have no idea how it happens, other than I just do it. And I try to be as true to that as I can, and I try to keep it as free from outside compromises as absolutely possible.
And then the second part of my job is when I take the song to the band. If the band doesn’t like the song, then that’s the end of that; I can do whatever I want to the song separately. But if the band likes the song, my job is to guide it through and get the best performance possible, record it, and make as great an album as we can possibly make with the songs [Mike] Cooley and I bring to the table. And I love that part of the job - I love making records. This last record was a joy to make. We actually had a lot of fun because everybody felt really strongly about what we were saying and how we were saying it, and the band was in a great place and playing great. It kind of kicked ass - we were in a cool studio, it sounded good, and we were happy with the playback. We made this record in six days, which is the fastest we’ve ever done an album since the days when we just couldn’t afford more than a few days to make an album.
Then I’m part of this band that tours. My job is to take the songs we’ve got - old and new - and build a show that showcases our new record and take it out there to the people town to town and play every night like it’s the last show we’ll ever get to play. That’s what my responsibility to the audience is. It’s not in what I write or what I say. People say “Shut up and sing?” I say, “Fuck yourself.” Nobody what tells me what the fuck can’t say or do. You don’t like it? Don’t come - that’s fine. That’s not my concern. I suspect I’ll survive as a touring musician anyway. So don’t be an asshole. [laughs] But what I do owe you, is that I’m going to go up on stage and I’m going to fucking give it my all. If I’m tired, you’re not going to know. If I feel bad or have a cold - unless it’s just to the point where my voice is gone - you’re not gonna know. We almost never cancel shows. We play no matter what the weather is or how we feel. We get up there and we rock balls for two hours-plus. We’re good at our jobs. It’s a hell of a show and it’s better right now than it’s ever been.
So that’s my job. I can’t really think about how people are going to take a specific song, or if they’re going to be upset because we say black lives matter. You know? If you’re upset about that, that’s your problem. Maybe you’re looking at it all wrong, or maybe you’re just wrong - I don’t know. But I think it’s important for us to say. And I think as white, middle-aged Southern men, we have an obligation to say, it too.
As to the concept of a balance, what I hear you saying is that you do what feels right at the time and you let the chips fall where they may.
Are you working on literary or other writing projects apart from what you’ve been doing with the band?
I’m not at the moment. I hope to write soon; if nothing else, to try to process my own thoughts about what just happened. Cooley and I have even discussed writing another record sooner as opposed to later, while all this is just happening. So, I don’t know. But so far, I haven’t had a moment to catch my breath and process it enough to even sit down and think about writing yet. It’s too soon.
But the creative fire is still burning?
Oh, for sure.