Interview: Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers On New Album and Politics of Our Time

Patterson Hood and the band he fronts, The Drive-by Truckers, are a study in contradiction. Since their start, this Georgia-based band has embraced the “Southern duality” that has commonly defined their sound. While their unique brand of country soul is a proud nod to their gritty southern rock forebearers, Hood and the Truckers have never shied away from the issues of our time and have been as outspoken as any Northern California peacenik. Previous albums have addressed class and economic struggles, falls from grace and a painfully humorous view on the politicians that fill our news feeds. Their most recent work, “Go-Go Boots,” further delves into those waters.

Meanwhile, Hood generously gives fans a broader peek into his psyche through a  personal newsletter where he riffs about what books he’s reading, what movies he’s seen and just what’s on his mind. In this exclusive HeadCount interview, he takes that a step further by sharing the story behind some politically-tinged lyrics on “Go-Go Boots,” his feelings about Congressman Paul Broun, and how “disgusted” he is with the state of Georgia.

HeadCount: How has the response been to “Go-Go Boots”?

Patterson Hood: It’s been fantastic. Probably our best received new album ever. Our records tend to be growers, most of our most loved records were initially viewed as a lesser follow up to the album before it until later (this would include Decoration Day and The Dirty South) at the time they first came out. This one has been really well received from the get go. I’m extremely happy with it.

The lyrics on “The Thanksgiving Filter” certainly caught my eye (“My aunt’s praising Palin, and my niece loves Obama/My uncle came to dinner wearing his pajamas.”). Is that just a whimsical rhyme or cultural observation about America today?

We’re not much for whimsical rhymes. Everything is usually there for a reason. That’s certainly a valid cultural observation. The song is a slice of life vignette from a moment in time where our deep divisions find their way to the dinner table. When I go home for Thanksgiving, I break bread with people I love very much, some of whom have voted for Pat Robertson and protested at abortion clinics. My Dad was once the only voter in his precinct that voted for Jesse Jackson, so my immediate family covers the political extremes of our time. I wrote that song in 2006, and Barack Obama was beyond a long shot for President, Oprah hadn’t even come out for him yet, and Palin was just taking office as Governor of Alaska. The original line was Cheney and Obama, which was an actual conversation that Thanksgiving. I changed it to Palin when we recorded it last summer. I didn’t originally intend for it to make the album, it was just going to be our Record Store Day single to be released the day after Thanksgiving. We all really loved the take we got in the studio and Barbe especially pushed for it to make the album. I felt like the album needed at least one song that was specific to this time and place and that song is.

Is your music often topical and a reaction to what’s happening in the world?

Sure. I think there’s a very deep political side to this band, even though we don’t necessarily address it head on. Our songs tell stories that have serious political overtones and implications to them. Hopefully in a non flag waving, jingoistic way. A lot of our songs deal with issues of economic class and how people are affected by these issues. Southern Rock Opera dealt with the issues of class/race in the post civil rights era deep south. The schools in my hometown were integrated two years before I started first grade. Sometimes we’ll write about something that’s happening now by telling a story from the past. It could be argued with mixed results. There might be something inherently flawed in the concept of putting that much information in a song. Randy Newman has often said the same thing about what he does. Same time, I love Randy Newman and am sure glad that he’s been foolish enough to write these kinds of songs. In the end, we do most of what we do for our own personal amusement and are lucky to some other people have found it amusing as well.

You don’t hear a whole lot of overt political references in music today – at least not outside of hip-hop. Why do you think that is? And how, in your view, are culture and politics intertwined today compared with other eras?

I think you’re totally right and I have no idea why. I got really into hip hop, especially a few years back, and that was a big part of why. The hip hop artists were writing really great songs about the issues of our time and I loved that. We named The Dirty South after the Goodie Mob song in tribute to the whole Southern Hip Hop movement of the time. Outkast made 3-4 of the best albums of the last 25 years during their hey day and we were all huge fans (still are). We would listen to a hip hop song about some issue and write a DBT song about the same thing from the perspective of one of these characters we developed. The songs we wrote about Buford Pusser was our answer to the ‘cop killer’ type of hip hop songs of the early 90s. I guess “Where The Devil Don’t Stay” could be construed as the “Gin and Juice”. That was at least the starting point of the album, it morphed from there. “Puttin’ People on the Moon” was sort of my answer to Gil Scott Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” which is one of my all time favorite songs.

I was just reading one of your newsletters to fans and saw that you share what books you are reading and films you’ve seen. I get the sense that you want to raise consciousness and spur intelligent conversation, but you’re not looking to take sides, so to speak. Is that a fair characterization?

Sure. I’m a lover of the arts and if I read or see something great, I’m all about spreading the word. I buy a lot of records and see a lot of movies. I live for that stuff. I have very strong political opinions and I’m not shy about talking about them, but at the same time, I’m not into being some soap box type of guy. I don’t really think you can change anybody’s views by standing up here and preaching about it. I might sometimes vent about one specific thing or another, but hopefully I speak my point and move on. I do think it’s possible to tell a story that might make someone think about something in a new way. It may not change his mind about anything but by allowing someone to feel empathy for someone very different from yourself, you at least break down that barrier of prejudice which might open a door to an intelligent conversation. Real change happens in very small increments, often over a long period of time and is often the result of seemingly unrelated events.

How do DBT fans take to that? Do you find them engaging with you on that level? What about with each other?

I really have no idea. I think most of our fans know where I stand on things, but the fans themselves are a very diverse bunch. I think only Willie Nelson has a more diverse fanbase than us, and probably not by much. I like that aspect of what we do. Nothing is more lame than someone preaching to the converted. I have close friends with very different viewpoints than me. Life is more interesting that way. One funny aside; I got booed almost every night of the fall 2004 The Dirty South Tour, usually during “Puttin’ People on the Moon” by people who took issue with what I was saying. After Katrina, I never was booed again.

What have you seen or read recently that you’d recommend?

Loved Blue Valentine. Really liked The Fighter and Black Swan. Just finished reading all of Hemingway’s short stories and Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”. Reading Mark Twain’s Autobiography, which I’ll probably be reading for the next few years. Just started reading William Gibson’s “Pattern Recognition”. Also reading a pretty cool autobiography of John Huston from the early 70’s. He’s one of my favorite film directors and just a real character so that’s my fun read.

It’s been a crazy last few weeks in the world, and really a crazy last few months. What issues are you following must closely and is there anything you have a strong opinion on that you are comfortable sharing?

I’m a hopeless news junky. Watching all of the horrific Japan footage right now. Just terrible. Been trying to keep up with the Wisconsin situation. I’m definitely on the side of the teachers and unions. Hope they recall those clowns. Throw the bums out.

Living in Athens, GA you must be exposed to a lot of contrast in ideologies and lifestyles – a college town in the middle of the South. Does that dichotomy inform your music at all?

Athens is a little blue liberal oasis in the middle of ultra right wing Georgia. They fucked up our voting district  by pairing us with the suburbs of Augusta so our Representative is fucking Paul Broun, who is probably the most ridiculous person in Congress, except maybe for Michelle Bachman. I think they compete for “who’s the bigger idiot”. He might actually win. Athens itself went for Obama by over 70% so we’re obviously not being represented by our Republican congressman. I love Athens, although I get really disgusted and tired of living in Georgia.

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