From White Supremacy To Opioids, Drive-By Truckers Confronts 'The Unraveling'

Feb 1, 2020
Originally published on February 1, 2020 8:07 am

Drive-By Truckers' latest album, The Unraveling, is out this week, and it is the group's most political work to date, confronting some of America's most charged issues: church shootings, opioids, overdoses, racial violence and extremism.

The band has come a long way from its earliest days. Founded in Athens, Ga., in 1996, Drive-By Truckers made its name early on with unabashedly fun Southern rock albums with titles like Pizza Deliverance and Alabama Ass Whuppin' and profane and smile-worthy songs like "Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)."

But Drive-By Truckers' real breakthrough came in the early 2000s, with music that stared down the South's racial history and reflected on what it means to be a Southerner. Since then, the band hasn't looked back.

NPR's Renee Montaigne spoke to Patterson Hood, one of Drive-By Truckers' co-founders, about the political becoming personal, his musical and political upbringing as the son of an influential session musician in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and his struggles to find a source of optimism. Listen to their conversation in the player above and read on for highlights from the interview.

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Interview Highlights

On confronting white supremacy on the song "Grievance Merchants"

It talks really directly about the roots of white supremacy and the people who feel that way and are caught up in that. It's terrifying stuff, and it's happening. I live in Portland, Ore., now, and it's at least thought of as one of the more liberal, progressive-minded cities in America. And we have white supremacists marching in our streets there. Our children's babysitter's best friend was murdered in an incident — a white supremacy incident — that happened on the train in beautiful Portland, a couple years ago. So, the political becomes personal really quickly.

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On growing up in Muscle Shoals and its influence on his worldview

Even though [my father and his bandmates] may not have talked about it on a conscious level, there was a certain feeling that they were sort of part of a resistance. They were these nerdy white guys who made their living in the deep South. During the darkest parts of the Civil Rights movement happening, they made their living backing up soul artists, backing up Wilson Pickett, and Etta James, and Aretha Franklin, and Bobby Womack and all that. I was always really politically aware; I was the weird kid who would come home from third or fourth grade and watch the Watergate hearings on TV. I got in trouble in I think fourth grade for writing a little paper about Nixon [and] how he should be thrown in jail. My teacher did not appreciate it. That was actually maybe the only time my parents took my side in a confrontation with a teacher.

On finding optimism while recording a dark record

It really bothered me in the writing process of this record, the extent that it was dark. By nature, I try not to really be that way. As a parent, I don't want to raise my kids to not have hope for a future. And to me, the hope I get comes from the kids — from not only my kids, but the young people that I'm around so much in their 20s are amazing. So that's the biggest ray of hope I get. The last line of the song, "Awaiting Resurrection," that ties in with the album cover, which has the two little boys standing on the beach watching the sunset. I'd like to think that somehow that is the ray of hope at the end.

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NPR's Ned Wharton and Cindy Johnston produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The band Drive-By Truckers has come a long way from its earliest days when fans could rock to albums with slyly Southern titles - "Pizza Deliverance," "Alabama Ass Whuppin'" - offering profane and smile-worthy songs like "Too Much Sex, Too Little Jesus." But the band broke through some 20 years ago with songs staring down the South's racial history by reflecting on what it means to be a Southerner, and it never looked back. A pile of albums later, the band is just out with "The Unraveling," an album that directly confronts America's most politically charged issues - church shootings, opioids and overdoses, racial violence, extremism, songs dark - drawing you in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSEMARY WITH A BIBLE AND A GUN")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) Strong as the day was long, Rosemary would sing along - wheels rolling steady down the way.

MONTAGNE: Patterson Hood helped found Drive-By Truckers. And he joins us to talk about their latest album. Thanks for joining us.

PATTERSON HOOD: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: Now, you start with what we're hearing, which is - I would call it a pretty song. "Rosemary With A Bible And A Gun" is its title. Is it possible that it's nearly a love song?

HOOD: I mean, it's almost like a love song to Memphis in a way and - which is sort of a long, love-hate kind of thing because Memphis and I have a long, sordid history together. And - but we also ended on a really high note because we recorded our record there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROSEMARY WITH A BIBLE AND A GUN")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) This rollercoaster highway can't compare to the fun of the Memphis saturated in decay and on the run.

HOOD: I lived in Memphis briefly in 1991 during a really dark time in my life. And Mike Cooley and I, the Drive-By Truckers - we've played together for 35 years this summer. And we were living there. And it was - the city was going through some really terrible racial strife. So there's always been kind of that cloud about Memphis, which is also a city that I've always really loved because it's where, to me, rock 'n' roll was born. And I'm a huge Sam Phillips fan. And so we knew we were going to make this record at Sam Phillips' recording studio - kind of knew also that confronting those demons from the past, hopefully in a positive way, might be kind of part of the equation of making this record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN AGAIN")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) Losing your joy, playing with dangerous toys...

MONTAGNE: One of the songs that might be more typical of the album is "Heroin Again."

HOOD: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN AGAIN")

HOOD: (Singing) Silly, young man, why you using heroin - thought you knew better than that.

MONTAGNE: We hear in this song that line, I thought you knew better than that. And people don't.

HOOD: I mean, for sure, you know? And in these dark times, you know, it's certainly as tempting as ever to want to tune out and turn off and find something that numbs it. And I think that's part of feeding into this opioid crisis that we're having. But at the same time, by numbing yourself to life, you're kind of dying a little bit, too. And, of course, you know, on a personal note, too, you know, we all know people. We've all lost people we love through that. And I know I certainly have.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEROIN AGAIN")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) Never quite captured me - always just turned away.

MONTAGNE: This album has a combination of a bit of hope but a lot of horror and especially with a song like "Grievance Merchants," which really goes at extremism.

HOOD: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRIEVANCE MERCHANTS")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) When money and respect seem to elude him, being wild, oh, don't make a lady swoon. There's no shortage when it comes to hearing voices telling him it's him that's done a tune (ph).

HOOD: "Grievance Merchants" was a - you know, it's one of Mike Cooley's songs, and I'm particularly proud of that song. I think it's - I mean, it talks really directly about kind of the roots of white supremacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRIEVANCE MERCHANTS")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) There's just outside forces turning them against him, a conspiracy to water down his blood.

MONTAGNE: A conspiracy to water down his blood, and it's all the fault of it or them or they. Give a boy a target for his grievance, and he might get it in his head they need to pay.

HOOD: Terrifying. It's terrifying stuff. And, you know, and it's happening. I mean, I - I live in Portland, Ore., now, and - which is at least thought of as one of the more liberal, kind of progressive-minded cities in America, you know? And we have white supremacists marching in our streets there (laughter), you know? We have - and it's - our children's babysitter's best friend was murdered in a incident, a white supremacy incident that happened on the train in beautiful Portland a couple of years ago. So it's the political becomes personal really quickly (laughter), you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS SONG, "GRIEVANCE MERCHANTS")

MONTAGNE: In thinking of how you came by your sensibility musically and politically and the lyrics you write, how does that fit in to being raised not just in Alabama but a particular place? - Muscle Shoals, where your father David Hood was part of a legendary studio band, and he worked with musicians like Dylan and The Stones and Aretha and Wilson Pickett. Did that rub off on you?

HOOD: Oh, yeah, very much. And I was pretty precocious about it. I loved - I was obsessed with music from a really young age. And, you know, I started collecting records when I was about 7. I started writing songs when I was 8. You know, it's always been what I felt like was my calling to do.

MONTAGNE: Wondering, too, if although not directly politically, did that milieu affect your family or you in a way that made you just a little bit different?

HOOD: Yeah, absolutely. You know, and even though they may not have talked about it on a conscious level, there was a certain feeling of - that they were sort of part of a resistance. I mean, you know, they were these nerdy white guys who made their living in the Deep South during the darkest parts of the civil rights movement happening. They made their living backing up soul artists, backing up Wilson Pickett and Etta James and Aretha Franklin and Bobby Womack and all that, you know?

And I was always really politically aware. I mean, I was the weird kid that would come home from third or fourth grade and watch the Watergate hearings on TV. I got in trouble in, I think, fourth grade for writing a little paper about Nixon - how he should be thrown in jail. And my teacher did not appreciate it. And that was actually one time when my parents actually kind of took my side, maybe the only time they took my side in a confrontation with a teacher (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AWAITING RESURRECTION")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singing) There's an evil in this world. There's an evil in this world.

HOOD: It really bothered me in the writing process of this record, the extent that it was dark. And by nature, I try not to really be that way. I mean, I'm - as a parent, you know, I don't want to raise my kids to not have hope for a future. And to me, the hope I get comes from the kids, you know? The last line of the song talking about awaiting resurrection, to me, that ties in with the album cover, which has the two little boys standing on the beach watching the sunset. I'd like to think that, somehow, that is the ray of hope at the end.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AWAITING RESURRECTION")

DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS: (Singin) In the end, we're just standing watching greatness fade. And to darkness, awaiting resurrection.

MONTAGNE: Patterson Hood, co-founder of the band Drive-By Truckers. Their newest album is "The Unraveling." Thanks very much for joining us.

HOOD: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS SONG, "AWAITING RESURRECTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.