Patterson Hood playing “Snakes,” his custom Baxendale archtop electric that was inspired by a vintage Silvertone 1446. Photo by Tim Bugbee — Tinnitus Photography
On “Kinky Hypocrite,” Cooley takes on culture-war profiteers. At the end of each verse, he sings a couplet that drives home the song’s message:
The greatest separators of fools from their money
Party harder than they like to admit.
Cooley says the song was inspired by former Alabama Supreme Court chief justice Roy Moore, who gained notoriety for refusing to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments he had commissioned from the grounds of the Alabama Judicial Building, as well as by various conservative firebrands who have wound up getting caught (in some cases literally) with their pants down.
“It’s always the guys who are the most anti-gay and vocal about it who get caught picking up dudes in bathrooms,” Cooley says.
On “Ever South,” Hood explores his native region on a personal level—particularly how his Southern roots have been magnified by his move to Portland. He sings:
So we aimed our sights westward like so many did before
Expanding our horizons to some distant shore
Where everyone takes notice of the drawl that leaves our mouth
So that no matter where we are we’re ever South.
“It’s funny, because I kind of swore I would never write that kind of song again,” Hood says. “Because after Southern Rock Opera, for years, people would refer to us as a Southern rock thing, and I kind of hate that. That’s not how I pictured it. I always thought of that as something that happened in a specific place and time, and we wrote an album about that place and time.”
Ultimately, the song is more about leaving the South than about the region itself. “I miss my friends and family, and they’re a long way away,” Hood says. “But I also really love where I’m at. And I love the effect it’s had on my own family and on my writing and on my day-to-day life. I think as a piece of writing, it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written. I’m extremely proud of every line and how it all fits together.”
Things get even more personal on “Baggage,” a song about depression that Hood wrote the night Robin Williams died. “He’s someone who makes us laugh, and forget our troubles,” Hood says. “And of course, comedians are famously depressed, and that’s where so much of the comedy comes from. I’ve had my own bouts with depression. And our band’s pet cause has always been Nuçi’s Space, which is a suicide prevention nonprofit based out of Athens. They do amazing, really innovative things. We’ve done benefits for them every year of their existence, and will continue to.”
Hood was sitting outside a bar in Athens having drinks with friends when he heard the news about Williams, and immediately felt compelled to start writing a song. “I could just hear it on the radio in my head,” he says. “So I grabbed a sheet of paper and wrote the majority of it down then. And the next day I sat down with my guitar and actually finished it and put it all together. It seemed like a natural piece of the puzzle for this record, and the place where it needed to end.
“Even though the record has a lot of the political in it,” he continues, “it’s always about the personal. Because the political is personal. People say, ‘Shut up and sing! Don’t be talking politics. It’s dragging me down!’ But it’s all tied together. Before Obamacare, I had issues getting all of my family insured because of preexisting conditions. And so that’s a place where something political was very, very personal to me, and continues to be.”
The political and cultural critiques and personal reflections put forth on American Band are so impassioned that it might be possible to overlook the music, which would be a mistake. The opening track, “Ramon Casiano,” is a shining example of roots-rock guitar, and serves as a great case study of the Truckers’ ensemble aesthetic. Cooley kicks the song off with a grand, heavily overdriven rhythm guitar figure that propels the tale. Utility man Jay Gonzalez, who contributes both keyboards and guitar in the studio and onstage, plays a beautiful melodic guitar line after the first verse, than further develops that motif after the second verse. After the bridge, Hood takes his turn with a brief but melodic lead, with a hint more reverb. Then on the outro, Cooley rips out a few heroic, grinding riffs that feature some pedal-steel-inspired bends, albeit with a healthy dose of tube distortion.
In their conversations with Premier Guitar, both Hood and Cooley had a hard time recalling who played what on many of the tracks, though as a general rule, Hood’s parts feature more reverb—he plays through a reissue ’63 Fender Tube Reverb unit plugged in to his 1972 Deluxe Reverb amp—and Cooley’s parts are typically dry. But throw Gonzalez into the mix—sometimes he’s got reverb, sometimes he’s dry—and at times it’s anyone’s guess which guitarist is playing. And that’s only fitting, since the Truckers are a true guitar democracy.
Most of the music on American Band has the energy and immediacy of a group cranking it out in a club, with little in the way of studio gimmickry. “Probably 90 percent of everything we’ve recorded has been more or less live in the studio,” Hood says. “On this record, I think it’s almost 100 percent. There’s a couple of songs where I think we even used Cooley’s scratch vocal take. We might go in and redo the vocal or overdub a guitar track or two. We made this record in six days—that’s overdubs and everything—which I think is the fastest record we’ve made since Pizza Deliverance in ’99.”
Though DBT’s two- and sometimes three-guitar attack and region of origin—not to mention their album Southern Rock Opera—might lead them to get lumped into the Southern rock genre, it’s not really an accurate classification. Typically, Southern rock features extended (and often overindulgent) guitar solos, and those solos sometimes include repetitive licks that have been beaten into the ground.
There may be an abundance of electric guitar on American Band, but it is all in the service of the songs. Solos are typically concise and melodic. “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn” features a distinct, forceful opening riff that recalls vintage Crazy Horse. “Surrender Under Protest” starts off with a brief but triumphant melody that recurs through the song. The guitars on “Kinky Hypocrite” have the strut and swagger of Sticky Fingers-era Stones—in fact, it almost sounds like Keith Richards and Mick Taylor sat in on the session. Elsewhere—“Guns of Umpqua,” “What It Means,” “Once They Banned Imagined”—acoustic guitars figure prominently. (For a detailed, song-by-song account of the gear used on the album, see “A Truckload of Toys” sidebar.)
American Band is among the finest work yet from Drive-By Truckers, which is saying something for a band that’s been around for 20 years and has released 11 albums. Hood and Cooley are the only original members, and there have been several lineup changes over the years, not to mention a few bumps in the road dealing with inner-band drama. Jason Isbell was a Trucker for six years and three albums, from 2001 to 2007. But right now, DBT seems to be firing on all cylinders, and both Hood and Cooley feel their current lineup is the strongest yet.
“It’s great,” Cooley says. “The band is drama-free. Everybody, including myself, is really invested right now—more than I’ve ever felt.”
And Hood couldn’t agree more. “This is our fifth year now with this lineup, which is the longest we’ve ever gone without a single personnel change,” he says. “It’s my dream band—my favorite band I’ve ever had or even imagined having. We have a lot of fun, laugh a lot, play great together, and have a wonderful musical chemistry. They’re so supportive of the songs that I write, the songs that Cooley writes. It’s really pretty magical.”