If Mike Cooley is the spiritual leader of the Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell is the prodigal son, Patterson Hood is the spark of life that has driven the band forward for 15 years. After honing their craft on two early albums, Hood and company announced their presence to the world at large with Southern Rock Opera, a two-disc opus that explored Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legendary status in the South and Hood’s own struggles to find peace and an artistic voice within his southern heritage. During his long career Hood has written the majority of the Truckers’ songs, encompassing everything from Buford Pusser to the Flying Wallendas. The band’s 11th full-length album, Go-Go Boots, which features two Hood numbers about a murderous Alabama preacher, will be released on ATO Records on Feb. 15.
You have your twelfth album coming out. When you started out all those years ago, in the Gangstabilly and Pizza Deliverance years, did you think it was going to go this far?
I didn’t know if this band would this far; I knew I would. I figure that I’ll be making records as long as I’m alive, but when you start a band, you never know how long it will last. When I started playing with the Drive-By Truckers, I thought it would last a couple of years. Now we’re going on 15, so you never know.
But you knew that you were going to be a rock star, right? I’m not talking a musician, but a rock star.
I don’t know that I’ve ever been a rock star. I knew that I would be a musician. The concept that I had growing up is happily pretty much what I ended up being. I wouldn’t mind selling more records or getting a song played on the radio, which is something that we haven’t had much of, but overall I’m pretty happy with where we ended up.
Not to take anything away from any other member of the band, but you’re the frontman, and it’s clear that you relish that role.
Oh, sure. Absolutely. Sure.
You announced yourself in a pretty audacious way. Southern Rock Opera was really as much about the forces shaping your young self as it was Lynyrd Skynyrd, right?
More so, to me. Their story makes for a great narrative. It was a great storytelling device that we used to explore these other things. I consider it our story more than their story except for the parts dealing directly with them, like the plane crash. I grew up and came of age in the post-civil rights South. When I started school in the first grade, schools had only been integrated for a couple of years. It was a relatively new thing. You’re growing in the aftermath of the King assassination that followed, and it was a really weird time to be growing up. You don’t know then that it’s a weird time, but when you look back you realize how strange it really was. The music playing during that time was '70s arena rock. That was the music that I fell in love with, and it was integral to my childhood. When we started Southern Rock Opera, it made sense that it should be told with the music of that era. We wanted to make the record sound like a Seventies arena rock record. It made sense to use Lynyrd Skynyrd, because they were ubiquitous during that era. And we focused more on their legend than the real events. I was interested in the mythology more than what actually happened, because the mythology is what I heard growing up.
At what point did you get the band together and decide that you wanted to make a rock opera?
We were all attracted to the sheer stupidity of it. On some level, you can look at a rock album that explores growing up in the Alabama of George Wallace as a brave project; it also sounds like a really bad idea. In the mid-'90s, nobody was making rock operas or talking about arena rock or southern rock. It was about as far from being in fashion as you could get. We were attracted to that. It’s obvious we were never going to be the hot trend, so we went as far in the opposite direction as possible. If you dig the hole deep enough, you emerge in China. This was, metaphorically speaking, our tunnel to China. It was more to talk about in the van than how miserable our personal lives were or how broke we all were. When we were touring all the time in the early days, we would be in the van for hours at a time brainstorming this crazy rock opera we were going to make. We told so many people about it, that it got down to the point that we had to finish it to save face. I think that’s what really kept us from breaking up at the time. We couldn’t quit before we finished this damn record we were always talking about.
Where did you come up with the story that runs through Go-Go Boots?
The reoccurring murder in the album is based on a true story. It happened in the late '80s in a small town called Tuscumbia, Ala. There was a preacher who hired these two guys to kill his wife. He wanted a divorce and couldn’t get it, so he contracted it out to a couple of guys who botched it really bad. He ended up having to finish the job with a fireplace poker. I didn’t really set out to write more than one song about it, but I already had “The Fireplace Poker,” but we decided that we weren’t going to do it because it was such a long, sprawling song. I talked myself out of it, but I liked the story, so I tried to write another song. That’s where “Go-Go Boots” comes from; it tells the same story from a different point of view. We recorded that, and it went really well and became the title cut of the record. As we were finishing, I thought we should at least try to record “The Fireplace Poker” and see what happens. We tried it, and it ended up really well and so it made the record too. Sometimes Cooley and I write songs from different points of view, but this is the first time I’ve done both songs myself.
Even though the “story” of the album is contained mainly in two songs, many of the other songs are thematically similar. Was that planned, or was it a happy accident?
I’d have to say it was a happy accident. The album wasn’t planned out so much as built organically. When we were doing The Big To-Do sessions, we had a lot of songs that we really believed in but knew weren’t right for the album that we were recording. We recorded them as they came, and we ended up with another fully formed record that might be my favorite of the two.
What draws to writing about these dark themes?
I have no idea. I’ve always tended toward them. Why does Stephen King write what he writes? Why does anybody write anything, really? You write what you’re attracted to. If I could write love songs or you’re typical pop songs, I probably would, but interest has always fallen on these little noir things.
But there’s “Mercy Buckets” on this album, which is probably one of the most optimistic songs you’ve ever written.
I’m real proud of that song. It’s hard to write a positive song that doesn’t sound awful. That was the last thing that I wrote for the album, and we recorded just as the record was being finished. It makes a nice counterpoint, too, so the record’s just not a bunch of killing. That song, and “I Do Believe,” which leads off the album are both departures for me as a writer.
I think that Go-Go Boots is a second act musically for Drive-By Truckers. There’s more pedal steel and a decidedly softer approach.
It’s something we’ve always wanted to do; I don’t want every record to sound alike. We’ve dabbled a little before with everything not being big riffs and the arena type sound. It’s definitely more soulful. We learned a lot playing with Bettye LaVette and Booker T. Playing with Spooner Oldham on the last tour was also huge.
Is there ever any apprehension when you release a new album, that your fans won’t follow you down this new pathway?
Having to do the same thing over and over would be such a bummer. The rule of the band has always been to follow the songs. Whatever the songs dictate, that’s the right move. When I’m writing I don’t think if anyone’s going to like or if the band’s going to like it. I just go with the song, and it might end up on an album or it might not. A song might also not be right for a particular album, but will end up working later.
What can your fans expect when they come out to hear the new record?
We’re still kind of transitioning into it, but it’s coming along really good. These songs are working better live than I expected them to. It’s going to be a good show. It’s pretty different than the show we were doing last year, and I’m glad about that because we’ve had basically a month off since the end of the last tour, but this is its’ own thing. We’re going to tour real hard behind it this year, and then we might not be out on the road so much. We’re all wanting a little bit of a different schedule than we’ve had for the past ten years. We all have families and kids and there comes a point where you don’t want to live on the road all the time. I’m not saying it’s a farewell tour or anything like that, but it’s definitely going to be the end of touring this much for a while. I love a fucking rock show as much as I did when I was a kid, but I can’t be gone for over half a year.
What are a couple of songs that you’re proudest of?
On the new record, I’m particularly proud of “Used To Be a Cop.” I think that’s one of the better pieces of writing that I’ve been able to record. I also really like how “Mercy Buckets” turned out. I rewrote it at the last minute in the studio, and I’m happy that we were able to get the take that we did. As far as songs themselves, I’ve always been really proud to have written “The Living Bubba.” I also think that “Heathens” is one of my better songs. Really, though, most of my favorite songs from the band are Cooley’s songs. I love “Zip City” and “Women Without Whiskey.” “Birthday Boy” is also one of my favorites. I really like his writing.
Is there one that you wish you had written?
I don’t know that I could have written any of Cooley’s songs. “Zip City” is a great song and lot of fun to play, but so much of what makes it great is tied up in Cooley’s voice. I’m happier being a fan.
Is there a song that you wish you had back?
I think our record Blessing and a Curse seems to polarize the fans the most, but I’m not sure if I want it back. It’s got a couple of our best moments on it, but also a couple of our worst. I’m real proud of “A World of Hurt,” but I’d pull the title cut of the album. No one will ever hear us play that hasn’t already heard us play it. I feel the same way about “Demonic Possession” on the first record. I don’t like it very much. Overall, though, looking back over the eleven albums we have out, there’s not too much out that I’m not proud of.
Tell people why they should go out and buy a Tom T. Hall album.
He is the best storytelling songwriter that ever lived. I can’t think of anyone that ever did it better than him. If anyone enjoys the storytelling aspects of our band’s songs, they should check him out. He did it first, and he did it the best.
How cool is Tom Petty?
You’re a big idea guy. What’s the ultimate goal for Patterson Hood?
Shit, I don’t know. Maybe survive this next. There’s definitely a lot I want to do; I want to make a movie some day. Right now I’ve got to be out touring behind this new album for the next year. I have to keep my head down and stay focused.
Bono and the Edge went to Broadway. We will we ever see Southern Rock Opera staged?
I just think it would be awful. If there was a way to do it without it sucking ass, maybe, but just couldn’t imagine it. When we conceived the thing, the whole idea was for the record to sound like an arena rock performance. It was supposed to be Cheap Trick Live at Budokan. I can definitely picture a day when we might want to revisit that album and perform it in its entirety. But having someone act it out? That would probably just be really lame. Although having someone come out and do George Wallace might be pretty funny.