Songs of the South
ASPEN A decade ago, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley had loads of time to drive, drink and dream up big, bold musical ideas. The two singer/songwriter/guitarists, who had been playing together since 1985, had started a new band, Drive-By Truckers, in 1996, and it seemed like success was in no hurry to find them. The group, playing a smart, dark take on guitar-heavy Southern rock, toured an endless succession of small clubs and released a series of albums on tiny labels. And in those long miles between gigs and recording sessions, Hood and Cooley would sharpen their vision for a Southern-rock concept album.”We were touring, driving around, and when we got tired of what was on the tape deck, we’d start talking about this idea, this record, this concept,” said Hood, an Alabama native whose father, Mike Hood, was the bassist for the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, in Muscle Shoals, Ala. “‘Southern Rock Opera’ came out of driving hundreds of thousands of miles, a little drunk,” Hood revealed.It would take four and a half years for Hood and Cooley to take “Southern Rock Opera” from concept to completion. The recording process – a “real miserable time,” according to Hood – resulted in an ambitious two-CD tour through Southern history and music, as seen through the eyes of a Lynyrd Skynyrd fan. Drive-By Truckers released the song cycle on their own Soul Dump Records in September 2001, and earned huge critical praise. A year later, the album was picked up by Lost Highway Records, whose roster now includes Willie Nelson, Van Morrison and Lucinda Williams. The success of “Southern Rock Opera” and the association with Lost Highway, said Hood, “took them from playing for 50 people a night to a lot more than that.” Drive-By Truckers went on to play the Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo festivals, but they continued to tour like hungry 20-somethings, racking up hundreds of shows a year and earning a reputation as a blistering live act. Time off the road was spent recording; the band has released three CDs – all acclaimed, including 2006’s “A Blessing and a Curse” – since “Southern Rock Opera.” And when Drive-By Truckers took a breath, Hood toured as a solo act, or recorded on his own.The pace afforded Hood little time to do what he has loved most since he was 8 – write songs. And it left no occasion to go back and revise old material, or even reconsider what exactly it was that Drive-By Truckers did. Almost every night was the same routine of cranking up the guitars – the band also has a reputation for its volume – and deliver powerhouse Southern-inspired rock for raucous fans.••••
Just before “Southern Rock Opera” hit big – after it was released independently, but before it was reissued on Lost Highway – Drive-By Truckers took what seems like their last big breath for years. The band played a house party at Pond Hill Farm in North Carolina, and took the opportunity of the casual, outdoor setting to play a long show, on acoustic instruments, and even have a few swigs in between tunes.”We’d sit in a semicircle, pass the bottle and trade songs,” said Hood. “‘Southern Rock Opera’ was new, and we broke that down, told the stories of the songs. It became a special night.” And particularly special in light of what followed: “The next night, we were out, big and loud, and spent the next six years touring nonstop.”Last fall, a bootleg tape of the Pond Hill Farm gig found its way to Hood. “My first impression was, we sound really drunk. But it was good. It sounded like a lot of fun. There was a spirit to that,” Hood observed.Drive-By Truckers – whose current lineup includes bassist Shonna Tucker, pedal steel guitarist John Neff, drummer Brad Morgan and, for their current tour, Spooner Oldham, a veteran Alabama keyboardist who has played with Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Aretha Franklin – took off three months at the beginning of this year. Hood took time to rest, relax and write; he said he’s written more songs over those three months than he had over the previous five years.He also took the opportunity to rethink what Drive-By Truckers had done nearly nonstop since 2002. What he has come up with is the current tour, with the evocative title, The Dirt Underneath (stories and songs sitting down/tales facing up). The tour, which began late last month in the band’s current base of Athens, Ga., lands at Belly Up tonight for Drive-By Truckers’ Aspen debut.Hood says the reality of the Dirt Underneath tour has changed some since he first conceptualized it. But it still focuses on turning the amps down, picking up some acoustic instruments, playing new songs, and reworking old ones. And taking some deep breaths. On the day I spoke with him last month, Hood was anticipating the arrival of his bandmates for a few days of rehearsal.
“That never happens in the band,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve rehearsed since 2001, for the ‘Southern Rock Opera’ tour. And that’s a long time ago. We’re gonna barricade ourselves in a room and work up a different slant on things.”••••One musical angle that figures to be a constant is the Southernness of Drive-By Truckers. Hood has quibbled some with the “Southern rock” label, and it is true that the band has as much in common with contemporary rockers like Wilco as it does with old-school Southern groups like the Marshall Tucker Band and the Outlaws. Still, a band doesn’t write an extended opus about Lynyrd Skynyrd without being a part of that culture. Moreover, even outside of “Southern Rock Opera,” Drive-By Truckers sing about whiskey, sweet tea and fire-and-brimstone religion with a certain accent, and a particular tone to their guitars. Their album covers consistently feature Wes Freed’s Southern gothic artwork.And few bands have ever addressed the culture of the South with the seriousness of Drive-By Truckers. “Southern Rock Opera” was intended to trace the rise and fall of the arena rock that Hood witnessed as a boy. What better way to follow that arc than through Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that came out of Jacksonville, Fla., climbed the heights of rock, and then literally plunged and burned when lead singer Ronnie Van Zandt and guitarist Steve Gaines died in a 1977 plane crash.”I love rock mythology,” said Hood. “That’s what we have now, people of my age. That’s our John Henrys. Our mythological characters were Jimmy Page, living these big, larger-than-life lives to a kid growing up in Alabama. “I’ve always loved this idea of bands as the modern mythologies of our time. And no band has a better story than Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s a modern-day tragedy that could make literature. Great heights – punk-ass rednecks with no future who became huge. I was drawn to that. I’m drawn to great stories.”As epic as the Skynyrd story is, “Southern Rock Opera” gives it an even bigger scale. “Wallace” literally roasts the segregationist Alabama governor George Wallace. (The song, according to the line notes, is “set in Hell”; the refrain goes, “So throw another log on the fire, boys / George Wallace is coming to stay.”) “The Three Great Alabama Icons” sings of Van Zandt, Wallace, and Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.” “Birmingham” addresses the uglier side of Southern culture and history, while “The Southern Thing” offers hope for Southern redemption.
Hood grew up seeing the good and the ugly that came from racial mash-ups. “Two hours away from Birmingham – where the police were siccing dogs on people – there were all these white guys making these great records with Percy Sledge and Aretha Franklin,” he said, a reference to the Muscle Shoals studios. “Some of the greatest records made [were] by this multicultural band. That story doesn’t get told too much, and that’s part of it.””Southern Rock Opera,” said Hood, was made to complete the record about the South in the post-Civil Rights Era: “These things about the South that have become notorious and infamous, laid out against the beautiful things that a lot of people don’t know about.”Still, Drive-By Truckers’ songs are infected more with the notorious than the beautiful. Even critical success hasn’t drawn the band to the light; last year’s “A Blessing and a Curse” is filled with demons and death. Even if the album ends with “A World of Hurt,” the song sounds as optimistic a note as the band has ever struck, an affirmation of life in all its pain and pleasure.”A lot of what we write about is dark,” said Hood. “That comes from where we’re from, the things we saw. I’ve always been drawn to the darker stories. Not that we’re depressed, mopey people; a lot of it comes through as black humor.”But these are dark times. That’s what calls me to write. There’s more to say in a dark song than a happy song.”••••
Drive-By Truckers’ latest batch of songs will get a workout in concert before they are laid down in the studio. The band plans to include new songs in the Dirt Underneath shows in preparation for recording sessions set for June.But the tour is a testing ground for something more, as well – to see if Drive-By Truckers can get by without spectacle and screaming guitars. Hood began his musical life as a songwriter; he only learned guitar so he could play the songs he was writing, and his early hope was to find someone else who would sing them.”Part of the test of a thing is, how well does it hold up if it’s quiet,” said Hood. “When we make records, the focus is always on the song writing, the stories. But when we play the shows, so many shows, you can pull out a certain thing that you know the crowd will respond to. But going out there, knowing those cards aren’t in the deck – that’s a challenge. So this is a show with a different foundation. More intimate, and not quite as much of a spectacle.”Hood says he has no problem with volume and showmanship. “Spectacle and rock ‘n’ roll – that’s like chocolate and peanut butter,” he said. And cranked-up amplifiers and over-the-top energy are what has made Drive-By Truckers these last six years. But the songwriter in Hood says that if the band is to have a second act, it’s got to learn some other tricks as well.”It’s time to do something different and open up another part of the brain and see what’s buried there,” he said, sounding optimistic and refreshed. “I hope it adds a decade to our longevity.”Drive-By Truckers take the stage at 9 p.m. Tickets are $25. For a full schedule of acts coming to Belly Up Aspen, go to http://www.aspentimes.com/music.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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