“Maybe we can rejoin the Union with this one”: Drive-By Truckers are finally an "American Band"

Salon talks to Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley about their new album, the NRA, Ferguson and Donald Trump

Published September 25, 2016 9:30PM (EDT)

Drive-By Truckers   (Big Hassle/Danny Clinch)
Drive-By Truckers (Big Hassle/Danny Clinch)

Don’t call Drive-By Truckers a Southern rock band. They hate that. But if you give their latest album "American Band" a listen, you’re apt to be introduced to a different brand of Southernness that doesn’t circulate in mainstream media. These middle-aged Southerners-by-birth may sing with a twang, but you’d be making a huge mistake to peg them as Trump supporters.

The band’s eleventh studio album, which will be released Sept. 30 on ATO Records, is nothing short of a soundtrack to public life in America at this moment in time. With songs about gun violence and the racist implications of right-wing lobbying groups, "American Band" has very few subtle statements — even when they’re wrapped up in the clever lines penned by songwriters Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood.

The five-piece powerhouse is gearing up to embark on a nationwide tour in support of "American Band," hitting large clubs and theaters both before and after Election Day. Regardless of what happens at the ballot box, the band’s new songs are likely to remain as prescient as they were when they were written.

Salon spoke with Cooley and Hood about making "American Band," the political backdrop that inspired its lyrical content, and how the band has managed to reinvent itself after two decades in the business of recording and performing.

From a production standpoint, "American Band" was a very different experience for the band. You broke a lot of habits. You recorded this with David Barbe involved, of course, but you did it outside of Athens and with a new engineer, which is the first time you've done that in a very long while. How did that new process impact the results?

Patterson Hood: We wanted to shake things up a little bit. At the same time, we're retaining the things that we wanted to keep on. I mean, obviously we wanted to continue working with Barbe. We brought in an outside engineer to record this album. I wanted Barbe to be free to really focus on producing. In the past, he's been engineering as well as producing. He sits down and he's staring at the board and he's working on all of those technical things.

But this time, we wanted him to be free to walk around the studio while we played and be immersed in the music. That was really fun, because it allowed him to be more in his creative brainspace.

So, it was kind of like bringing in a new producer. He knows us and and what works best with us. It's the best of both worlds. The engineer was fantastic and did an amazing job. He'd worked that room before and knew the ins and outs. I don't know if he knew anything about us prior to [working with] us, but the chemistry clicked immediately. It was the best-case scenario. We loved Sound Emporium. As long as we've been doing this, we've never recorded in Nashville, which is sort of crazy to think about. Our tour ended in Nashville, so we decided that instead of waiting until the end of the year to get started on the process, we'd go ahead and do it. We cut nine songs in three days, which we didn't expect. We were hoping to get three or four decent tracks and have ourselves in the right headspace for the new record. And we had most of it done. We found some time to go back in and finish. It was really an amazing process — it was so fast and so spontaneous. We just instinctively knew what we were looking for.

You said at the beginning that you decided to shake things up a bit and as a whole, I think that's certainly the case. This is a very obviously political record. From the very first notes, listeners will feel the intensity. What caused the outburst of solidly political songs out of you all?

Hood: That's something that's always been there with us. It's been more under the surface in the past. A lot of the music that I grew up loving has a really political bent to it — whether it's the more obvious stuff like The Clash or all the way to the Springsteen stuff that I grew up loving. It was under the surface, but it was always there. Even on songs from "The River," there's a message there, but it's subtle. That's always been the way we've approached it.

Maybe it's a little closer to the surface on "Southern Rock Opera." We were talking about the Civil Rights Movement. But even that record was steeped in a kind of nostalgia. It was set in a different period. Reaganomics was such a big part of the songs on "The Dirty South."

This time, we're living in such a crazy moment in history. People still write and talk about Watergate, which was such a huge, looming backdrop when I was coming of age and when I was a kid growing up. I think we're living in one of those times right now where, in 20 years, people will be writing and talking about it.

You know, I don't think we necessarily made a conscious decision. It was happening and it leveled to the surface. We were just keeping up with what was happening.

Cooley and I were really on the same page — although we rarely talk to one another during the writing process. You know, we usually send each other the song as they're getting finished. And it felt like the songs were just sort of in conversation with one another.

You brought up a really interesting point — it very much seems like the songs are more in conversation with one another. With both “Ramon Casiano” and “What It Means,” gun violence is at the forefront of these songs. When I heard those songs, I thought “This is exactly what we need to hear in popular culture right now.” But I also realize that sentiment might not be shared by some of your listeners. Are you afraid of any backlash?

Hood: I don't worry about it. I think it just needed to be said. I have pretty thick skin and, you know, that's a good thing since there's been a little bit of uproar already. I mean, when I first wrote "What It Means" — or before we even played it as a band — honestly, even before I even quite finished it — one night, two years ago right when all of these protests really broke out about the Ferguson decision, I did something that I hadn’t really done before. And, of course, the Trayvon Martin thing was was really, really pressing on everyone's mind.

I was traveling with my wife and the protests were breaking out all over the country about the Ferguson decision. I did something I know better than to do and I posted the lyrics to my unfinished song on Facebook and then I went to bed. I woke up the next morning and there were hundreds of emotional, nasty, negative responses — saying awful things — even a couple that were threatening. Obviously, it hit a nerve. I think that's my job — to just say what I feel. I want to get my facts right and not say something that turns out to be kind of stupid because that becomes a distraction to what I'm actually trying to say. In this case, I actually had to go back and clean up a couple of things. There were a couple of lines that didn't really quite line up with some of the facts. So, I learned my lesson there. [Laughs]

I just felt like the main gist of that song is something that needed to be said. I mean it's a question; the song is a question. I don't really have the answer to it. But to start a dialogue is important.

In this moment and time, I think it needs to be discussed and talked about and we need to shine a light on it. It’s like when you get up in the middle of the night and turn the basement light on, things scatter on the floor that you'd rather not know were there. But, you need to turn that light on to know what you're dealing with instead of stumbling in the dark. And I feel like, as a people, we're sort of stumbling in the dark right now.

The title of the album is simultaneously a direct statement and one that can mean many things. Why did you go to bat for this title and what you were sort of going for in naming the album "American Band"?

Mike Cooley: It was specifically because of how direct it is. I didn't think of it, but I pretty much held on to it. Some of our ideas were a little vague, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But, for this album I thought the title should be as direct as the rest of the record. There's very little to misunderstand. I didn't think it felt right to have a title that was the least bit vague on an album that direct. And the two words are short and simple. I also felt that it serves to convey an idea that we didn't really write a song for, which is challenging this notion — the people and the ideas we're challenging have taken it upon themselves to have exclusive rights to define what American is. Who is American? We didn't really address that in a song, so maybe that title includes a necessary part of it that wasn't there before.

Right out of the gate, the album leads off with “Ramon Casiano,” a song that is a powerful statement on the hypocrisy of the NRA. Do you worry about any negative response from the NRA?

Cooley: No. I'm not worried about it. No. You know, if I were scared of rednecks, I would've moved on a long time ago. [Laughs] That's not a fear I struggle with. You can't be aware of all this stuff without being aware of the potential blowback. There will be some mouthiness, but that's really all that ever comes out of it.

The NRA probably wants this story buried, but it's out there. Where did you learn of this story? The man who eventually led the largest gun-rights lobbying group in the country basically got away with murder. The story didn’t surface for such a very long time.

Cooley: I kind of stumbled across it. I wasn't looking for it. All of a sudden one day I just started asking the question: What is it with these gun-crazy militia-type folks and their obsession with the Mexicans? Because they seem to have one.

I turned the TV on one Saturday night. There were some stories, all these all these guys taking their guns and pretending to be Border Patrol. I started laughing. And I initially started writing a novelty song about it. Just making up a song about how silly they were.

And somehow or another I end up stumbling on this story of Harlon Carter, who headed up the transformation of the NRA, actually was a Border Patrol guy who ran Operation Wetback. Donald Trump was singing the praises of that policy several months back, which was Eisenhower's deportation immigration policy. I didn't know that at the time — Donald Trump wasn't in the race. This was way before the campaign got started. I learned that and then, lo and behold, Carter shot and killed a Mexican.

And you know it's not funny, but who knew? I'm looking around me right now and then the history was there the whole time. I thought, “All I've got to do is make this song rhyme and it's written.”

It almost makes too much sense. This kind of hypocrisy is bound to happen. You can't claim to be that morally superior without having a few things you’d rather just sweep under the rug.

Cooley: Exactly. But, really, where I was getting at with the song is the white supremacy that runs not that far under the surface of the whole gun culture, gun politics, guns-as-a-political-wedge issue.

And what the NRA is now — they weren't before 1977. You know, there's a fine line between them and the Klan. It's there and you can't deny it. I mean, you can see it in how gun sales went through the roof the minute Barack Obama was elected. Gun sales have spiked every time Democrats win elections since 1980. Guns started flying off store shelves just as soon as the black Democrat moved into the White House. And that's the evidence right there. That was before any of the shootings that actually sparked the conversation. They were already buying guns and ammo like crazy.

This ties back, not just to the album that you made, but to the band and the entire history of the band. I've always said, "Well, there is a Southern drawl to the Drive-By Truckers, but they're not really a Southern rock band. They're more of a punk band."

Cooley: I wish you would tell everybody that so I wouldn't see “Southern Rock” on the cover of every magazine we're in. [Laughs]

Back to the title there. I left this out, but I did consciously think, "Well, maybe we can rejoin the Union with this one" and make a statement about separating ourselves from that Southern rock label. We've never liked that. We've never been comfortable with that.

There are so many different facets and layers of meaning in these words: American band and Southern rock. This album is your opportunity — however long you have been in a band — to say, "Look, the image of this band has been skewed. There's been a misinterpretation." It's a very powerful title in that way.

Cooley: Exactly. When you say “Southern rock,” for most people, what comes to mind is that handful of bands in the '70s from the South from that generation. I don't have a problem with those people, but that's obviously not what we are. It's a very specific thing; it's a very specific group of musicians from a different generation from us.

The Drive-By Truckers don't sound like Molly Hatchet.

Cooley: Yeah. And you know, I would I wouldn't want to automatically alienate anyone who's, for whatever reason, put off by that.

You mentioned writing "Ramon Casiano" and the racist undertones of the gun lobby. "Surrender Under Protest" has political inflections in it. Are you surprised that these songs have taken on a new prescience since you've recorded them?

Cooley: With every record, there's something you realize about it after the process is done. And you know that's almost always the case. It didn't occur to me how significant it'd be. We are still a Southern band and we’re 50-year-old white Southern men that are clearly taking a side on this that our demographic is not normally characterized as taking. I didn't really think about that. It should have been rather obvious. But, with this one, I thought, “Wow. It didn't occur to me that we are we are part of that demographic.” When people describe Trump supporters, they are describing us.

When we pressed record on this thing, it was still a few months ahead of the Iowa caucuses and everybody, including us, thought that people would start voting and this idiot would go away. We still thought that. So, now we're releasing this album just as we might be transitioning from the first non-white president to the first woman president — with a poster boy for a white man's world being the only thing standing in between. It might've affected how we made this record if I knew that was going to happen. We had no idea that was coming.

I want to talk about the title and look of the album. When I got an advance copy of the album, I immediately saw the cover art and noticed that Wes Freed's artwork is not displayed. It struck me as a really bold move your part to have the cover art for this record not be illustrated. The image is very high-definition Drive-By Truckers. What statement do you want to make with that cover?

Hood: Our relationship with Wes Freed is so special. We love his artwork and he's been drawing artwork for our band and doing backdrops for so long, that he's almost a member of the band, like David Barbe is in the producer's chair.

Even with the turnover in the band, we're a band of some tightly-knit traditions. This time, though, we wanted a more photojournalistic look to this album cover. I think Wes was as supportive of that decision as we were ourselves. He totally saw that, with this record, we needed to shake things up. His artwork is still part of the package for the record. And he did the backdrop for the stage presentation for this tour that we have coming up that reflects what the cover does.

Photojournalism has always been one of my passions and because of our tight relationship with Wes, we haven't indulged in it as much for our covers because we love what he does so much. It kind of got to be habit just to keep doing it. But the new cover makes things look a little different. I’ve always said that all of our records look like they fit together in a box. This one might be the start of another box.

How much of a difference do you think this new look will make in how the band is perceived?

Cooley: I suspect it will. I know everybody is going to be pretty curious about that. The only photo cover we've ever done before was our first live album. It all came together one piece at a time. We just thought, “Maybe now's the time to do a photo.” We like photo covers, we've just never done one. And then we had the album turn out to be something very, very different and a very different type of album than we've ever done. So, that made it the perfect time to have the new cover in the cover photo that we ended up using.

I was actually thinking about this subject matter for a song. It was about that image and how you can't keep track of why the flag is even at half-mast or for how long it's been there. The stark, simple imagery and the directness of it just went right with the record. So, it was a piece-by-piece process starting with, "Hey, maybe it's time for a photo cover."

The lineups that have changed in the band don't really seem to mark the eras of the Drive-By Truckers as much as the intensity of the work. It strikes me that the work is as intense as it's ever been. Do you feel like you're entering a different era as a band?

Cooley: It is. What comes next is still out there around several more corners. We're really not talking at all about what's coming next. I'm not really writing anything, but it will appear. But, yeah, I do feel like it's a new era. We've had this lineup together for two records now and that's never really happened before. Three, actually, if you count the live album. We feel like we're definitely playing better and more solidly than we ever have been and we feel like it's getting better. We feel like there's a lot of work we're capable of doing right now. So, it's the first time we've ever had that feeling or maybe the first time in a while that we’ve felt it that strongly.

By Dan Mistich

Dan Mistich is a culture writer currently residing in Decatur, Georgia. He has contributed to The Bitter Southerner, Flagpole Magazine, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @drmistich or email him.

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