When the Drive-By Truckers released American Band earlier this year, it was clear from the first listen and early press rumblings that the Athens, GA-via-Alabama band’s 11th record wasn’t going to be pulling any punches. Being liberals in the Deep South has long been an undercurrent thematically in the band’s material, but on the astounding and provocative new record the band’s progressive beliefs were pushed to the fore in triumphant fashion. The country has taken notice, and the band achieved its first top ten debut of their storied 21+ year career, and made principle song writers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley sudden fixtures on the political talk show scene.
We spoke with Patterson Hood about the reaction the album has received, the current political climate, his decision to move his family from Athens to Portland, OR, Bernie Sanders, and where he thinks we’re all headed. Drive-By Truckers will be performing on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show tonight.
American Band seems to have really blown things open for you guys—it’s been wild to watch you and Mike (Cooley) on the various news shows talking about both the record and the social and political climate that inspired it. Being a Southern band is such a big part of the Truckers’ identity, did you guys have any fears about the response the record might receive from certain facets of the fanbase? It sure seems the added attention has been glowing for the most part.
PH: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Absolutely. It’s been amazing. It’s been our best reviewed record and debuted in the top ten, which was a first for us. To have that 21+ years into your career as a band is really something else. And as far as anyone who doesn’t like it or get it—fuck ‘em. Mike and I’s job isn’t to worry about what people will think of what we write. Our job is to make the best record we can and to make the record we feel compelled to make, and then play the best rock show we can around it. People like it or don’t like it, that’s their prerogative—we’re just going to keep doing our thing regardless, and that’s how we’ve always done it. Right from the beginning people were telling us not to do Southern Rock Opera? (the band’s debut album), that is was a terrible idea and we did it anyway, and, you know, it’s responsible for us riding on a tour bus now. It changed our lives. We were a band that was basically founded on a bad idea [laughs]. We do our thing and some records are better received than others or whatever, but this time I really feel we got it right. I’m really proud of this record, and if someone doesn’t want to listen to it because it doesn’t agree with their political sensibilities, ya know… fuck it [laughs].
DF: You’ve always been a political band…
PH: Honestly I’ve always thought of us in that context—I’ve always been that way, you know? Even back in Adam’s House Cat, our first band in the 80’s, we were writing political songs about Reagan.
DF: News shows, the album’s response, people at the shows etc – does all that make you hopefully for next week and the future in general?
PH: I’m ready for it to be over. I’m cautiously hopeful… but I’m more hopeful long-term than short-term. I think the long-term direction of things is overall pretty favorable, but in the short-term is sort of this back and forth pendulum swing because things are so crazy now. I think a lot of the ugliness we’re going through now is probably going to get worse before it gets better unfortunately, but I think that’s part of the process of things getting better. If you look at the arc of time from a long view we’ve culturally made some wonderful strides as a people lately. We have a long way to go with civil rights issues obviously, but when you look at how things were just fifty years ago, we’re headed in the right direction—it just moves frustratingly slow. When you like at the strives we’ve made as far as LGBT issues, we’ve come an extremely long way in the past decade—even if it took centuries to get here—in the arc of time, a decade is nothing. I really think we’ve reached that tipping point where things can keep moving fast in the right direction.
You and I live in a town (Portland, OR) where you can buy weed legally, and that’s moving in a good direction… finally. I mean, I think it’s around %50 of the states now offer medical marijuana and there’s more about to vote on it. That’s good progress. It makes sense.
Even with all the shit that Obama has had to deal with, it was still totally unfathomable a couple decades ago that we would even have a black president to be in the position to be dealing with all that shit. That’s progress. And we’re hopefully about to have our first female president, you know? So I’m cautiously optimistic about the long-term.
DF: But the short term…
PH: Well yeah, it’s probably going to get worse first. I’m scared there’s going to be more horrific violence in our lifetime, and I fear for my kids and I really, really hate it. But you know… when you compare the violence of times past with right now, we’re living in the least violent time in human history. Sometimes it’s hard to think of that…
DF: You turn on the news and it’s easy to lose perspective.
PH: Yeah, you turn on the news and you’re seeing yet another mass shooting or some other horrendous thing—but when you talk about the arc of time it actually is improving. When you look at the middle of the century and World War II, I mean good God, carnage on a mass scale.
DF: Ever since I heard you were moving out here from our old stomping grounds in Athens, GA I’ve been wanting to ask you about your motivations for the move. What made you and the family decide to finally pull the trigger? We both grew up in the South and hold it dear—but I often compare the region to a family member you love but who keeps fucking up and embarrassing everyone: you love them dearly but can’t believe the way they behave. You were known in Athens and beyond as a Southern liberal fighting the good fight—I’m wondering if that was hard to leave and if you felt any guilt, or if you said, “Fuck it, we’ve got kids. I’m out.”
PH: I felt like I did my time, you know? There were definitely some feelings of guilt over leaving though, because part of how I’ve defined myself throughout my entire adult life was as part of the rural opposition [laughs]. I’ve always been fighting this fight—but you get to a point where you’re tired of fighting. Muhammed Ali was younger than I am when he retired from boxing, and he should have stopped sooner, you know [laughs]?
And I’m still out there fighting the fight… I just didn’t want it to be in a place anymore where people might potentially take my kids away because I smoke weed, for instance. I was tired of the fight being that close to home.
DF: And it’s totally unreasonable.
PH: And we lived in a bubble in Athens, Georgia. Almost much as of a bubble as Portland, it’s just a lot smaller.
PH: It’s a little blue bubble in a red state though, it’s surround by a lot of red.
DF: It’s an oasis.
PH: Yeah. And I think it’s more of an urban and rural divide that a strictly red state vs. blue state divide—and that whole blue state vs. red state thing is actually kind of a myth. It’s kind of false. If you go to Austin, TX or—hell even probably Dallas, TX, I don’t know the exact stats, but I’d bet it’s blue—most cities are going to be blue. Kansas City is going to be blue in Kansas, you know?
DF: Well what do you attribute that to? What about the liberal/progressive message isn’t resonating out there? It’s not as though Donald Trump gives a good goddamn about what ills the rural part of American is going through. Why do you think that divide is so steadfast?
PH: I think that Donald Trump is just so outside the system and people are so fed up with politicians that they’re voting against the system and are blind to the damage he’d cause. It’s comparable to Bernie’s appeal, it’s just way at the other end of the spectrum. His own party not liking him appeals to a lot of those voters.
DF: It’s more a rebuke of the system overall.
PH: Yeah, and that’s part of the reason I truly believe Bernie would have done better in the general election than Hillary is.
DF: I absolutely agree.
PH: I did a lot of soul searching before I came out for Bernie—even though I was much more in line with him politically than Hillary—because my top priority was I want someone who can win. My initial thought was, “OK this is great, but he’s too far to the left win in November,” and I didn’t want another McGovern or Mondale situation. But after really studying it and analyzing it, I came to the realization that Bernie could absolutely win. And I think that if he could have come up with the momentum he had about a month earlier, he could have ridden it all the way. People can bitch and moan about the system, and I have too, believe me, but it’s the system we’ve got, and the only way to fix it is from within. And I think to just do away with it is a pretty short sighted argument, it might sound good and noble on paper—but the world doesn’t really work that way, you know?
PH: Bernie ran a miraculous campaign, and he damn near made it. If he had picked up that momentum, if people knew more about him earlier, I think we would have gone all the way. When he first announced he was running I thought, “Man, I’ve always liked him and he’s always seemed a really cool guy—why the hell does he want to do this (run for president)?!” [laughs] I mean, I didn’t even really think he’d get 10% of the vote the day he announced. But, goddamnit, he gave ‘em hell! And as an outsider to be able to push through the most progressive platform in the history of a major party—that’s fuckin’ huge you know? I’ve got as many complaints about the two-party system as anyone, but ya know, that’s the system we’ve got right now. There’s not a third-party candidate you can really take seriously now…
PH: Even if there was one, there’s still not the infrastructure behind it to make it really work. The way to build another party is a grassroots effort from the ground up. You don’t start at the top, because then there’s no foundation. And those things take time, but that’s the world we live in.
DF: What do you hope for Bernie and his movement going forward? How about his chances for starting some sort of Progressive Party?
PH: Well having him in the Senate is pretty fucking great, especially if he can end up in position of real power within the Senate. That’s huge. The president can really only do so much—I think the fact that Obama has accomplished as much as he has in terms of what he had to work with within the Senate and Congress is fucking amazing, and pretty miraculous even. It’s a credit to his smarts and charisma that he got anything done. He was able to reach out to those reasonable people who aren’t entrenched and are reasonable enough to where his ideas appealed to them and he was able to push some of them through.
The Democrats screwed themselves by kinda throwing him under the bus like they did—he’s now more popular than anybody in either party. I’m willing to bet he’s the most popular eighth year president in a long time. He’s above where Reagan was, Reagan’s last two years were rough for him. In the arc of American history, most second terms are really tough—but not Obama’s. There’s no stains on dresses [laughs], there’s no waterboarding, there’s no Watergate, there’s no Iran-Contra hearing—and Lord, don’t even get me started on Dubya’s second term, or for that matter his first.
DF: I read something that you said that really struck a cord with me about how it helps the world to hear a Southern white male say black lives matter. Why do you think that whole concept and others like are so hard for people to truly grasp? How can people look at what’s going on and not see that it’s disproportionate and down right wrong?
PH: [long pause] I don’t know… I truly don’t know. I don’t know why more bands haven’t spoken out to be honest. It didn’t occur to me that we’d be one of the only bands right now making a record this political. And uh… man… I don’t know. I don’t know what to think about that.
DF: Well that’s the sad truth to it: I don’t know either. It’s the kind of thing you think about staring up at the night sky or lying in bed at night; I’m amazed by it. I also thought there’d be a lot more political writing from bands, it’s been disappointing and surprising.
PH: Yeah I know. Well maybe they think Pitchfork won’t review them if they write a protest record. Like us! [laughs]
DF: [laughs] Yeah I wanted to ask you about that! What do you make of that? They typically review every DBT record. Is it Conde Nast (who recently purchased Pitchfork) shying away from controversy?
PH: Yeah it’s the first time we haven’t been reviewed in Pitchfork. I don’t know man. Our last record got like an 8.3 or something, which is pretty good! Decoration Day made one of their lists for “Best of the Decade” or something, so I don’t know. But they absolutely passed on reviewing this record, which is odd because on Metacritic it has one of the highest scores of the year and it’s been one of the best reviewed records of our career… but they passed.
DF: Very strange…
PH: Yeah I talked to a guy that writes for them and he tried to review it—they passed. I don’t know what’s up with that. I don’t know if it’s political or…
DF: You’d think they’d do it simply because it’s good copy to review and discuss a record that covers such pertinent topics and being talked about so much. Speaking of that, you mentioned the tour is going really well earlier, it’s great that speaking your mind has paid off so well.
PH: Yeah, the tour is really going great. Last night we were in Louisville, and it was one of my favorite shows ever. It was just a great night. And really every night it’s been really good, these songs make for a pretty high energy show because it’s a high energy record, it’s just been really fun and this is an amazing time for the band. We’re going to work our asses off next year doing this and make it count—you don’t get a gift like this often. Us in our 21st year as a band, to have this is just amazing and we want to make the most of it. It’s a very rewarding feeling.
DF: Well not I’m surprised these shows have been celebratory and joyous this tour. I was speaking to some pals back in Athens and we were talking about how you guys sort of fly the flag for us liberal Southerners and let people know we don’t all adhere to the stereotypes you see so often put forth.
PH: Well let’s take Alabama. Alabama is a red a state as red can be—but even if Republicans win with %60, that’s still %40 of people that don’t think that way. That’s still millions of people in Alabama that feel roughly the way we do. That may not be the majority, that may not be where the balance of power lies, but they’re there. Then you think of the people who might be moderates but vote Republican because at church on Sunday that’s what they tell you to do, because that’s what Jesus wants you to do, which in the South is a big factor, but they’re still by and large reasonable people. It’s like your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving: he might say something awful, but he’s not an evil person, he’s just got beliefs that are outdated and it’s time to change, ya know? It’s conditioning that’s embedded in the way people think. Some of those people you can’t talk to, but a lot of them are reasonable and you can.
So I’m kind of looking at what we’re doing as not throwing a Molotov Cocktail at the proceedings as much as we’re trying to have a rational, decent conversation with anyone who is intelligent enough to have the conversation back—regardless of where they land on the political spectrum. Sometimes that’s not possible, but sometimes it is, and I think whenever it is possible it’s really important to have those conversations. It’s a better way.
DF: Right, and that to me is part of why Hillary is the only option right now: the things Trump is saying aren’t going to help progress and start and conversation, it’s going to end them.
PH: No! He won’t listen to anyone but himself—and I’m not sure he even listens to himself. I think when he says, “Oh I didn’t say that,” he means it—because all he does is run his fucking mouth! And that’s not what you want someone with access to the red button to do. It’s a very, very dangerous thing.
The Drive-By Truckers are on tour now and will be playing the Colbert Show live special the night before the election.