The Drive-By Truckers' Athens Beginnings: An Exclusive Excerpt from Where the Devil Don't Stay

New Biography by Stephen Deusner Out Next Week

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The Drive-By Truckers' Athens Beginnings: An Exclusive Excerpt from <i>Where the Devil Don't Stay</i>

On Sept. 7, Texas University Press will publish Stephen Deusner’s biography of the Drive-by Truckers, ‘Where the Devil Don’t Stay.’ You can read an exclusive excerpt on Patterson Hood’s early days in Athens, Ga., below.

Near the corner of Clayton and Jackson—spitting distance from the University of Georgia campus—the High Hat was a townie drinking establishment nestled among the frat bars and greasy pizza joints in what passed for a sketchy neighborhood in Athens. Most nights during the late 1990s, but especially on weekends, the street would fill up with rowdy, intoxicated bros, a throng sometimes resembling a riot flowing out of open doors, blocking cars, and clogging traffic. It was only half a mile from the west side of downtown, where the Caledonia Lounge and the 40 Watt anchored an artsier district that was quieter, less crowded, less rowdy, and less Greek, but some nights the High Hat could feel like it was in a different place altogether.

Home to legendary bands like the B-52’s, Pylon, R.E.M., Widespread Panic, and Neutral Milk Hotel, among many, many, many others, Athens has always enjoyed a diverse music scene, never defined exclusively by one particular sound or style but united in a like-minded approach to music-making that values freedom and invention. Psych-pop bands rub elbows with hardcore punks jostling for stage time with country-rock outfits sharing equipment with jangly guitar groups sharing members with noodly jam bands hackeysacking with reggae artists. Blues, however, has not historically been among the most popular local styles, partly because that first wave of house party bands sprang up almost in opposition to the blustery, blues-rock machismo of the 1970s. At the time of the High Hat’s opening in 1994, you could have counted the number of local blues acts on one hand and still had plenty of digits left over to strum a guitar.

Opening a blues club might have seemed like folly, but a very Athens sort of folly. The scene is built on a philosophy of accommodation: if you make something you truly care about, it’s likely someone else will show up to see it, even if it’s just your friends. Perhaps that made it seem like a sustainable enterprise, location be damned. The High Hat struggled, often dead even on show nights. Gradually, the owners—Drew Alston and Tony Eubanks—expanded the club’s purview to include a wider array of popular styles that might actually entice people to brave the bros and pay the meager cover charge. They started getting smaller touring acts, bands too new or too obscure or too esoteric to fill the 40 Watt. By nobody’s plan, the High Hat became something like a hub for what in the mid-1990s was becoming known as alt-country, insurgent country, or—if you prefer puns—y’allternative. This focus put the High Hat slightly ahead of the curve: while groups like the Jayhawks and the Bottle Rockets were already defining the movement, the genre’s bible—a magazine titled No Depression in a nod both to Uncle Tupelo’s 1990 debut and to the Carter Family’s signature song—wouldn’t hang out its shingle until 1995.

When Patterson moved to Athens, Georgia, on April 1, 1994, he was still licking his wounds from that disastrous stopover in Memphis and a few years in the wilderness: Auburn for a little while, then back to the Shoals, neither place doing much to curb his suicidal thoughts. Actually, he had intended to land in Atlanta, where there was a burgeoning scene of musicians mixing country and punk in the Cabbagetown neighborhood, known among themselves as the Redneck Underground: bands included the Vidalias, Jennie B. and the Speedbillies, Slim Chance and the Convicts, the Blacktop Rockets, and the Diggers. When he visited a friend in Athens, however, he got immediately drunk on the spirit of this college town and its weird history. A music boomtown as improbable as the Shoals, Athens was home to R.E.M., a band he had counted among his favorites ever since he hand-sold copies of Murmur at the Record Bar back in Florence. Besides, the rent was cheaper and the environment a lot less Memphis and a lot more Shoals. After moving into a place on Ruth Street, not far from the Oconee, which he was dismayed to discover was a mere creek compared to the Tennessee River, he found a job at a restaurant (his first of many gigs in food services), and he set about embedding himself in the local scene. He wrote songs, played a few gigs at a burrito place called Frijolero’s, and even recorded a lo-fi album on a boombox in his apartment, calling it Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs), and giving the cassette away to new friends.

Patterson’s first solo show at the High Hat went well enough that Alston invited him to play again. “I was so stupid and ignorant about how things worked in clubland—it’s not like Adam’s House Cat ever got that many club gigs—that I called him on a Saturday night to follow up about booking. He was like, ‘I don’t have time to talk right now. The sound guy didn’t show up, and I’m in the weeds trying to soundcheck a band.’” Patterson sensed an opportunity. “I told him I was a sound guy, which was totally a lie. I sorta knew how to do the basics of it, because we’d had a PA in our practice space. But I’d never done sound for a band.” So he bluffed. How hard could it be?

Plenty hard, it turns out, because the building wasn’t really designed to serve as a club. Let’s say you survived the murder of bros on the side walks, paid the cover charge and had your hand stamped, and maybe recognized the local musician Kevin Sweeney or Nick Bielli working the door. You then walked down a long tunnel into the venue proper. A bar ran the length of one wall, crammed with drinkers. In the opposite corner was a cramped, diagonal stage that barely fit the full bands playing that night. For a while the original sign from Tyrone’s OC hung over the stage, a nod to Athens’ glory days in the late 1970s and early ’80s and to the club that hosted early shows by Pylon and R.E.M. and Love Tractor. Next to the stage, a staircase led up to a tiny mezzanine holding four or five tables and a door leading to the manager’s office. A thick cloud of cigarette and pot smoke pushed at the ceiling. It was an odd space, logistically and acoustically, made all the more awkward by the placement of the soundboard up in a crow’s nest, separate from the mezzanine and accessible only by a rickety ladder.

“It was a nightmare because it sounded totally different up there than it did on the floor,” says Patterson. “I had just enough sense to learn pretty quickly that I had to set the levels, then climb down the ladder and listen on the floor. Then I’d go back up and tweak it. I was up and down that ladder all night, and I got really skinny.”

devil-dont-stay.jpgHe was as shocked as anybody else that his first night running sound at the High Hat wasn’t a complete disaster. In fact, he was hired for full-time work that night, despite Eubanks’s initial suspicions about the stranger in the crow’s nest. It was Tony who invited Patterson to work a regular Tuesday night gig by a local pickup group called the Hot Burritos, whose Gram Parsons-derived band name hinted at the style of music they played. Tuesday nights were given over to a cosmic, toke happy strain of country music performed by a quartet of acoustic strummers including William Tonks and future Trucker Barry Sell. They would play their own set first, then come back for a second set fronted by a guest artist—usually locals, but sometimes someone from Atlanta or beyond. Vic Chesnutt did a Hot Burrito night. So did Kelly Hogan, Anne Richmond Boston from the Swimming Pool Q’s, Greg Reece from Redneck Greece Deluxe, Ben Reynolds from the Chickasaw Mud Puppies, Andy Pike from the Continentals, Mike Mills from R.E.M., and Gregory Dean Smalley, who you’ll read more about later. “It was a who’s who of the southeastern Americana set,” says Patterson, “and we all became buds.”

From his perch high in the crow’s nest, he watched a lot of bands put their own twists and spins on acoustic country music, sometimes respectfully and often irreverently. For someone raised on punk and new wave, who counted R.E.M. as a favorite, who lied to his parents and drove to a Springsteen concert in Mississippi, who harbored dreams of being part of the next Replacements or at least the next Soul Asylum, this was an awakening, an apprenticeship in twang, as Patterson saw this genre that he had spent much of his life dismissing and disdaining reinterpreted by people like himself. Maybe they had never stepped inside a honky-tonk or tasted moonshine or spent a weekend in county jail, but they could still deliver a convincing version of “Mama Tried” or “$1000 Wedding.” A new sensibility crept into Patterson’s songs to match an aw-shucks humor in his lyrics, and he began to experiment with characters other than himself and stories other than his own. Country helped him become a third-person songwriter, which would carry over to the Truckers.

Things were loose at the High Hat, casual even for a rock club, which attracted a very specific clientele.

“There was a lot of drinking,” says Nick Bielli, a member of local bands Hayride and Japancakes, “and a lot of, ‘Hey, why don’t you hop up onstage and play “Cat Scratch Fever” with us?’ Everyone who worked there played, so we would always play there. It was like having a treehouse with a bar in it. You’d think that it’s only three blocks away from the campus, but it was like another planet because no one wanted to go down there.” Some nights there were more employees than patrons. “You’d book these incredible shows and it was like pulling teeth to get a hundred people to show up. Forty people came to see Daniel Johnston. Nobody wanted to walk those three blocks to the High Hat.”

Most nights Patterson brought his guitar with him, in case there was a slot that needed to be filled or there was a band that didn’t show. He could jump onstage at a moment’s notice and deliver a semiprofessional set of original songs, and he took every opportunity that came his way. That put him in front of an array of concertgoers and introduced him to a small network of musicians in the region. In fact, nearly everyone who figures prominently in this chapter met Patterson at the High Hat or at the very least knew him as “that sound guy.” And he became a concierge for touring bands. Many nights he would invite the headliner to crash with him at the haunted house he shared with his new wife out on Jefferson Road. “I would often take bands home with me. My second wife was a killer cook, so in the morning she would cook them breakfast before they left. We called it the Redneck Ramada. Lots of bands slept on the floor of the Redneck Ramada, and lots of bands left toward the next day full of some really good cooking.”

Occasionally David Barbe would stop by to set up his mobile recording equipment or to play with his band Buzz Hungry. He was something of a local hero, having worked on Uncle Tupelo’s third album, March 16-20, 1992 (an early alt-country landmark), and played bass with for mer Hüsker Dü front man Bob Mould in the short-lived alt-rock power trio Sugar. But Barbe was done with touring, having decided to stay in Athens, focus on his family, and open up his own studio. His long friendship with Patterson began in that crow’s nest overlooking the High Hat stage. “It’s a tiny place that barely held one person, let alone the two of us who were just hanging out,” says Barbe. “I was recording bands and he’s running sound, and that was the foundation of our friendship, just me and him hanging out in that little sound booth.” Barbe would produce all but three of the Truckers’ studio albums, at one point even steering the band away from the brink of self-destruction.

This was Patterson’s life in Athens: climbing up and down that ladder, checking levels on the floor and near the ceiling, playing last-minute gigs, hanging out with whoever came to town, smoking weed, drinking whiskey. They would close up the High Hat, walk over to the Manhattan with Bielli or Kevin Sweeney or John Neff from the local country group the Star Room Boys or his old friend Earl Hicks from back home or whoever was around, and then drink until the crowds dispersed. They’d head home at four or five in the morning, sleep all day, and get up and do it all over again. Somewhere in between, Patterson would write songs, wordy compositions about his rock heroes, about broken branches of his family tree, about his first and current wives, about this corner of the country he called home. He played in a few bands, including a rock outfit called, regrettably, the Lot Lizards. And he started to dream up a new band, one with no fixed lineup and no rehearsals, one that could swing from hard-crunching southern rock to jangly acoustic alt-country, one that would specialize in barely keeping it between the ditches: raw, powerful, gloriously sloppy. He wanted something that was unhinged and wild and unpredictable even to those onstage, but also he wanted something with the flexibility of the Hot Burritos, something that could accommodate more personalities and songwriters than just himself. Before he gave his notice at the High Hat and graduated to the 40 Watt sound booth, the Truckers would be up and running, testing this concept with some harebrained schemes, some shit-eating grins, and a lot of seat-of- their overalls touring.

“It was a magical spot,” Patterson says. “That was the job that really changed my life, because it put me right where I needed to be at the exact moment that I needed to be there to do what I needed to do.”

Around the time all of that was happening, the city organized the inaugural AthFest, a three-day event intended to answer South by Southwest over in Austin. It never did rival that crowded music industry expo, but it has come close. Today it features hundreds of bands, locals and nonlocals alike, playing at venues all over town, and the Truckers have played it multiple times. Back then, it was just sixty or so local acts playing on the courthouse steps. Nearly every player was shocked to receive a bill from the city charging the musicians a workplace tax. Suddenly the new event looked like an especially pernicious con, a means of collecting info on local bands in order to levy charges that few could afford to pay. Most of them simply ignored the bill, but Nick Bielli remembers Patterson sticking his letter on a nail in the wall of the sound booth, like Martin Luther affixing his ninety-five theses to the cathedral door. Then the Drive-By Trucker wrote in big, bold letters nearly legible from the stage: EMERGENCY TOILET PAPER.

Excerpted from ‘Where the Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers,’ © 2021, published with permission from the University of Texas Press. The book is out Sept. 7, and you can order your copy here. And listen “Santa Fe” from the Drive-by Truckers’ Daytrotter session on July 6, 2010, below: