The Mouth of the South
The Drive-By Truckers are hard-ass punk rockers from Alabama by way of Athens, Georgia. They drink too much. They love Lynyrd Skynyrd. And their Southern Rock Opera may be the most poetic defense of the Southern "thing" you'll ever hear.
There’s an old adage in the Bible Belt: Prophets are never honored in their hometown. The Drive-By Truckers, who call Alabama home, have been cold-cocking roadhouses across America for years, building a rep as alt country’s rockingest neo-rednecks. To promote Southern Rock Opera, an audacious new double CD ostensibly about the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd, main singer/songwriter Patterson Hood booked them 75 dates in 90 days.
But there’s nothing doing in Florence and Muscle Shoals, the adjoining Alabama towns that raised them. The Muscle Shoals karaoke jointthe band filled last time refused to have them back. “They used to not book us because we didn’t draw,” groans guitarist/songwriter MikeCooley. “Now they don’t book us because they don’t like the kind of people we do draw.” The Florence club that finally did say yes shutdown three days before the gig. So the Truckers are playing acoustic at a house party hosted by their friend Dick Cooper, a local rockold-timer who road-managed the opening band on the 1977 Skynyrd tour, which ended in a fatal plane crash in the Mississippi swamps. Folksthey’ve known forever are talking drunkenly over the music, forcing Hood, who fought laryngitis earlier this week, to grovel for quiet.
One Trucker, guitarist Rob Malone, hasn’t bothered to show up (he’ll leave the band a couple of days later and be replaced by JasonIsbell). When several strings on their borrowed guitars pop all at once, well over an hour into the “show,” anyone would forgive theguys for calling it a night and downing a few more cans of PBR in sarcastic toast to the region they once dubbed “Buttholeville.”Instead, they play for two more hours, mesmerizing the fidgety partygoers. Cooley sings “Zip City” in his portentous baritone, firingoff belated comebacks to a deacon’s daughter who wouldn’t screw him when he was 17. (He’s still bitter about the Evangelicals who madethe area a dry county until the ’80s. “One of the local jokes is ‘Why don’t the Church of Christ fuck standing up?’ ‘Because peoplemight think they’re dancing,'” Hood says.) Hood winds up the set with a heart-splitting version of Southern Rock Opera’s climactic”Angels and Fuselage,” which imagines the passengers on that fated Skynyrd plane “scared shitless of what’s coming next,” waiting tobelly-bump the ground.
Poetry among the wreckage–that’s the Drive-By Truckers for you. Or, to employ the phrase Hood coined for the theme of Southern RockOpera, “the duality of the Southern thing.” Like their contemporaries Slobberbone, the Shiners, Honky, and Supagroup–sometimes lumpedtogether as “the redneck underground”–the Truckers wrangle with the bullshit myth of “white trash” as a heritage because it would be alie to run away from it. “We stumbled on all these subject matters in our own backyard that nobody was really writing about,” says Hood.
A big smiley guy who grows out his beard on the road, the 38-year-old Hood loves to say “belligerent”; it’s the way he describeshimself, his band, and virtually everybody he respects. A born dramatist, he talks with more fervor than most frontmen sing with, and hisSpringsteen-length introductions to songs such as “Wallace,” about America’s most famous segregationist, and “18 Wheels of Love,”about his mom falling for a truck driver, are often longer than the songs themselves. “I wrote a thousand songs before I started highschool,” he declares. “I figured I better learn to play guitar, because the kind of songs I write aren’t the kind that people cover. Ialso had probably the most uncooperative voice in the world.”
Every band has a history, but history is about the only thing the Drive-By Truckers have. Hood’s great-great-granddad fought forthe Confederacy in the Civil War–even though he opposed slavery–and took home a bullet hole in his side. His father, David Hood,was the bassist in the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios band, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, who played a string of successful sessionswith everyone from Aretha Franklin to Bob Dylan. The younger Hood still burns to live up to that legacy. But by 1984, Julian Lennonwas the kind of act coming to Muscle Shoals. (“He nailed a girl I went to high school with,” says Hood.) So young Patterson became apunk rocker.
“‘The Chocolate Vomits,’ that’s what my name for all those groups was,” says Hood’s father, a self-effacing man who still lives nearWilson Lake in the area and serves some of the best barbecue you’ll ever devour. Hood replies, “I never wanted to be a session person.My dad never took his guitar out of the case around the house. That was his job.” Instead, Hood began playing in a band called Adam’sHouse Cat with “mean-ass drunk” Cooley, a country-music fanatic and son of a construction worker who subsidized Mike’s guitar lessonsuntil he became a teenage cock-rocker.
Adam’s House Cat were hated locally, not least for “Buttholeville,” which they used to introduce by saying, “If this song pissesyou off, it’s about you!” But their rep spread, and when, in 1988, Musician magazine named them the nation’s best unsigned band,capricious record labels came calling. “We spent four out of the six years we were together on the verge of a record deal,” says Hood,now able to laugh at his rock-star-wannabe days. The unreleased album they recorded in 1990 featured a Replacements-like wailer called”Runaway Train” that was slated to be the first single. “I still hate Soul Asylum!” Hood shouts. “I heard their ‘Runaway Train’ song[a 1993 hit] on the radio and went nuts. I’d see that fucker with his torn jeans, and I was ready to kill him.”
For a number of years, Hood was in stasis, writing hundreds of songs that were never performed, working as a soundman in Athens,Georgia, and starting over. In 1996, the Truckers began in earnest and have since gone through a couple of lineup shifts (the currentincarnation features Jason Isbell on third guitar, longtime pal Earl Hicks on bass, and Brad Morgan on drums). They released two studioalbums (1998’s Gangstabilly and 1999’s Pizza Deliverance) and a live record (2000’s Alabama Ass Whuppin’) and toured 200 dates in a year.Southern Rock Opera, originally released in late 2001, was funded with $20,000 put up by a dozen investors–friends and supportershappy to offer what Hood calls “a little bit of a fuck-you to the music business.” Last summer, after the album had received too muchacclaim to ignore, Universal’s country label, Lost Highway, reissued it, which guaranteed real distribution but made the band uneasy:”You have to negotiate through the Universal people,” says Hood, “and that’s the goddamn evil empire.”
Southern Rock Opera funnels the band’s history into an opus as belligerent as it is self-aware. It’s all there, from a song aboutthe friendship between Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young to a somber ode to Birmingham hard times to a recounting of Hood’s arena-rockyouth. “No winking involved,” says Chicago country-rocker Kelly Hogan, who makes a cameo playing Skynyrd vocalist Cassie Gaines. TheTruckers are rock maniacs who called one of their tours “Get Them Pants Off” and slam whiskey onstage, but as Hood walks through thenewly restored Muscle Shoals Sound Studios the afternoon of the acoustic show, he becomes a Southern historian, extolling the virtuesof soul man Bobby Womack and pointing out the spot in the corner where his dad used to work his bass.
Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section guitarist Jimmy Johnson produced Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first sessions here, an experience that moved theband to write “Sweet Home Alabama,” and Hood’s dad knew the Skynyrd guys pretty well. Which raises the question: Is Opera myth ortruth? “It’s not exactly accurate or anything,” Hood says. “If you can capture the spirit of the truth, you’re probably doing enough.”Still, when the Truckers were invited to open for a Skynyrd tour this summer, Hood was a little nervous about meeting legendarily gruffguitarist Gary Rossington: “If he reaches out his left hand to shake my hand, I know not to take it, because he’ll deck me with the right.”
Performing 30-minute sets deep in the heart of Skynyrd country, the Truckers earned standing ovations from the “Freebird” faithful.”The Southern Thing” was a peak moment. “They yelled as much for the line about Martin Luther King as they did for the one aboutRobert E. Lee,” Hood is careful to note. Rossington even came backstage and made the band’s year. “He said, ‘The album’s a littleweird, but I enjoyed the show,'” Hood recalls.”I appreciated his honesty. I guess the album is a little weird.”