PATTERSON HOOD has been leading the Drive-By Truckers — a country-rock band with a hip-hop attitude — for more than two decades. Along the way, the Alabama native has become, in song and in prose, one of the sharpest observers of Southern culture and society since C. Vann Woodward, W. J. Cash, and the Southern novelists he read as a kid.
The Truckers’ latest album, 2016’s American Band, was widely hailed as one of the year’s best and as the group’s most directly political: its songs took on the killing of Trayvon Martin, the worship of the Confederate flag, the nation’s madness for handguns, and the role of the band’s native region in the whole mess. Hood, like fellow Trucker Mike Cooley, grew up near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and his father, David Hood, is the longtime bassist for the R&B studio’s famous rhythm section.
For many years based in Athens, Georgia, Hood moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2015. The Drive-By Truckers have just launched a US tour that brings them to Los Angeles’s El Rey Theatre on February 9.
SCOTT TIMBERG: Let me start at the obvious place. In your writing, you often look at the South, at the complexity of the region’s history. And there’s a whole bunch of writers who’ve done this before: Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor. I’m just wondering what, if anything, these people have meant for you?
PATTERSON HOOD: I probably first became aware of that type of thing, as a genre of literature, when I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in high school. That was the first book I was forced to read at school that I actually loved and connected with. I fell in love with it, and the character of Atticus Finch reminded me of a very beloved relative of mine, who was kind of like a second father to me — so I really connected hard with that. And then later, in high school or in college, I read Faulkner a bit … I was too young to really get it. But it was a short story, “Barn Burning,” that I first read, and that was a good entry point, because I totally dug it, and got it, although I don’t think I would have been ready to read As I Lay Dying or anything. I love reading. I’m a fanatical reader.
And that goes back to childhood for you?
Maybe off and on. I remember times in childhood when I read a lot. I loved Old Yeller as a child — I really loved that book. And like everyone, I read Charlotte’s Web, although I don't think I liked it as a kid. I read it to my son, actually, a couple of years ago, and fell in love with it. But I don’t think as a kid I was able to get past the fact that it was romanticizing a fucking spider. I have arachnophobia, so it was a bit of a leap on that one. So yeah, I went through periods of reading and not reading, I guess because it reminded me too much of school, and I hated school and everything about school at that time. I had to get past rebelling against it in order to enjoy it.
Yeah, I think a lot of us, especially boys, go through that phase, even if they become serious readers later. So when you were reading Harper Lee and the Faulkner story, and maybe some other stuff, what did you respond to, what made you want to go back to it, besides the fact that it was about the part of the country you live in? Did you feel it helped you make sense of the South?
Yeah, I probably just responded to the dialect, because that’s the way my people talked. And I responded to some of the manners — you know, the manners that everybody had, even the villains, who were these kind of ignorant, white trash, really terrible people in To Kill a Mockingbird. They still had a certain amount of decorum about them. When they weren’t spitting in Atticus’s face, there was still a certain amount of “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” involved. And that was beat into me as a kid, you know.
So even though terrible things were happening, in a way, you felt like you were home?
Sure, sure. And I had a similar thing with R.E.M., early R.E.M., I fell in love with them really early. About two weeks before Murmur came out, I got turned on to Chronic Town, and in the press in those days, people talked about, “Oh, you can’t understand the lyrics, you can’t decipher what he’s saying.” But these things tended to be colloquialisms, which I could decipher. There’s a song by a side project called The Golden Palominos, and I remember reading a review by someone who couldn’t decipher what Stipe kept saying, like the hook. And it’s “fixin’ to go” — that’s all he’s saying is “fixin’ to go,” he’s fixin’ to go!
Of course, there’s more to being Southern than just a manner of speech. When did you get a sense that a key element of Southern literature was the question of race? How did Southern literature change the way you understood black people or the racial rift in the region?
Yeah, I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t aware of race, and the South’s role in that story. I don’t think there was ever a point in my life that I wasn’t, at some level, aware of it, because of what my dad did. He made his living playing on Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett records, when they literally weren’t allowed to go out to dinner with him, and so he brought that home, you know — the anger over that came home with him. And we’d see George Wallace on the television screen and my dad would just start frothing at the mouth. But we have family members who I’m sure voted for Wallace, and whom I love dearly.
So there was always that disconnect. I was also aware of the generation gap, of the ’60s, the cultural revolution that was playing out in my family too. My parents came of age in the ’60s, and my dad smoked pot, and rode a motorcycle, and had a beard and long hair, and my mom wore go-go boots and hot pants … And I spent an enormous amount of time with my grandparents and my great-uncle, who were from the Depression generation. And so I kind of viewed the counter-culture, the culture clash, from a front-row seat as I was growing up, and I think that’s probably part of my attraction to dualities in my writing and the stuff I do.
It sounds like you didn’t need Harper Lee to show you that race was an obsession in the South — you were seeing and living that every day.
Absolutely. And it’s funny, because I haven’t read the other book of hers that came out. I own it, and I plan to — it’s really just a matter of time … I’m aware of its flaws, but I do want to read it, because I’m interested in that. I’ve actually written a piece, a song that kind of deals with that, because when a New York Times critic actually reviewed the book, it was the week after I moved to Portland. I read that piece in The New York Times, and I literally broke down and cried. I got so upset at Atticus Finch. I got really, really mad for a couple of days.
And then I had this epiphany that it’s absolutely right, that it was important. I believe that she was of sound mind in deciding to put that out, because I think it was important — not to disillusion everybody of their hero, or to make everybody that named their kid Atticus wince — but because that’s how it was. That is the truth.
We’re talking about the fact that Atticus, who’d been this hero of racial justice, became sort of a segregationist, a racist …
It made me mad and upset, but once I got past that, it totally rang true to me.
In the ’30s he was defending this man who was wrongly accused. It offended him on a human level that Tom Robinson was accused of a rape he obviously didn’t commit, but that don’t mean Calpurnia could sit at the table with Atticus at dinnertime. That’s a different line. When African Americans were demanding equality, that crossed a different line, and all of a sudden Harper Lee saw her father, her beloved father figure — who to her represented the side of right and justice — all of a sudden she saw him as a hypocrite. And she wrote this thing first, in anger, and then she went back and wrote, from the view of her childhood, the book that everyone knows and loves.
That rang so true to me, and I wrote a song that, at this point, has never been recorded. I’m still hoping to do something with it. It’s called “At a Safe Distance.” When you look a little closer, not at a safe distance, you tend to see things that aren’t so pleasant — you see the cracks. It really rang true to me; I wish it didn’t.
I guess you could say this about all literature, but it seems that, more than any other, Southern literature is based on history. I wonder if you ever went back and read any Southern history, journalism about the South, about the Civil Rights movement, or any of that? You’re kind of born into the middle of the Civil Rights era — ’64, right?
1964, yeah. I was born either at the last moment of the Baby Boom, or at the first moment of Generation X. I’m right on the cusp, as was my mother, who was born the day before the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, which is the official start of the Baby Boom. Her birthday’s August 5, so with the time change, she was probably born about the exact moment that the Baby Boom started.
So yeah, all of that fascinates me. I’m obsessed with the Robert Caro books on Lyndon B. Johnson, which goes back to the duality thing, because he was the ultimate dual president. I mean, he was the best and the worst, and sometimes at the exact same moment. Sometimes he would say the worst thing possible when doing something amazing, and vice versa. He could be surprisingly eloquent as he’s just fucking you. He’s a never-ending source of fascination to me, and the fact that such a gifted writer has literally spent 50 years of his life chronicling this guy — I get off on that too. I’ve read all four books that have appeared so far, and I’m eagerly awaiting the fifth and final one.
Was Johnson a sort of Texas racist who grew up and saw racial reality? Or was he an opportunist?
He was all of the above. Caro’s take on it, I think, is that he is all those things, and more, at the exact same time.
When people say, “Oh, he didn’t really mean that — he just did the Civil Rights thing because he knew it would be good for his historical legacy.” Well, sure, he knew it would be good for his legacy, but he very well knew that it meant the South wouldn’t vote Democrat again for 50 years, which it hasn’t. It was the beginning of the great migration of Southern Democrats to the GOP. And when he did those things, he purposefully fucked over people who had helped him his entire career.
And yet, he was absolutely a Jim Crow guy for most of his career. And all of those things coexisted within him at the same time, and I think all along. He did have some awakenings at a young age, he did know extreme poverty, and he taught at a school that was pretty much all Latino students. And I think he was very moved by their plight, and he took that with him forever. And yet he was willing to put that in a box and not deal with it for many, many years, building a career as the LBJ that the Kennedys hated so much.
Your dad’s music, and the music you play with the Truckers, it’s all grounded in the blues and R&B. And the Truckers were founded, in some ways, as an homage to hip-hop …
Sure, sure. Though none of us would have tried to rap. But we were immersed in it. I really responded to how hip-hop seemed to be telling you the news — what was going on right now. Modern-day country was more about retro things. I wanted to sing about what was happening now, but in a country style.
Did any of this lead you into African-American literature, especially essays, from the South or elsewhere?
I got into it really late, really recently. Through reading Ta-Nehisi Coates I tried to learn more about James Baldwin, and then I Am Not Your Negro came out last year, which was so amazing. There are so many books; I’ve only scratched the surface. I can spend the rest of my life reading every day, and not even read a fraction of the things I’m really interested in.
Anything you’ve gone back to and loved the second time?
I love Mark Twain. I made it a point to reread Huckleberry Finn at a much older age, after loving it as a kid. Reading it in my 40s was great. What a remarkable piece of work. I do like reading the classics. I was turned on to Hemingway really late. I responded to the style — it’s like the opposite of Faulkner, whom I also love. Instead of long sentences, reall short, concise ones. I respond to both forms. Hemingway’s stories are so devastating; there’s no way to improve them. I loved A Farewell to Arms. I stumbled upon it accidentally. I was at my in-laws’ house and may’ve been sick, was cooped up, it was a rainy day. They had the book; I picked it up, read the first chapter, and couldn’t put it down. I read the whole thing in like a day and a half.
Your old bandmate, Jason Isbell, is reputed to be a very literary cat. Did you guys turn each other on to books and writers when you were in the Truckers together?
We probably have more since we quit playing together. When we were playing together, we were in the eye of the storm. That was a crazy time. He turned me onto Peter Matthiessen, a trilogy of books that he rewrote as one book, Shadow Country, set in Florida in the Everglades, post–Civil War, when they were first settling that part of the country. It was kind of the last frontier. All of these outlaws that had been put out of business in the West being ended up down there. It was riveting — and one of Jason’s favorite books. He’s very well read, and a great writer in his own right.
Your last record, American Band, was your most explicitly topical. You wrote about racial violence and social tensions that were exploding around you. Did your reading of essayists, novelists, or anything else help shape that album?
I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me when I was in the midst of writing that record. I had already written “What It Means,” and I was going through a period of questioning: Did I have a right to write such a thing? Reading his book, I kept asking, “What can I do?” Maybe this is a small part of what I can do. Maybe there does need to be a goofy white dude, in a rock ’n’ roll band, with the following that it has, that can say Black Lives Matter. Maybe that is important. I didn’t write that song from the perspective of a black man being shot by police — I wrote it from the perspective of a goofy white dude, like me. Seeing this happening around me and saying, “This is wrong. Why are we at this place in 2017? Why is this still a thing?” And unfortunately, the song doesn’t have answers, it’s just questions. But at least questioning is a start, a beginning.
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.