Drive-By Truckers as politically and musically strong as ever
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
Homecoming weekend in Athens, Ga., last October gave 92,000 Georgia Bulldogs fans a chance to celebrate their eventual national champion runner-up football team. And in mid-February, 1,800 equally devoted fans gathered at Athens’ 40 Watt Club over three nights to celebrate HeAthens Homecoming.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport
Tickets: sold out
The event is a celebration of Drive-By Truckers, the brashest, boldest, most political band to emerge from an Athens scene that also produced R.E.M. and the B-52’s, among a dozen other household names. The Truckers play these marathon shows annually not for commerce (proceeds go to Nuci’s Space, a local music therapy nonprofit) but as a reward to their early supporters in Athens and nearby Atlanta. Other devotees travel much farther —about 20 states and eight countries were represented, by my count.
Patterson Hood, who launched Truckers forerunner Adam’s House Cat in 1985 with his Muscle Shoals, Ala., running mate and fellow Truckers singer-songwriter-guitarist Mike Cooley, rejects attempts to categorize the quintet as Southern rock. He hopes a geographical change – he moved his family to Portland, Ore., in 2015 – will help remove the stars and bars from the band’s persona.
“It’s very restrictive and makes people picture Molly Hatchet concerts with rebel flags,” he said recently by phone from Portland. “Nothing can be much further from the truth. We did one record about that. The ‘Southern Rock Opera’ record is 17 years old and I’m proud of it, but it’s one thing we did. We made the record about growing up in the South in that era. I wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed in any genre. Rock ‘n’ roll is pretty all-inclusive. All the different subgenres get folded into it, and that’s what I like about it.”
When the band broke nationwide, Chicago became a DBT stronghold. This weekend’s gigs (Friday and Saturday nights) at Thalia Hall will be the Truckers’ 39th and 40th in Chicago, starting with Fireside Bowl in April 2000 and winding through venues such as Schubas, the Hideout, the Abbey Pub and the Vic. In addition, Hood has played 10 solo gigs here, while Cooley has done five.
“We’ve always done well in Chicago,” Hood said. “Maybe there’s a lot of displaced Southerners who moved up there. We were having good crowds in Chicago when Richmond [Va.] and Atlanta were the only Southern cities where we were doing that well.”
Perhaps Chicago appreciates the band’s take-no-prisoners approach onstage, Hood suggested. “Chicago is a hardworking town, and not an easy place to live. The winters are brutally cold and the summers are f—— hot. One time we played at something called the Sheffield Garden Walk when it was about 105 [degrees] up there and a Lollapalooza when it was record-breaking hot. The city has a great music heritage.”
Hood cited the Truckers’ kinship with Chicago blues, “probably not structurally in the cliched 12-bar style, but the ideology of it. The taking your troubles that are bringing you down and turning it into something you dance to and gets you through the week. In that respect, we’re very much a blues band.”
Hood’s musical pedigree is impressive. His father, famed Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, played on the Staple Singers’ “Respect Yourself,” Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll” and a couple of hundred other iconic rock and soul hits. Still, Patterson charted a different musical course.
“He was from the session world, which is a very different world from how I make my living,” he said. “I never wanted to follow in his footsteps, per se, because I would go crazy doing that. I always wanted to play live with a band.”
One of Hood’s bandmates was Jason Isbell, who played with the Truckers from 2001-07 before falling victim to his addictions. Isbell moved on to alt-country superstardom, and Hood anticipates no future collaborations, except perhaps for one-off charity events.
“I don’t think anybody on earth can be more proud of Jason and what he’s done than I am, and I think he’s proud of what we’re doing, too,” Hood said. “The first time I laid eyes on him, I knew he had it, and he would do great things if he didn’t f— it up along the way. And he damn near did.”
The Truckers’ last album, 2016’s “American Band,” was considered the group’s most overtly political statement. In the can before Donald Trump won his first primary, “We thought it would be timely for about three months and then the election would happen,” Hood said.
“Then all of a sudden that record took on a second and third life. I can’t say I’m happy about it. It was good for the band, but it wasn’t good for my family and it wasn’t good for our country.”
Jeff Johnson is a Chicago-based freelance writer.