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Ghosts on the highway
A conversation with Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers
Truckin': Patterson Hood is the guy in the front, wearing glasses

In some ways, the Drive-By Truckers are like a mash-up of the Rolling Stones and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Crunching electric guitars, a powerful rhythm section, and songs about the South and southern living that read alternately like swamp-gothic poetry and screams of frustrated rebellion.

Since the beginning - Athens in the mid 1990s - Patterson Hood has been the band's point man, a lyricist of fine craft and literary vision who also knows the dramatic value of smoking hot rock ‘n' roll. He and fellow founder Mike Cooley, guitarists, singers and songwriters both, have seen the Truckers through myriad highs, lows and in-betweens, through 11 albums, near-brushes with superstardom, personal demons, in-fighting and the at-first-incalculable loss of dynamic lead player Jason Isbell in 2009.

The band's most recent albums, The Big To-Do and Go-Go Boots, focus more closely on the deeply-felt rock ‘n' soul side of the Truckers.

In anticipation of the band's Sept. 8 show at the Trustees, we got Mr. Hood on the phone.

Your former label has just put out a compilation called Ugly Buildings, Whores & Politicians: Greatest Hits 1998-2009. Were you involved with this at all?

Patterson Hood: A little bit. It wasn't my idea, or any of ours, by any means. But once we came to terms with the fact that it was gonna happen, with or without our involvement, then it became a matter of ‘What can we do to make this something we can be at least proud of?' They sent me a list of songs they envisioned would be on it, and I swapped a few out. I thought it'd be cooler if it ended with "A World of Hurt," because it was starting with "The Living Bubba." I like for the first and the last song on a record to inter-connect in a certain way.

There's such a discrepancy in the sonic sound between our early and later material. The first album was recorded in my living room. Southern Rock Opera was recorded in a warehouse. From Decoration Day on, they're all a little closer, because they were all recorded in a studio, with a producer. So the early stuff kinda had to come first, or else there was gonna be a huge drop-off. It would sonically sound kind of shitty.

It's what it is. One thing about it: We've got 11 albums, and to someone just hearing our band for the first time, where the hell do they start? Personally, I feel that the new records are probably a good place to start, but if they want kind of an overview of where we've been, then hey, I guess that's the reason for having an album like that.

You've had this band, through various ups and downs, for 15 years. Do you think of yourself as a survivor?

Patterson Hood: Absolutely, definitely, I mean I survived 27, Jesus. And 35, for that matter. I decided this year that I was gonna write a book about what I went through when I was 27 through 29, which was a really, really dark period in my life. I ended up not liking what I was writing so I aborted it. It was where it bumped into some other people that I was having the trouble. I wasn't willing to take the chance of inflicting the pain towards some people that were pretty major players in that story. I just couldn't go there. To be a writer of books, you have to be a son of a bitch to some extent, and Lord knows I've inflicted enough through my songs, through the years, on enough people.

So how have you changed over all these years?

Patterson Hood: I'm older, and I hope I'm smarter. My life sure is better. I've had periods where my personal life was some in some kind of turmoil, or else some non-existent thing. Because generally, my way of dealing with it when my personal life sucked was just not to have one. Just be on the road 300 days a year instead of 200 days a year. That's not the case any more - now I actually look forward to coming home at the end of a tour.

My kids are the pride and joy of my life. I'm very happily married, and I love my house. So it's all pretty good. And considering how shitty it was at some points in time, I look at it as something to draw upon, to give other people hope that you can make your life better if you apply the right things to it.

You've made a series of video vignettes to go with Go-Go Boots, and lots of fascinating other videos. Of course, there's a very cinematic thread to your writing.

Patterson Hood: I'm definitely an obsessive movie nut, and that's probably a big part of what's wrong with our band! I'm a frustrated film director. So instead of thinking in terms of making an album, I think in terms of making this movie that just doesn't have a movie. If you listen to our albums knowing that, some of the things that some people find frustrating about our records probably make more sense. I don't know if that makes them better or not, but that's probably where I'm coming from. That's why the albums tend to run a little bit long, and why the story arc's a certain way, and why they end a certain way. I tend to end a record the way you would end a movie. "Monument Valley," at the end of Brighter Than Creation's Dark, definitely sets a picture to me of the ending of a movie like The Searchers. I tend to think in those terms. And Cooley's always been supportive of that.

Recently, you've made albums backing first Bettye LaVette, and then Booker T. Jones. How did those projects affect the way the Truckers do things?

Patterson Hood: We learned a lot as a band from those two projects. That really informed the making of the next records after it. The Bettye Lavette album happened just as Jason was leaving the band, and we were in such a period of flux and transition. Rather than dwelling on what was going on with the band, we got to kind of throw ourselves into this other project. That was really therapeutic.

The Booker project taught us a whole other thing. It occurred at a little less traumatic juncture of the band's history. We only had four days with Booker. What he intuitively figured out about us, in a really short period of time - and then taught it to us - is that we are a lyric-driven band. We're driven by the imagery of our songs.

And all of a sudden we were making this instrumental record. We'd done a couple of songs, they'd gone well, and we were working on this third song, playing it correctly but not right. If that makes sense. We kept trying it again, he's not liking it - "I know I'm playing what he told me to play. What am I doing wrong?"

At that moment in time when a lesser artist would've started screaming and yelling, and maybe fired us, Booker just stopped everything and called us in a corner.

He pained a picture; he told us a story. He described a Thanksgiving dinner, a family-reunion type dinner. He described the tablecloth it was laid out on, the way it smelled, what his aunt was wearing in the kitchen, cookin' it up. Young nephews and nieces playing all around. He just described the scene to us.

The name of the song was "Reunion Time." He described the scene vividly to us, and then he said "Now play it." And we nailed it in one take.

The fourth day of making that record, we cut six of those songs. In his head, all of those instrumental songs were about something. They all told a story, just without words.

It totally defined The Big To-Do. We were really into painting these pictures. We wanted the songs to stand up, even without the lyrics. Even though there were lyrics. And Go-Go Boots was kind of a natural extension from that. And in some ways, it may be my favorite record we've ever made.

Drive-By Truckers

Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.

When: At 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8

Tickets: $25

Phone: (912) 525-5050


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