Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Super Furry Animals’ Rings Around the World. The Coup’s Party Music. All those albums were recorded (and in some cases, released) before Sept. 11, 2001, but felt, sounded or looked like “9/11 records” after the fact.
So it also is, in a way, with American Band, Drive-By Truckers’ 11th album. Its songs were mostly written in 2014 and 2015. It was recorded mostly in the first half of 2016. And it came out on Sept. 30 of that same year. By then — but especially by Nov. 9 — Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s story-songs and meditations about race, gun violence, the border and even the aftermath of 9/11 made American Band feel like a “Trump’s America record.” The band thought it was making music about a time in this country that was troubled and disheartening, but it also felt like there was progress and awareness. And then all of a sudden...
“All of a sudden, there wasn’t,” Hood says. “Yeah. I really was hoping that our record would be dated and passe by now. And I’ve never said that about a record before. I’ve always really wanted our records to hold up over time, and this one, hopefully, the songs are good enough to where it would anyway. But the topic of it, unfortunately, has become much more timely than when we made it.”
That thing where people said that music might be better under President Trump was both total bullshit and, even if it wasn’t, not worth the price for a second. But just playing music, and going to see music, still feels like a small act of, if not outright resistance, at least community and grace. One of Hood’s epiphanies came in early 2016 at a Patti Smith show in Portland, Oregon, where Patterson, the Alabama native and longtime Athens, Georgia, resident, now lives. He knew that songs like “What It Means” (his reaction to police shootings and Black Lives Matter) and “Guns of Umqua” (about a school shooting in his new home state) were asking the right questions, but didn’t feel like he had any answers. Smith gave him one with a simple onstage proclamation — “Love each other, motherfuckers!” — that is now part of his own stage patter.
“I’m really, for my New Year’s resolution, trying to be more positive and just push from a better frame of mind,” Hood says. “That’s a work in progress. The year’s young.”
Of course, the moment that we’re in does not exactly call for oblique gestures. A Black Lives Matter sign was already on the Truckers’ stage in early 2016; after the election, “DBTs” came to stand (if somewhat imprecisely) for “Dance Band of The Resistance.” Back on the road in 2017, the band took to covering the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away.” And on the Drive-By Truckers’ latest release, a 7-inch single benefiting the Southern Poverty Law Center, Hood’s “The Perilous Night” dispenses with metaphor entirely, a blunt instrument for brutal times.
“Dumb, white and angry with their cup half-filled / Running over people down in Charlottesville,” Hood sings, before referencing the “Sputnik Moon,” “the Fourth Reich in khakis” and “Ronnie Reagan … spinning his grave.” In keeping with rock ’n’ roll tradition (and Hood’s own pedigree as the son of Muscle Shoals bass legend David Hood), the song is also a riffy, uplifting, gospel-tinged anthem. Not for nothing does the chorus end with an “amen.”
“I’m happy with how that turned out,” Hood says. “I’d also be really happy to let that be it, too.” Meaning, the next record won’t necessarily be polemic. “But I don’t get to choose what the next song is. At least, not if it’s going to be worth a shit. Generally, they choose me, and I just try to be receptive to it.”
The band’s longtime exploration of, as Hood once dubbed it, “the duality of the Southern thing,” has previously put them in a bit of a Springsteen-like position: Just as some Reagan voters (and possibly Reagan himself) managed to believe that “Born in the USA” was an uncritically patriotic song, some Truckers fans apparently managed to ignore the social and political commentary embedded in the likes of 2001’s Southern Rock Opera or 2014’s English Oceans. But these days, things are more intense. A visit to one of the band’s YouTube videos or its official Facebook page is, well, like being on the internet in 2017.
“Perfect song for the one year anniversary of the worst day since 9/11,” raved one commenter about “The Perilous Night,” which came out on Nov. 7.
“Man I used to love this band, but dang the political crap has just ruined it,” was one Facebook comment under Cooley’s endorsement video for U.S. Sen. from Alabama Doug Jones.
Hood is still wrestling with what to make of such reactions. “I have a lot of emotions about it,” he said. “Because on one hand, there’s the part of me that’s like: Anyone who tells me what to do, fuck you. That’s part of my constitution from growing up as a punk rocker. But I’m also a more inclusive than exclusive type person. I always loved the Willie Nelson model. Willie Nelson, he speaks his mind. He always has! And you go to a Willie Nelson show, and you’ll see people with their great-grandchildren, all together, dancing, singing along to Willie Nelson songs. And I think the conservatives, they go, ‘Oh, that Willie, he smokes too much dope!,’ and the liberals love him. Everybody loves Willie. So I guess there’s a part of me that thought that maybe we would have a little of that, and it hasn’t really been the case.
“That said, this record was extremely well received,” Hood continues. “It’s been our most successful record, and it’s been an extremely great tour. There’s certainly a few places where we’ve seen or felt a little backlash, but not that much. So we’re going to do what we want to do. At the end of the day, we have to please us. I always prefer it when it pleases other people, too.”
Drive-By Truckers and Lilly Hiatt play the Wilma Wed., Jan. 31, at 8 PM. $27 advance at logjampresents.com.