by Mark McDermott
The long road began close to home.
They weren’t the Drive-By Truckers yet, but Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley had already firmly established their enduring musical union. They called themselves Adam’s House Cat, and the only place they could gig in their hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, was something a few rungs lower than a dive bar. Club XIII had penny beers, disco balls, and coke dealers in the bathroom.
“There were no cool bars in town and Club XIII was the best we had — but it wasn’t all that good, and our band wasn’t particularly liked there,” recalled Hood. “From time to time the owner would throw us a Wednesday night or let us open for a hair-metal band we were a terrible fit for, and everyone would hang out outside until we were done playing. It wasn’t very funny at the time, but it’s funny to us now.”
Nobody hangs outside when the Drive-By Truckers play now. For almost a quarter century, the band has built a reputation as one of the most electrifying live acts in the land, an unlikely mix of fervently hard rock, straw-in-your-mouth country, gutsy soul, G.G. Allin punk, Molly Hatchet-heavy metal and almost stately gothic Southern poetry. “The Drive-By Truckers are the only real rock band left in America,” the Washington City Paper once declared, and though it might have been a slight overstatement, seeing this band live tends to make such believers.
They come from a hard place and their body of work reflects it – a land rife with cancer and crashes, corrupt good ol’ boy politicians and backwoods buried judges, lots of crooked love and too much misbegotten hate – yet the generosity of their vision and the sheer grit and earthy humanity of the characters who swagger and fall through Drive-By Truckers songs represents as true an epic as is being written in the U.S.A. today. The album that first put them on the map as a force to be reckoned with, 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, essentially foretold what they’d be doing for the next twenty or thirty years – creating a sprawling collection of ambitious, political, loud, tragic, funny, angry, and honestly reported songs. The Truckers are operatic in scope, and they’ve created an opus, to be sure.
And they are indeed political. DBT released a trio of records during the Trump years that were overtly so, but the whole canvas of their work is inherently political insofar as it probes the often desperate circumstances of workaday America.
“We're a broken people and our politics definitely reflect it,” said Hood. “And I don't know what to do. I mean, it's beyond my paygrade to fix it. I do the best I can to protect my family and to do my job and make people happy for 2 hours and 15 minutes a night at a rock show. That's the closest I've come to an answer for anything.”
Hood didn’t for one minute believe that the trilogy of records would effect change. His only hope, as always, was for some human connection.
“I've come to the conclusion that the best thing is that somewhere out there might have been some guy in some Southern hick town in Alabama or in Indiana or Oregon who who feels the way we do – maybe hearing those songs sung by somebody with my accent made them feel a little bit less alone out there.”
The DBTs just released a new record, Welcome 2 ClubXIII, that is less political and more personal, a reflection on where that road all began and all the miles underfoot. They’ve never lacked for a groove, but the band feels particularly locked in at the moment, and the songwriting is masterful. Particular standouts are Hood’s rusty elegy, “The Driver,” and Cooley’s absolute stunner, “Every Single Storied Flameout.”
“We're writing the best songs we've ever written, absolutely, right now,” Hood said. “And we're the best band we've ever been, by far. I can't even remember the last time we had what what we would call an off night. I mean, we're playing really consistently rock solid shows, and it's different every night. We don't do a setlist and we're literally pulling songs from the entire catalog, but also hitting the new album because we're proud of it.”
“I'm very, very proud of where we are right now as a band. You know, we've never had a hit. We were never the band that was the hot band at any given moment. But when I look at where whoever the hot band was in 1996, or 2001, or 2008, or 2015 are right now…I've seen a lot of the hot bands come and go. And we just keep going.”
The Drive-By Truckers play BeachLife Ranch September 18.