With last year’s masterful Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, Drive-By Truckers resumed a run of great albums many fans felt had been broken with 2006’s A Blessing And A Curse, the band’s final record with singer-songwriter-guitarist Jason Isbell. While A Blessing was marred by the band’s infighting and stress over financial problems, Brighter found Drive-By Truckers in a much better place personally and creatively, and it went on to be one of their best-selling and most critically acclaimed efforts. In 2009, Drive-By Truckers plan to stay busy on the road and in the studio, working on a new record (or two) planned for next year. They’ll also be heard (along with Neil Young) backing up Booker T. on the soul legend’s forthcoming solo record, Potato Hole. The A.V. Club recently talked to Patterson Hood, DBT’s chief singer-songwriter, about the band’s new material, our new president, and the duality of Lyndon Johnson.
The A.V. Club: Drive-By Truckers were just in the studio recording songs for a new album, right?
Patterson Hood: Yeah, we cut 14 songs, so we’re off to a really good start on the next record. But now I’m home. My little girl is turning 4 on Saturday, and I’m hoping to get her over her fever by then. I’m home and in full parent mode.
AVC: Since you already have 14 songs, do you expect this one to be as sprawling as Brighter Than Creation’s Dark?
PH: No. We’re going to try to keep that from happening. One idea we floated would be to divide them into two records. It’s kind of already divided itself, taking on two different vibes. If it all were together, it would be pretty schizophrenic. I think the majority of what we recorded will be earmarked for whatever the next record is, but there’s definitely some pretty good stuff left over for the other one.
AVC: How would you describe the new record?
PH: It’s going to be a big, fun rock record. We’re all pretty committed to the next one being pretty rock. The last record certainly had its big rock moments, but at the same time, a lot of it was pretty introspective and had a spooky mood. I thrive on that, but I’d like to see this one come out of the gate pretty much as a barnstormer. I think it’s time for us to make one of those kind of records.
AVC: You’ve struggled in the past with writer’s block, but that doesn’t to be a problem lately.
PH: I’m in a better place, I think. But the biggest problem I have is actually having the time and the space to write. Writing on the bus is really, really hard, because there are 11 of us that live on the bus 24/7. Finding a place where I can be alone is really hard, and it’s hard with someone else in the room. And then I come home, and I’ve been gone for a week, and I’ve got a family that needs me. It’s a balancing act, and I think that’s where my writer’s block probably came from, making that adjustment to having a family now. I don’t think my mind’s settled into my new roles enough to write from that point of view yet, and yet I couldn’t write from the old point of view, because having a kid does change you. And I embrace that. I wrote songs for 30 damn years from a pre-kid point of view. Once I started Brighter Than Creation’s Dark, it was kind of like a dam breaking. I had a lot of songs to pick from.
AVC: You guys sounded like you had something to prove on Brighter, particularly because of the departure of Jason Isbell. Was there an element of “Let’s show ’em what we got!” on that record?
PH: I wish I could say no, but I can’t. That was something that had to be a factor. Jason is such a phenomenal talent, and the last thing any of us wanted was there to be this huge drop-off in the quality of our records. So I have to own up to that, though I wish I could say otherwise. But I guess that’s human nature. The last thing I want to be is an oldies act that never had a hit. [Laughs.]
AVC: The main criticism of Brighter was that it was too long, while some people griped that A Blessing And A Curse was too short. Is there a happy medium with a Drive-By Truckers record?
PH: Oh God. We’re such a horrible happy-medium band. I would love for the records to clock in somewhere in the middle. Thematically, I love the 43-minute record. But with three writers, and the way our process runs, I don’t think the short record is necessarily in our cards. The last record, I went in with 50 songs ready to record. And Cooley, who’s just a two-songs-a-year guy, came in with nine. Shonna had two that were ready, and a third she wrote while we were there. It was also our last record with that record company, so anything we didn’t use was probably going to be lost. So whatever can fit on a disc—because we were contractually obligated to deliver it as a single record—we gotta make it fit. Two years later, I have no regrets about that record. It’s the only record in our catalog that I can listen to and say that about. Most of them, something is going to make me cringe. A Blessing And A Curse, it’s a short record, but there’s at least two, maybe three things I wish we’d left off. That one hasn’t aged as well with me. And the ones before that, there’s usually some issue with the way I sing. I’m thinking, “God, my voice sounds like shit.” That’s been a work in progress. I feel like I made some strides on the last record with my singing.
AVC: This is such an interesting time in the country right now, with incredible economic hardship and yet a strong sense of optimism. Has that informed your songwriting?
PH: I think it’s reflecting it a lot. It’s weird, because I never really even thought about it until after the fact, but so many of our records are set in almost a specific time period that’s not necessarily today. Rock Opera is essentially set in the ’70s, and The Dirty South is essentially set in the ’80s. I like the idea of making a little more of a contemporary record. It’s a very interesting time to write about. If I had written about “right now” two years ago, it would just been all “goddamn Bush this” and “goddamn Bush that.” It is a strange time, because things are really, really rough, but there is that optimism.
AVC: You attended the inauguration ceremony in Washington D.C. What was that like?
PH: Cold. It was cold, crowded, and kind of profoundly beautiful. I couldn’t see shit. We had these really close, great seats, but you couldn’t see anything. We were pretty much behind the grandstand—we could see the back of the grandstand where the VIPs were sitting. There was a screen right in front of us, but a tree between us and the screen. So you couldn’t really see anything. And it was 18 degrees with a hard wind, and a chill factor of God-knows-what, and you’re standing there for several hours. At the same time, you could turn around at certain points and hear a pin drop, and there’s over 2 million people standing there. We can’t play a slow song live without somebody in the club yip-yapping and ruining the mood. Having that many people in one place being that quiet was incredible. Not to sound too hippie-dippie about it, but there was a beautiful, communal vibe to the whole thing.
AVC: Why did you go instead of just watching it on TV?
PH: I just felt that I had to be there. I’m about to be 45, and I’ve voted in every election since I was old enough to vote, and I never voted for a first choice before. Certainly not in a November election. The guy I like in the primaries is always weeded out by the second state. By November, I’m basically voting for the Democrat that sold out enough to make it through the process. But I liked Obama from day one. When he first announced, he was my first choice. I kind of made a vow: If he wins, I’m gonna go. So I went. I won’t ever do it again, unless my daughter wins president or something some day. But I wouldn’t take the world for having done it this time.
AVC: Drive-By Truckers back up Booker T. on his forthcoming solo record. What was that like?
PH: Booker is a seriously underrated guitar player. He might be a legendary keyboard player, but he’s a badass guitar player. That was truly one of the greatest experiences of my whole life, making that record. We cut the whole thing in four days, just live in the studio, other than the Neil Young part, which came on separate. It was truly a joyful four days that we spent. It could not have been more fun.
AVC: It sounds like Booker T. wanted to make a record that’s more Drive-By Truckers than The MGs.
PH: It was kind of funny, because we were surprised by how big a part they wanted guitars to play in it. We came in expecting it to be more toned-down, but in addition to all of our guitar-playing, Booker ended up playing guitar on two songs. And then there’s Neil Young. So it’s very much a guitar-rock record, but it’s also a Booker T. record. It sounds like a classic Booker T. record, but it also sounds like the Drive-By Truckers.
AVC: You told a story once about how Bettye LaVette said she didn’t want any “motherfucking guitars” on the record she made with you guys, The Scene Of The Crime. But it sounds like Booker T. wanted plenty of motherfucking guitars.
PH: [Laughs.] The two experiences couldn’t have been more different. I couldn’t be happier with the finished album we made with Bettye. I think she’s an amazing artist, and I’m particularly thrilled with some of the things that have been happening with her lately, with her singing for Obama right before the inauguration. And her performance at the Kennedy Center Honors for The Who, it’s stunning, she stole the show. So I’m really proud of Bettye, but… [Laughs.] It wasn’t a fun experience in the studio. It was extremely hard, and there was a lot of yelling and cussing.
AVC: What’s the status of your long-delayed solo record Murdering Oscar? Will that be coming out any time soon?
PH: It’s looking like it’s coming out in June. I hate to jinx it, but it looks like everyone is moving forward. I was on the phone this morning booking studio time to master it, and working on getting the artwork together in time. So I think we’re finally putting some closure to that story. The majority of it was recorded two weeks before my daughter was born, and her fourth birthday is Saturday.
AVC: What’s been the hold-up?
PH: You know, music-industry bullshit. Without wanting to go deep into it and dredging up hard feelings, because I’m really trying to move forward and put all that behind me, but it was. The label wasn’t very enthusiastic about the project, and it just went from there. The worse our relationship became, the less enthusiastic they were about it, and the less enthusiastic I was about working with them on it. It’s a band record, but not like the Drive-By Truckers, though they’re all on it at various points. It’s a bit of a power-pop record. I think it might show more of a Big Star influence than maybe Trucker records do. My dad plays on some of it, which was a great experience working with him finally, after him being my dad for 45 years.
AVC: You’ve also talked about making a concept record about Lyndon and Ladybird Johnson with Will Johnson of Centro-matic. What’s the status of that?
PH: We’re not working on it yet. We’re talking about it. At some point, when we both have time, we’re going to hole up in a cabin for about two weeks and we’re going to write that thing. In the meantime, we’re both reading book after book about it. I’ve been wading through the Robert Caro books that cover LBJ’s whole life, just thousands of pages. I’m about halfway through that now. And I’ve watched every documentary I can get my hands on. That’s a long-term dream project. The problem is going to be time. We’re not in a hurry. Somewhere down the line we’ll have time, I hope.
AVC: Why Lyndon Johnson?
PH: I’ve had a lifelong obsession with dualities, and he’s kind of a duality president. He encompasses the very best and the very worst of our country. The Great Society didn’t work out as planned, but it was very noble. But you also have Vietnam. Because of his tragic flaws, his place in history isn’t anywhere near where he wanted it to be, and where it otherwise would have been. But you have to hold him responsible because he did make those decisions. I’m just interested in that. He’s a fascinating character. And so is Ladybird—I want her to be a big part of that project. I don’t think he would have even been president if he didn’t have someone like Ladybird playing the role she played. On the surface it was such a subservient role, but she had to have amazing inner strength in order to do that.
AVC: You’ve also expressed interest in screenwriting, which obviously translates to your songs, which are very cinematic. Are you still interested in writing a movie?
PH: I’m very interested in it, but I’m not getting to do anything with it right now, because I’m so busy. And I don’t know if I’m ready. I’m not going to admit defeat yet, because who knows what I’ll be able to do when I’m not on the road 150-plus days a year. If I have an idea, I’ll write it down and put it in a file, right next to the LBJ record.
AVC: Is there a song you’ve written that you think would make a great movie?
PH: Yeah, a couple. One of the screenplays I’m working on is called The Graduation, and the first song from Southern Rock Opera (“Days Of Graduation”) was kind of lifted from that, because that song revolves around a climactic scene in that screenplay. Then I have this story about a preacher in my hometown that hires these thugs to kill his wife, and they botch it, almost like a Fargo kind of thing; I have songs based on that story, one of which was recorded for the next record, maybe. It all kind of inter-relates.