Drive-By Truckers have always had a knack for finely tuned character studies that borrow equally from southern-fried mythology and the acutely personal. So it's fitting that they're finally at the center of someone else's narrative. The Secret To A Happy Ending, a documentary by Barr Weissman, covers the financial and emotional meltdown that almost broke the band in 2006, as well as the Brighter Than Creation's Dark tour that won them critical resurgence and introduced their tales of hubris and heartache to a whole new audience. In advance of The Secret To A Happy Ending's première screening at AFI Silver Theatre and the release of the much-anticipated new album, The Big To-Do, The A.V. Club spoke with band patriarch Patterson Hood about politics, playing the shit out of it, and ripping off as many people as possible.
The A.V. Club: How did the documentary come about, and how did Barr Weissman get involved?
Patterson Hood: He actually approached me at the 9:30 Club one night in '04 and pitched the idea to me. His pitch was like, "I'm not interested in doing a typical band documentary. I don't want to do a Behind The Music kind of thing—the band fighting, or the rigors of the road, or the band vs. their label. I really want to get into where the songs come from and why people are drawn to them." He told me in his initial pitch that rock-and-roll saved [his] life as a teenager. Which, of course, is something I talk about a lot in my songs and in our show and in my life. He's like, "I'm another one of those people, and I want to make a movie that's my love letter to that aspect of rock-and-roll—and it happens to star your band.
AVC: Storytelling plays a big role in Drive-By Truckers' songs, and you're something of a film buff. What kind of input did you have on the final cut?
PH: The biggest input I had was I talked him into filming a little longer, because he was wrapping it up at a point in our band where it would have been a shitty place to end the movie. For starters, if you end it here you're going to have to change the name because it's definitely not a happy ending. He was intent on wrapping up a year behind schedule at the end of '06, and I wasn't sure we were going to have a band in '07. It was a very precarious time, so it's like, you've got to at least give us time to see where this all falls and how it ends. Whatever happens, that'll be the end of your movie. If you cut off right here, it's going to really suck.
AVC: When you were recording The Big To-Do, you said it was time for Drive-By Truckers to release a big, barnstorming rock record. Why was it time for that?
PH: Writing those songs gets harder and harder, maybe. There's less of them to go around and the band has veered off into so many different side roads that I just kind of wanted to make a main-road record. I wanted to make a record that sounds like the open highway a little bit more than a backroad. And I think it was time, because we make our main living as a touring band—unfortunately, that "mailbox money" still hasn't come in. [Laughs.] To me, the big fun of a live show is that moment of catharsis that occurs when it goes a little off the rails. [Brighter Than Creation's Dark] was such an introverted record that we were all looking forward to having a record that just out-of-the-gate sounds that way. This record just sounds like it was made to be played live.
AVC: Last year you released your second solo album, Murdering Oscar (And Other Love Songs). How do you decide, "This is going to be a Patterson Hood song, and this is going to be a Drive-By Truckers song?"
PH: Murdering Oscar was built around a framework of songs that I wrote 16 years ago when I first moved to Athens. I wasn't going to be touring, and the band wasn't going to be recording because we'd just made a record, so there was no way the record label was going to let us put [another album] out that quick. So I thought, "well, I'm going to do something with this batch of old songs that never got worked on." Then when I started getting into it, I thought, "you know, I've changed so much in the years since I wrote these, I should write some songs that kind of bring [them] up to date, that counterpoint some of the points of views, because I have a different point of view 16 years later than when I wrote "Screwtopia" or whatever.
AVC: You're a big Dr. Strangelove fan, and Drive-By Truckers' songs certainly contain darkly comic elements. Are there any other film or literary sources you've drawn on?
PH: [While writing] Brighter Than Creation's Dark I was going through a huge John Ford kick, and I wrote a song about it. "The Monument Valley" sprang from a little bit of that. I've been reading a ton of Larry Brown and Cormac McCarthy pretty much any chance I get lately, although most of [the songs from The Big To-Do] predate that, so I don't know. I've heard of people who just shut everything out and they refuse to read anyone else's work or listen to anyone else's records or do anything but their own art. That sounds amazing to me, but I could never do it. I would go absolutely insane if left to my own head, so I go the opposite route: I cram as much in there as I can, so if I'm going to rip something off, hopefully it'll be so many things getting ripped off that no one thing can pin it on me. [Laughs.]
AVC: You attended Obama's inauguration last year and said you were optimistic for the future. Are you still optimistic?
PH: Sort of. I mean—as easy as it is to be disappointed because he wasn't able to divine water and wave a magic wand and make everything OK—it has gotten better. I'm not going to tell that to someone who lost their job last year, because they'll punch me—and rightfully so—but to me, a lot of the problems we're having stem from things that happened in 1982 and '83. I can be as critical as anybody about things like, "Why aren't you fighting harder for the goddamn public option?" I didn't really expect the world to change. I just hoped he could stop the bleeding, and to some extent he's stopped a little bit of the bleeding. If something goes down, at least I feel like there's someone in there with their hand on the tiller that has a clue—as opposed to [someone] trying to see just how bad they can bumble it for the sake of being able to say, "See? I told you government doesn't work!" [Laughs.]
AVC: You stayed in your hometown until you were 27, even though you've said you were itching to get away. You also have that lyric in "World Of Hurt" about how "I was 27 years old when I realized blowing my brains out wasn't the answer." What happened that year?
PH: That was a rough year. That was a bad year. Yeah, for the sake of a three-minute song, it probably got condensed a little more to a specific number. There was a two-week period in '91 when I was 27 that I did leave my band, get divorced, and leave my hometown. And it was traumatic, and it took me a couple years to recover from it all and maybe longer. It's almost the cliché of rock stars dying at 27. But it's a cliché because it's happened over and over and over. Particularly that second generation that all found heroin at about the same time and then died off in '71. Finding myself at that age—fortunately, not strung out on heroin, but definitely pretty suicidal and self-destructive—I didn't really want to be a cliché. I think 27 is the year when young people realize they're not going to get to do in their twenties what they thought they were going to do when they were 19. I think that's the year of the reckoning. That's the year that—almost universally it seems—you realize you haven't conquered the world, and from where you're standing you may not ever conquer the world. In fact, you might need to start working on Plan B.
I started playing in Adam's House Cat in '85. I spent, from 21 to 27, every waking minute trying to figure out how to make that band […] like the band I'm actually doing now in my mid-40s, so when it ended I was destroyed. Really destroyed. It's like, well what the fuck am I gonna do now? I don't have a second choice, you know. When you're young you can say really bold things that in retrospect are stupid. My big saying [was], "I don't want anything to fall back on but a knife!" and then you're 27 and it's over and you're going, "Fuck, I don't have anything to fall back on but a knife. That sucks." It was a real moment of clarity that I'm probably still—I'm certainly over it, but I can still go back and tap into it when I'm writing or whatever. I can probably write a book about it. Maybe someday I will. I don't know.
AVC: In that same song, you sing, "The secret to a happy ending is knowing when to roll the credits." When do you think Drive-By Truckers will roll the credits?
PH: We had our moment of reckoning in '06 when we really, seriously contemplated calling it and ending it. It's like, it was clear that Jason [Isbell] was going his separate way, and you know, we were all really tired. We'd been on the road nonstop and felt like we'd kind of hit a wall. I felt like the record we'd put out that year [A Blessing And A Curse] was the first time we'd ever put out a record that maybe wasn't quite as good as the record before it—because that was a bitter pill, because [Mike] Cooley and I had always vowed that when it's over, it's over. When the records aren't as good as they were, it's time to call it quits. I'll get a job. I'll do whatever, but we're not going to be a dinosaur act. We're not going to revel in the glory days, and we're not going to be one-hit wonders that never had a hit. [Laughs.] No-hit wonders. It's like, fuck that. Life's too short. I've spent a lot of time away from my family and everyone has to really sacrifice for me to get to do what I love doing, and if it's not making me happy, why the hell am I doing it? And that's where I was at that point. Instead, we decided we weren't ready to end it. It's as simple as that. It's not over till we say it's over and it's just not over.
If we ended it tomorrow, what would we do? I'd probably want to put together another band, believe it or not, even though I swore I'd never do it. Probably, I will. And I can't really imagine putting together another band and not having Cooley in it, because if I'm going to do that I might as well go solo. But at the end of the day, doing the solo thing is a fun outlet, but it's not the band—and the band is the band. There's something in the chemistry of he and I playing together that's more than the sum of its parts, and I still look forward to hearing a new song from him, and I look forward to playing guitar on it. If I write a new song, I'm immediately thinking, "I wonder what that old fucker's gonna do with this one?" You know, because whatever he does it's never what I expect, and never anything I would have thought of, so there you go. We decided to keep churning it out. We're gonna do it, and we'd better do the shit out of it or else we're going to have to endure forever and ever people saying, "Yeah, I saw them back when they were really good."