Drive-by Truckers frontman Patterson Hood has spent his entire life living in the Deep South and writing music about that region’s culture and its people. Perhaps no modern rock musician is as closely associated with the South as the Alabama native.
With that in mind, Hood surprised a lot of people earlier this year during a gig at Revolution Hall when he announced that he was relocating to Portland, Oregon, his “favorite city in America” according to an interview with Vortex magazine.
I recently sat down with Hood for a conversation during Wordstock at the Portland Art Museum. In this wide-ranging interview, we chatted about the move from his long-time home of Athens, GA to Portland, the new politically-charged album he’s writing with Drive-by Truckers, and his experience writing and recording with legendary R&B musician Booker T. Jones on the Grammy-winning 2009 release Potato Hole.
Hear the interview in its entirety here:
Disclaimer: These excerpts have been edited for clarity.
Jerad Walker: You just moved to Portland with your family this past summer.
Patterson Hood: Yeah, I got here July 1st. It’s been very welcoming. We’ve been treated pretty wonderfully since we’ve been here.
You were in Athens, Ga for about twenty years. What has the transition been like from there to here in Portland?
Considering the two towns are on opposite ends of the country, there’s actually more similarities than most people would probably imagine. They’re both huge music towns, have huge art scenes, some literature, and they’re both liberal towns. Even though Athens is a tiny little liberal town in the middle of very conservative Georgia, it’s still a very progressive town. So, there hasn’t been as much culture shock as you’d think on that end.
You’ve spent your entire career living in the Deep South…
My whole life. 50 years.
Has this move had any effect on your creativity or your output?
It has. I think any time you really stir a lot up it’s good for your creativity. I’ve written more since I’ve been here than probably any three or four month period in 15 years. I’ve done a lot of writing since I’ve been here and that’s something I’ve been really happy about for sure.
Has it steered you in a different direction?
Somewhat. I think having a little distance from where I’m from has probably been good from a writing point of view. I probably needed a little bit of distance at this point in my life from some of what I was writing about. I think it’s been good for me.
You’ve made a point of saying that Drive-by Truckers are still an Athens-based band. Has the distance changed anything with you and your band members?
That’s been good, too. For starters, my partners in the band have been extremely supportive about me doing this. I think they could see that it would be a good thing for me and my family to do on a personal and musical level.
Speaking of the Drive-by Truckers, when can we expect a follow-up to English Oceans?
We have a live record that just came out last week… so that has just now come out. We’re actually breaking ground in about 2 weeks on the next record, the next studio record, which we hope to have out by Fall next year.
Where is the band heading with this new batch of songs?
I think it’s going to be a pretty political record. Both my partner, Mike Cooley, and I have been writing some pretty timely stuff about our on-going issues with race in this country, particularly, and guns and some of the nagging problems that we just keep having in America. It’s kind of been on our minds as we are trying to raise kids in this crazy, turbulent time. I think that’s going to be a big part of the record. Kind of an angry, Southern, liberal manifesto in time for the election next year.
I’m sure the Confederate flag will play a part in that. You wrote an incredible op-ed for the New York Times on that subject. What has the feedback from that been like?
I was expecting a lot more negative feedback than I got honestly. I was kind of prepared for the inevitable onslaught of idiots, but it really wasn’t that bad. I’ve been kind of heartened by the fact that more often than not most people had intelligent things to say about it.
Going back to the new Drive-by Truckers album, will we hear more songs written by your bandmate Mike Cooley? [Cooley has battled writer’s block for several years]
Oh yeah. His writer’s block issues seem to have worked themselves out in the past few years. He’s been writing some really amazing stuff. His new songs are some of my favorites of the stuff he’s done yet.
I know you probably realized this a lot sooner than I did, but it struck me a few years ago that Mike was no longer a secondary writer in the band, but that he really had a partnership with you.
Definitely. And he always has. It’s always been that way, but used to he would write one or two songs a year. Whereas I’ve kind of been prolific, sometimes to a fault maybe…
I was at a show at the 9:30 Club DC in 2009. You came down with pneumonia before the gig.
Oh, that night!
The band actually soldiered on without you and played an entire set of songs that were written by him. It seemed like it was a bit of coming out party for him.
People were like “Tell that guy not to come back!”
You’ve been his biggest supporter. What’s it been like to watch him grow as a writer?
He’s always been an amazing writer, but we played together for 10 years before I ever even saw a song from him. During that time he would say things in conversation and I would tell him “You should write. You really have a way with words.” He was kind of in denial about it for a while, and then one day he just walked in with a song and it was stunning. I am probably the biggest fan he could ever have, because I really love his writing. So, it’s been great seeing him come out and write more and more lately. It’s been really wonderful to see.
One thing that I think is underrated about Drive-by Truckers is your work as an R&B band. I love the work you’ve done with Booker T. Jones and Bettye LaVette. Are you planning on doing more stuff like that moving forward?
Man, I would love to. I would particularly love to do another project with Booker T. That’s one of the absolute highlights of my life was that record—that whole project. We recorded the record actually in four days and barely even knew him. We literally met him on the first of those four days. But then after the record came out, we played about 25 shows over about about a six-month period together. We went to Australia together and Coachella and got to know him and we became really dear friends. He’s one of my favorite people on Earth. So, now that we’re all friends it would seem kind of wonderful to make another record together and see what could come next. I’m still holding out hope that will happen at some point.
Do you have to be in a different headspace when working as a backing band, as opposed to playing Drive-by Truckers songs?
Not too much. The big challenge with Booker’s record was that it was instrumental. We actually learned a lot about ourselves doing it. Booker taught us a lot about ourselves doing it. We had this very short period of time to record ten songs and we were two days into it and nothing was really happening. We had one song to show for it after two days. And Booker had this epiphany about how we work. He called us over. He said “Put down you guitars. Come here.” So we kind of gathered around like kids around the fire hearing the story time. He told us a story. He set up this absolutely beautiful scene where he described a family reunion or Thanksgiving dinner-type scene. He described the food, how it smelled, what his aunt was wearing, and the kitchen. He described in this great detail the scene. And then he said to us “Now, play that.” We went and got it in one take. From then on, for the rest of the record, he would tell us the story of each song and then we’d play it. We finished the record on time. I think we recorded six or seven songs in the fourth day alone. And that was life-changing for all of us because we had never really even thought about it that way.
Have you taken that and incorporated that recording since that session?
Oh, everything we’ve done since then. I can see the line in the sand from before that experience and after in our work, including my solo record that I’ve done since then, too. It was definitely life-changing.