By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"I don't think of us as a Southern rock band," says Patterson Hood, the main axle of the Drive-By Truckers. Huh? Isn't this the band that made a two-CD album about Lynyrd Skynyrd called Southern Rock Opera? They boast three guitar players, just like Skynyrd. Hood even hails from "Sweet Home Alabama." And countless reviewers have touted the group as the resurrection of Southern rock.
Then again, Hood's admission is reassuring to people who remember Southern rock in its day and have scratched their heads wondering about the comparison. As Hood points out, "It's hard to explain that to people who aren't old enough to understand. To me that movement was something that happened in a period of time, and we did a record about it, but I've never really felt like it applied to us.
"We're certainly Southern as hell, and the majority of our songs reflect that. And 10 seconds on the phone with any of us, and our accents certainly reflect it." (It's true--Hood talks like he's about to hawk sweet tea at a moment's notice.) "But I don't really necessarily think it's a relevant term for the music, if for nothing else than there's so much baggage with it that doesn't really apply."
The Truckers don't wave the Confederate flag or play the raucous boogie that became all but etched in Lookout Mountain stone after Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane went down in 1977. But the human and cultural landscape below Mason-Dixon have provided a fertile mise en scene for the blue-collar themes and tales in the band's songs on their two albums that followed SRO, Decoration Day and The Dirty South. So maybe the Drive-By Truckers are better described as a rock band from the South than a Southern rock band.
"I don't ever get too hung up on genres," Hood says. "And to me, for starters--and this one riles people up when you say it--the term Southern rock is kinda redundant, because rock and roll came from the South. And I don't like anything that stylistically limits what we're supposed to be able to do. I'm not into segregation; I don't want to segregate my music. I do genuinely love Hank Williams and Outkast." Are those the poles that delineate the breadth of Southern rock, then? "Absolutely."
Hence the thumbnail classification as Southern rock--"which, admittedly, I brought on myself," Hood notes--has been for the band A Blessing and a Curse, to quote their new album title. And their seventh disc, which saw release last week, might be the lucky one that helps the band escape what Hood calls the "L" word (for Lynyrd). It begins with "Feb. 14," a rocker that gloriously stumbles along like the Replacements on a bender, complete with a shattered love story and chocolate-dipped hook, a la the best songs by Paul Westerberg. "Aftermath USA" struts with the boozy swagger of Rod Stewart and the Faces with Keith Richards sitting in, "A World of Hurt" harvests from Neil Young's country crop and "Goodbye" hits a soul groove not unlike those cut by the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the famed studio crew heard on countless hit records in which Hood's father was the bass player.
On the other hand, the Truckers do continue to lyrically mine the coal of human pain and desolation they see across the South. Be it waking up in a cheap hotel room with "Crystal meth in the bathtub [and] blood splattered in the sink" or feeling like there's "Not much to see on this angry street, so I'll sleep the day away," the scenarios on the album feel far more curse than blessing. "Yeah, everyone talks about how dark it is. I guess it is," Hood surmises. "Maybe I see it differently. I guess looking at it song by song, it does heap on the curse. But at the same time, it's kinda how like it is in life--you have to look for the blessings where you can get them."
Blessings and curses seem to be an integral part of the overall DBT scheme. The four-man, one-woman band with three songwriters and a rhythm section that contributes creatively is known for being a democracy whose occasionally uneasy alliance can almost resemble the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Yet, as Hood says, "That's probably our band's greatest strength. And that's probably the main reason I keep doing this, because I'm as curious as anybody to see where it goes next. One of the few things that all five of us have in common with each other is that we all get very restless very easily, and so we're always looking for something new to do."
Yet when they gathered to cut A Blessing and a Curse, an album on which they were determined not to have an overriding theme like the last three, Hood and fellow primary writers Mike Cooley and Jason Isbell all arrived with songs in a similar lyrical vein. "That's its own phenomenon," Hood says. "I don't understand that either. We're so different from each other, for better or worse. We certainly all love each other and are committed to the big picture, but we don't necessarily agree on a lot. But what's been such a big part of the last several records is all of us bringing these songs in that seem to not accidentally cover the same ground, but from very different people."