Mixed Blessing

The Drive-By Truckers try to drive their way out of a self-imposed Southern label

"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."

"We certainly all love each other," Patterson Hood  says 
about his fellow Truckers. "But we don't necessarily 
agree on a lot."
Jim Fiscus
"We certainly all love each other," Patterson Hood says about his fellow Truckers. "But we don't necessarily agree on a lot."

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."

This week's show in Dallas finds the band returning to a market that in recent years they've often bypassed in favor of Austin. "I don't know why we don't play as much in Dallas. Ask our agent, I guess. Back when I booked the band we played there a lot. And Austin did take to the band in a big way early on."

To Hood, it's ironic that the Truckers aren't beloved regulars on the DFW concert calendar. "Two of my favorite bands of the last 20 years have come from that area. Lord knows I was a huge Slobberbone fan," he says (that group's newest incarnation, the Drams, opens at both Texas DBT dates this tour). And returning to his annoyance with the typecasting game, Hood cites his other metroplex fave as an example against it: "What in the hell do you call Centro-matic other than really great? People ask me to describe them all the time because people know what a huge fan I am, and I'm like, I don't know, I don't know how to describe them. Listen to them. They're really great."

And yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd have their place in the DBT pantheon, though Hood believes Southern Rock Opera "was misunderstood, and particularly by people who didn't listen very closely, it was taken as this sort of tribute, like all we ever did was grow up listening to nothing but Lynyrd Skynyrd. And I would have felt a little dishonest without addressing the fact that The Replacements were a much bigger influence in my life as a musician and artist than Lynyrd Skynyrd was, certainly in my formative years playing in bands."

For Hood, it's only rock and roll that his band plays, which may not be au courant these days, but what the hell? "We don't fit in," he concludes. "We're a rock and roll band. And that's considered something you're not even supposed to say anymore. I don't know why; I don't when that became a dirty word. Well, what kind of rock and roll? Well, all kinds of rock and roll. I love rock and roll. I love all of it, including a lot of it that isn't very good. There's some bands that suck that I really like. If it rocks, I'll probably really like it."

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