Athens, Georgia, band Drive-By Truckers coming to The Burl
Last week, Patterson Hood found himself back home.
The city: Athens, Georgia, for decades one of the most musically fertile epicenters in the South. Among its many artistic exports, Drive-By Truckers, the hard rocking but topically and socially conscious band he co-founded a quarter century ago.
The place: The 40 Watt Club, the famed music hangout that has, over the course of five locations through four decades, served as a launch pad and/or home base for nearly all of Athens’ most expert rock troupes. Among them: R.E.M., The B-52s, Vic Chesnutt, Pylon and of Montreal.
The occasion: An annual rite of performance passage called HeAthen’s Homecoming where Drive-By Truckers, now accustomed to playing larger clubs, theatres and festivals, squeeze into the 40 Watt Club’s modest confines with their most ardent fans and return to their roots.
“We’ve been doing these homecoming shows for 21 years,” Hood said. “We have fans coming in from all over the world. Several are here every year, so the sense of community they have created has been remarkable.
“The 40 Watt Club has always been important to us. It holds maybe 700 people (the venue’s website claims 500), but I remember the days when we were drawing maybe 175. Today, it’s a smaller room than what we’re accustomed to playing, but we still love doing shows there every year.”
Last week’s HeAthens celebration was originally slated for January, but was postponed due to – what else? – soaring numbers of winter COVID-19 infections in Georgia. Sadly, the Truckers are accustomed to pandemic interference. They were slated to return to Lexington for an April 2020 concert. Guess what happened.
“We were three weeks into a tour that was scheduled to last for 15 months,” Hood recalled. “Then we had to go home.”
New albums released
The tour’s tanking came at a precarious time for the Truckers. Starting with 2016’s “American Band” album, the already fervent progressive streak within the songs Hood and co-founding guitarist/vocalist Mike Cooley were fashioning for the band became more pronounced. While not a political band, per se, Hood and Cooley weren’t ashamed to make their feelings known about social rumblings that surrounded and often separated them from musically but thematically like-minded bands out of the South.
The “American Band” single “What It Takes” referenced the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Michael Brown in 2014 (“If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks, well I guess that means that you ain’t black”). Sentiments intensified in a more heated commentary on the escalating incidents of mass shootings on the 2020 non-album single “Thoughts and Prayers.” (“They’re lined up on the playground, their hands all in the air. See it on our news feed and we cry out in despair. They’re counting up the casualties, everyone’s choosing sides. There’s always someone to blame, never anywhere to hide.”)
Hood wrote both songs, as well as seven of the nine topically minded tunes that made up the 2020 album “The Unraveling.” Earnest as those records were, a more immediate unraveling was at hand as the COVID-related lockdown shuttered the concert industry.
“When we began playing shows again last fall, we had two albums of songs we hadn’t really gotten to play (referencing “The Unraveling” and a quickly released follow-up titled “The New OK.”) But we decided not to focus on just those songs but a show that covered our entire 25 year history. Plus, we recorded another new album that summer that we will be announcing soon, maybe even before we get to Lexington.
“The new songs will be different. They were very much inspired by the pandemic even though they aren’t specifically addressing it.”
That’s when the number hits you. 25. It’s been two-and-half decades since Hood and Cooley, who met years earlier as roommates at the University of North Alabama, convened the first Truckers line-up. Could they have imagined that their music would still be flourishing in 2022?
“Not at all, man,” Hood said. “Not at all. If I did, we probably would have thought of a better name for the band.
“It seems like Mike and I spent our 20s trying to kill each other before realizing we really didn’t have anything to fight about. I love getting to work on his songs. He has one on this album that’s about to come out that may be the best thing he’s written. But I also love hearing what he brings to my songs.”
Perhaps the most unshakeable aspect of the Truckers’ music and career is its stance as a Southern rock band that doesn’t always adhere to expected Southern rock themes and mindsets, especially as they relate to the world around them.
“To a lot of people, the term Southern Rock has a kind of right-wing connotation. I’m proud of our heritage, but that’s just not what that we’re about. I mean, I listened to those early (Lynyrd) Skynyrd albums. And the Allman Brothers? They were practically jazz. They were great.
“When we started, we were just touring around with our first three records while working on a project called ‘Southern Rock Opera’ (a 2001 double album about a fictious Skynyrd-like band that a solidified a triple guitar sound and a knack for tackling troubled, rural-minded storylines). We didn’t even think of it as becoming a Truckers album, but rather something separate from the band. Of course, we put it out as the Truckers and it changed everything for us.”
Still, the literal definition of Southern Rock is a matter of pride for Hood. His father, bassist David Hood, is one of the last surviving members of a recording studio rhythm section commonly dubbed The Swampers. Its members played on countless records and became a chief component of rock and soul sounds that continue to flourish out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
“I don’t mind being called a Southern Rock band. I mean, if you call R.E.M. a Southern Rock band and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers a Southern Rock band, then that’s fine with me.”
Drive-By Truckers, Lydia Loveless
When: April 18, 8 p.m.
Where Outdoor show at The Burl, 375 Thompson Rd.
Tickets: $30 at theburlky.com/events.