Drive-By Truckers steer back home on Decoration Day
For Drive-By Truckers vocalist/ guitarist Patterson Hood, an old, familiar nightmare suddenly came true.
Just after dusk on a spring night in 2000, about halfway between Tallahassee and Pensacola, Hood was behind the wheel of his band's van, driving beneath a sky glowing with red highlights. Traveling at 70 mph, the van topped a low hill when Hood suddenly noticed a large American sedan coming straight toward him, doing at least 80 in the wrong direction on Interstate 10. In a fraction of a second — amid an explosion of shattering glass and twisting metal — Hood could've become just another in the long, sad list of rock 'n' roll road fatalities.
"I was always really phobic about dying on the road — always thinking that it could happen to me at any moment," recalls Hood, still shaken by the experience."
It was something he dreaded even before the 1992 road disaster that took the lives of two members of The Jody Grind (with whom Hood and future Truckers bandmate Mike Cooley were supposed to perform just a few days later), or the 1995 highway mishap that ended the career of Florida rock group For Squirrels, who were personal friends of the Truckers' first drummer.
"Touring has always been tough for me because I could never get to sleep in the van," explains Hood, whose punishing schedule has included as many as 200 live shows a year since the Truckers first hit the road in 1998. "I was always afraid that if I did fall asleep, something bad was going to happen. Every bump in the road would shake me out of my slumber, and I'd just lay there and get more paranoid by the minute."
But as it happens, the mysterious car on I-10 roared past in the left lane, avoiding a collison. "It flew by so quickly that, for a moment, I even questioned whether it happened," remembers Hood.
A frantic cell phone call right afterward ("Fuck! Did you see that?!") from friends in a car behind the van confirmed it.
"My next thought was a very calm realization that my number had just flew by me, so I guess it ain't up yet. From then on, I have never had trouble sleeping in the van, nor had any real fear of dying on the road. All the fear in the world couldn't have changed a thing if fate had placed me in the passing lane that moment. Realizing that was actually a relief — and that ain't too crappy."
Naturally, this moment of truth became part of a song.
"Seen my number fly by on Interstate 10," Hood sings in "Hell No, I Ain't Happy," one of the intensely personal compositions on the new Drive-By Truckers album Decoration Day.
"Every line in that song has its own story," Hood observes, "and that's one I don't mind telling."
Out June 17 on the New West label, Decoration Day is the Truckers' first CD since 2001's Southern Rock Opera, a fictionalized retelling of the Lynyrd Skynyrd saga, a story of life on the road that ended with a tragic crash. The double-disc set earned universal critical acclaim, including a four-star review in Rolling Stone and, more recently, a nod from Entertainment Weekly, hailing the Truckers as one of the 10 up-and-coming "bands to watch."
But Decoration Day is distinctly different from Opera, a less raucous and more introspective album in the style of the Truckers' earlier work. In fact, Hood asserts that it's actually a follow-up to 1999's Pizza Deliverance.
"When we set out to do Southern Rock Opera, we wrote it about fictional characters," he explains. "We put a lot of ourselves in it — particularly in Cooley's songs — applying our experiences to other characters and finding common ground. But Decoration Day isn't about fictional characters. It's about us, and all the bullshit and personal trauma we went through while making Southern Rock Opera."
While the Truckers had fun writing Opera, the experience of recording it — on the top floor of a uniform shop without air conditioning, in the midst of a summer heat wave — was agonizing. During the same period, the musicians found their personal lives disintegrating ("Hell No, I Ain't Happy" refers to Hood's divorce), and increased arguing within the group eventually led to longtime member Rob Malone quitting the band.
Though Decoration Day was written during "those miserable times," Hood explains, it was recorded later, when the band had worked out its problems. The Truckers chose Dave Barbe's spacious, modern recording studio in Athens, Ga., to lay down the new material. It was only the second time in the band's history that they used a professional studio (Gangstabilly was recorded in two days at Chase Park Transduction Studios in 1997), and it was the first time that they recorded in comfort.
The sessions ran smoothly, and the final result came in $30,000 below budget. But their label at the time, Lost Highway (which distributed Southern Rock Opera), was disappointed to discover that Decoration was not an amped-up, old-school, Southern-rock sequel to Opera. So disappointed, in fact, that the Drive-By Truckers suddenly found themselves in search of another label, one that would show more faith and enthusiasm for their latest creation.
With assistance from friends in Slobberbone, they found a home for Decoration at New West, an outfit that has successfully promoted albums by artists as diverse as Stan Ridgway and Delbert McClinton.
Ironically, in light of its initial cold reception from the suits, Decoration is the Truckers' most personal album yet, heralding a return to the style of their earliest recordings. The disc even opens with "The Deeper In," a vintage Hood composition from 1998.
"I've been sitting on that song for a long while," he says. "It's a true story about the only two people serving sentences in America for brother/sister incest. It all came from an article I read in Esquire, and it just tore me up thinking about it afterward. I love the fact it took place up north, 'cause incest is such a southern stereotype I always knew it was meant to be on the record after the rock opera, when we revisited the country elements we left behind while getting ready for the opera."
Among the album's other standout tracks are two new songs that address the suicide of a friend and former bandmate, the bassist from Hood and Cooley's earlier band, Adam's Housecat. Cooley tackles the subject with grim intensity on "When the Pin Hits the Shell," singing, "The same God that you're so afraid is gonna send you to hell/Is the same one you're gonna answer to when the pin hits the shell." Cooley restrains himself from being overly judgmental, adding in a subsequent verse, "And I ain't gonna crawl upon no high horse/'Cause I got thrown off of one."
Hood, however, confronts the same deed with naked outrage in "Do It Yourself," admonishing, "It's a sorry thing to do to your sweet sister/It's a sorry thing to do to your little boy." He is openly uncomfortable discussing the song, commenting only that, "What [suicide] leaves behind is so terrible for family and friends; it's horrible for the survivors."
What follows is, appropriately, the album's title track, "Decoration Day," about the Southern church tradition of designating one day each year to lay flowers atop the graves of loved ones. This dark, quiet anthem was written by the newest member of the Truckers, Jason Isbell, who joined the band — and their two-week tour — with a mere six hours notice. Isbell wrote "Decoration Day" during his second day on the road.
Hood and Isbell met while Hood was home in Alabama, and hit it off playing some shows together. "When the turmoil of making Opera had kinda taken its toll on all of us, Rob [Malone] left the band early in the tour," Hood recalls. "We called Jason, and he learned our set on stage in Oklahoma."
While awaiting the new disc's release, the Truckers have been in the studio again, laying down tracks for a future album in the more hard-rocking style of Opera. Cooley has begun to write more, says Hood. "He's never been particularly prolific before — he tears up a lot of songs before anyone ever sees them. But he hit a streak, and has been comin' up with song after song."
Hood acknowledges that the band's tone has become a bit more serious lately. "There aren't as many of the funny songs as there were before," he confesses, referring to crowd-pleasers such as "Buttholeville" and "The President's Penis Is Missing." "But we've still got all those songs, and we do pull them out and play them from time to time.
Maybe the changes have something to do with that eerie moment on I-10.
"I feel like I lead a charmed life," Hood says. "I spend every day surrounded by people I love and respect. Not that life's all roses, because we do fight. But you have to know how to fight, and how to work through it. And it's wonderful when audiences respond to what you're doing and like it. And it's all based on that."