Started in 1996, the Drive-By Truckers have had their fair share of ups and downs. However, this Southern band is charging into their 21st anniversary stronger than ever, riding on their successful 2016 album, American Band, and powerful performances inspired by the recent political activities across our nation.
After touring for almost a solid year, band members Patterson Hood (guitars, vocals, mandolin), Mike Cooley (guitars, vocals, banjo, harmonica), Brad “EZB” Morgan (drums), Jay Gonzalez (keyboards, backing vocals), and Matt Patton (bass, backing vocals) are psyched to hit the road once again to drum up even more excitement this winter.
I was lucky to have had the chance to speak with Patterson before he left for tour. While we spoke about the album and upcoming shows, he shed some light on his other passions.
You guys just wrapped up celebrating your 20 years together. How do you feel about that anniversary?
It’s kind of hard to believe that we’ve done it. I guess the good news is that we’re having our best runs ever and the best time in the history of this band ever. I think that’s probably pretty rare for a 20-year-old band to really be having a pretty vital time for its new material, so I’m really proud of that. I don’t feel like we’re a 20-year-old band whose best era was 15 years ago. I’m pretty happy to still be standing here.
Why do you feel as though this is the best time for the band? What makes you say that?
I’m extremely proud of the new record. I think we made one of our best records and I think it’s been considered as that by people who aren’t in the band. It’s probably our best-selling record and I think the shows that we’re playing are some of the best and it’s just a good time for the band. I’m really proud of it. I really proud of what we’re doing and where we are now and we survived a lot. We’ve been through our share of times that weren’t the best times, but we seem to pull through and persevere and we all like each other. I mean, how many 20-year-old bands can say that? 20 years is a long time for a marriage, you know? And that’s two people. When you have a band, that’s a lot of people. It’s something I’m really happy about.
You should be! I listened to the new album, American Band, and I read that you mentioned that it’s your most political album.
Oh yeah, I’d think so. I think it was the most blatant. I think that’s always been an aspect of what we do. It’s always kind of been there, but maybe it’s a little more front and center than it’s been in the past.
Why do you think that happened?
I think it came from what we were feeling. We’re living through some pretty crazy times now, to put it mildly, and I think that it kinda called for it. When we were writing this record, we didn’t think that things were gonna turn out the way they did politically in the country. I didn’t see that coming, but I have seen coming that we’re in a particularly consensus time and I fret that. I fret about my own place in that and I have some feelings about that now. I don’t know the answer to some of those things, so we’re trying to strike a balance between some conflicting feelings and that’s always hard. It’s like a work-in-progress.
Well, sure. How do you feel this has resonated with your fans?
Well, this is the first time we’ve ever had a Top 10-selling album. So it seemed to have hit a nerve with people. I think there are a lot of people out there that have some pretty similar feelings to us right now, so I guess it’s good that somebody was playing songs that tapped into that.
Exactly. And you guys are setting out for tour in a few days, how’ve you been prepping for that?
We’re pretty warmed up. We were out last weekend and played in Denver. We toured heavy last summer and then all through the fall and then we took a nice little break for Christmas and recharged and everybody worked on getting the flu out of their system (laughs). I just got over being like, deathly ill, so we’re about to go out and hit it real hard. I think there’s some nicer weather now and we went out and played in Colorado for two nights and had a fantastic turn-out. We were really happy with the shows and then we went on the Conan O’Brien Show on Monday and we’re ready to do this thing. We’re about to be out for the next three months in the eastern part of the country and then Canada and then do parts of the south like Texas and then we’re gonna go to Europe for three weeks in the middle of all that.
I saw! How do you manage all of that touring and travel?
It’s hard. I love my job and playing the shows, but the traveling is hard and being away from your family—we’ve all got small kids. But yeah, everyone in the band has kids so it’s definitely hard being away from them. They’re not really at an age where they can come with us. That wouldn’t really be conducive to them having a really good life right now. It’s hard leaving them for a few weeks at a time. But we’ve all got very supportive families and our wives and our kids have grown up with this is what daddy does. They know that I’m not really gone. I’m very engaged in their day-to-day lives no matter where I am. And when I am home, I’m very home. I’m more home than most dads because I don’t go out to work or whatever. When I hang up from talking to you, I’m going over to pick up my kids from school and I’ll be with them all day until they go to bed.
That’s awesome! Do you share music with your kids?
Yeah. We have a very musical home. I have a huge record collection, so there’s always music playing. I turned off the stereo to talk to you so it’ll be going back on as soon as I hang up (laughs) but they’re used to that. You know, they’ve got the things they like and then the things they like less. I’m always playing them stuff like, “What do you think about this?” and my daughter’s like, “Oh, I like it!” and my son’s like, “No, I don’t like it!”
That’s great, though! I saw that you’d written an op-ed piece for the New York Times a couple years back. How’d that come about?
There was the shooting in Charleston in 2015 and it was so horrific… I was actually in the process of moving cross-country with my family at the time to Portland, Oregon, that summer. We spent three weeks moving and turned it into like a vacation. A kind of nightmareish vacation (laughs). So, we stopped for the night in Denver, Colorado, and that’s when we heard about the shooting in Charleston. And because of the subject matter, a lot of our songs have talked about the issue of racism in the South; it’s kind of become a reoccurring theme in our music.
So a lot of people from various news outlets started calling me for comments. One thing led to another and, of course right at the time they had flags hanging at half-mass. And there was a law in South Carolina protecting the Confederate flag and the way the law was written, that flag wasn’t gonna be at half-mass. So while every other flag was at half-mass, that one was gonna be standing tall—that flag that represents something really reprehensible for a huge swath of the population that was already hurting, it was like salt to the wound. I feel really strongly that the southern states, it’s probably time to get over it and move on. And if we want to honor history, there are better ways of doing that.
I was asked to write this op-ed for the New York Times and I was like, “Well, I’ve got two small kids in the car and we’re going across the country, but if you can wait until I get there, I’d really like to do this.” And they’re like, “Well, the sooner we get it, the better the chance we’ll run it. We’re not gonna give you any guarantees, but if you send it to us, we’ll look at it. The sooner we get it, the better chance you’ll have.” As soon as we got to Portland, I sat down and for the next 48 hours around the clock and the better part of the next week, I worked on it and they printed it.
It was really well received. I think probably more people saw that the first day it was out than probably have ever heard my music (laughs). It’s a little strange and a little unnerving, but there’s a little bit of beauty in that and that led directly to this record. I was already writing for this record and that played directly into what I was thinking about and writing about for this record. I wrote the song “Darkened Flags On The Cusp Of Dawn” on the same night that I wrote the first draft of the op-ed and the song is basically about the same thing as the op-ed, only it was written in song-language instead of op-ed language. They’re both basically the same theme and gist. They all kind of fed into each other.
Talk about a writing machine. Had you ever written anything like the op-ed before? It was so well-done.
Thanks! I’ve written essays and I wrote an essay for a website called Bitter Southerner and the second week they were out, they asked me to write an essay sort of revisiting the things we wrote about in our Southern Rock Opera 15 years back, which were sort of the same things that I’d written about in the op-ed as far as things like, “What is it down here that we’re proud of?” and, “What is down here that we may need to get over and move away from?” And I’m sure that that essay led me to being asked to write the op-ed. And then the op-ed led me to being asked to perform and speak at the Clinton Library in Little Rock, so it’s like one thing leads to another. And the op-ed led me to being asked to give a commencement speech at the college that I’d once upon a time flunked out of (laughs).
So, all of that happened in the fall of 2015 just as we were about to make this album. It all tied together. 2015 was a very crazy and intense year for us. I’m proud of what we did, though. Hopefully it all holds up and we did something that is worthy of us spending the next couple of years performing.
Don’t miss as Drive-By Truckers pull into The Space At Westbury in Westbury, NY on Feb. 10, and Webster Hall in New York City on Feb. 11. For more information on these musicians, visit their site at drivebytruckers.com.