Patterson Hood’s Springsteen Problem
A balladeer of the working class, the Drive-By Truckers frontman is often misunderstood as he struggles to make sense of the presidential election
By Bliss Bowen
Not unlike the working-class characters who people his rock narratives, Drive-By Truckers bandleader Patterson Hood is a busy man. The morning after returning to his new home in Portland, Ore., from the DBTs’ latest month-long tour, the frazzled, caffeine-craving Alabama native speaks in a friendly twang while struggling to make a cup of joe with his favorite coffee maker, which starts leaking. Save for a few stray days between tour legs, he’s “essentially been gone since mid-July,” and now he’s grabbing two days with his family before resuming his annual habit of playing intimate pre-Christmas solo shows, which brings him to McCabe’s on Saturday night. His sets will likely draw from his three vividly written solo albums as well as the DBTs’ “American Band,” which is positioned high on several year’s-best lists.
Despite his insightful awareness of politics and culture, Hood says he hasn’t yet had time to process the presidential election’s result or consequences. Part of that processing may concern “American Band,” one of 2016’s most politically charged albums. It’s the most political statement the DBTs have made —which is saying something — a bracing “rock ‘n’ roll call to arms” mindful of historical context while addressing mass shootings, the NRA, police brutality, racial intolerance and xenophobia over crunching Southern rock guitars and rubbery grooves.
We’re standing on the precipice
Of prejudice and fear
We trust science just as long
As it tells us what we want to hear
We want our truths all fair and balanced
As long as our notions lie within it
There’s no sunlight in our asses
And our heads are stuck up in it
Post-Election Day, it feels even more grimly relevant, like a 2016 time capsule. Where to from here?
How did it feel on the road with the Drive-By Truckers in the days leading up to and following the election? Did you notice shifts in audience energy?
It was pretty surreal. I think I was as blindsided by the end result as a lot of people; obviously people on both sides were a little taken by surprise. In some ways, I was glad I was out there doing that instead of home stewing, because at least I had an outlet for what I was feeling. The whole thing’s been kinda shitty. [Laughs.] The tour’s been great. Before the election and especially since, they’ve been pretty ferocious rock shows — some of the best we’ve ever played. I guess if you’re struggling to find a silver lining, that’s about the best I can do.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” addressed social issues Americans were struggling with at the time, not unlike “American Band.” But the title track was often misunderstood. Have you experienced audiences misinterpreting or responding differently to “What It Means,” “Ever South,” “Ramon Casiano” or older songs like “Three Great Alabama Icons” or “Hell No, I Ain’t Happy”?
Yeah. You know, it never really occurred to me that people didn’t know we were kinda political all along. When this record was being announced, before most people had even heard it, there was all this pushback, particularly in regards to “What It Means.” It was like, people were disappointed that we actually have an opinion; it might not be exactly what they thought it might have been. I was pretty taken aback by that. [But] I’ve been doing this a long time, and people are gonna read into things what they’re gonna read into it. I couldn’t fathom back in the ’80s how anybody, Reagan included, could have misunderstood what Springsteen was trying to say with “Born in the USA.” Obviously some people don’t listen to the words, just listen to the hook or the guitar riff and then read their own thing into it. Then they were all of a sudden mad when they found out Springsteen had a point of view that cared about the underdog, which is what all his songs are about. [Laughs.]
At the same time, a lot of people really love [“American Band”], and I’ve gotten letters from people who have been moved or helped by [“What It Means”]. All I can do is write what I feel and be true to that and try to turn it into the best song I possibly can and hope for the best. You always want people to like your record, but at the same time you can’t please everybody — and at this point in our society, you can probably please only about half of them in one direction or the other. So I’m gonna please myself. People who like that, great. People who don’t, there’s always Charlie Daniels and Kid Rock. [Laughs.]
You and Mike Cooley have been writing about class and cultural divides for 20 years with the Drive-By Truckers. When Trump’s campaign momentum exploded, did it feel to you inevitable? Some of his supporters could be characters in your songs.
For sure. Maybe more than I’ll admit. Maybe I thought I knew what some of those characters would have done, but they might have surprised me this week.
I watched a snippet on TV last night about Thanksgiving dinner, and it was this family that was at least partially Hispanic. A fight breaks out over the father, who was certainly of some sort of Hispanic descent, saying he voted for Trump. It got heated and I thought they were gonna come to blows. It was really sad. The son was trying to understand the father, who had raised him to be against prejudice, sexism and all these things that Trump kind of boasts about in the debates and his speeches. The son was like, “How can you vote for this person that you’ve raised me to stand up against?” His answer was like, “I don’t care what he does, at least he’s not Hillary Clinton.” Good God Almighty! I’m still trying to sort it all out.
A lot of people have expressed similar attitudes of not caring. As a songwriter, how do you counter that?
I don’t know if I can. I haven’t had a moment to even process. I don’t know how long it will be before I’ll be able to start writing again, or what I’ll write about. Right now I’m still in the thick of this record, which I’m really proud of. I’ve got probably another good year of touring behind it, plus I’m renovating a house and raising a family. I’m probably a lousy subject to interview right now [laughs], ’cause I really don’t have any answers.
Patterson Hood plays shows at 8 and 10 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10, at McCabe’s, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. $25. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit pattersonhood.com.