After a trifecta of viscerally political records — 2016’s “American Band,” along with “The Unraveling” and “The New OK,” both released last year — the Drive By Truckers are ready to get more personal on their next album.
The band — which returns to East Tennessee for a performance on Thursday, Oct. 21, at The Bijou Theatre in downtown Knoxville — still has plenty to say, co-founder Patterson Hood, who established the Truckers with bandmate Mike Cooley in 1996, told The Daily Times recently. But on the next studio effort, which the band hopes to release next year, they’re focusing more on what’s going on in their respective corners of the world as much as they are the tumultuous state of affairs they’ve tackled on the past three albums.
“I’ve always considered our band to be political, and I think you can make an argument for there being political songs on every record we made,” Hood said. “The last three were kind of a trilogy as far as addressing current times, but I would say this (new) one falls way further into the personal end of the spectrum. It might be the most personal we’ve made since (2003’s) ‘Decoration Day,’ because we were spending a year and a half locked down at home, while so many people around us were going through so many problems and actually losing a lot of people in the last couple of years.
“There’s a lot of loss on it, but somehow it also kind of rocks too. I’m really excited about it. We haven’t premiered any songs from it yet, and I don’t know when we’ll start pulling some of them out, but we’re working on a few and getting them ready. We’re definitely close to finishing it.”
The record also will feature artwork by Wes Freed, whose work has graced the covers of nine of the band’s albums, going back to its 2001 break-through, “Southern Rock Opera.” Sending Freed the rough demos of the new songs feels like a return to the Truckers’ halcyon days, Hood added, when he, Cooley and their bandmates (including, for a short period, acclaimed singer-songwriter Jason Isbell) took seeds planted by groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd and combined those sounds with the bleak Southern gothic oeuvre of writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.
The guys made their bones in the same Athens, Georgia, scene that inspired their predecessors, R.E.M., a town that’s still home base today even though Hood lives in Portland, Oregon. His new hometown has been in the news quite a bit of late, but as someone on the ground there, it’s best not to believe everything that’s said about the city on certain media outlets, he said.
“The part of Portland that gets talked about on Fox News is literally about a two-square-block area, if that, and a lot of the problems there come from the Proud Boys coming in from out of town and starting (stuff),” he said. “As someone going to a protest last summer, which directly led to me writing a couple of the songs on ‘The New OK,’ it was very different in person than the way it looks on TV. The protests themselves were very peaceful — maybe a little angry, but very peaceful. The problems came late at night, with other people coming in to (mess things) up after the basic protest part was over. That and then federal troops occupying party of our town and tear-gassing everybody in sight.”
Hood’s left-wing politics, and those of the band, stand in stark contrast to the good-old-boy brand of Southern rock that has been the Truckers’ forte since the band’s inception. “Southern Rock Opera,” in fact, was a concept album based on the career of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but Hood and Cooley used their songs to deconstruct the Rebel flag mythos associated with that band and the South in general, and ever since their songs have been steeped in what they call “the duality of the Southern thing” — acknowledging a troubled history while being proud of the people, the culture and the places that make it up.
“I don’t really ever set out to write a particular type of song — the songs lead me to where we go, and I basically follow them,” Hood said. “After making three consecutive records that were as political and steeped in current events as the last three have been, I was definitely ready to write other things. I think those three records kind of stand and hold up in what they are, and I’m proud of them — but also, there’s other things to deal with too.”
Given the long-standing partnership between Hood and Cooley — which spans 36 years now, he pointed out, 25 of them as leaders of the Drive By Truckers — whatever comes next will continue to tell the stories and celebrate the people of the region they both love, Hood added. They are, in a way, family — and that’s about as Southern as it gets.
“He’s probably the closest thing to a brother I’ve had,” he said of Cooley. “We used to fight and bicker a lot when we were younger, but we really don’t much anymore. We kind of get along beautifully, and he’s an amazing partner for this. After all these years, I still can’t wait to hear his next song or hear what he does to my next song.”