East Side Slim of Rhythm Highways had a chance to talk to Johnny Iguana of The Claudettes about recording their new unplugged EP 'Pull Closer to Me: Live in the Piano Room' and the expanded lineup in advance of the live full-band electric blues show at Off Broadway on Thursday, March 16. 

East Side: You've had a three piece with The Claudettes before, two piece, three piece, kind of varied, and now you've expanded to a four piece. 

Johnny Iguana: Yeah, we're going to limit it at four. Anything beyond four is just outright insanity, right? I mean we don't want to go to those kind of extreme lengths, but we started out as a duo -- piano and drums--and then added a singer and that made us a trio. We've continued to expand, we've got an additional singer who plays bass, so we've got piano, drums, bass, and vocals, but it's still really piano-forward. It's amazing how a band doubles in size when you not only have vocals but two vocalists singing in harmony all the way through. It just really, really expands things. I'm lucky to have two great singers whose voices blend so beautifully, and even though I'm kind of territorial about the bass lines -- playing them on piano -- Zach [Verdoorn] is such a great musician. He plays some guitar and some bass but when he plays bass he's not always doing the bass line. He might be doing a texture or figure along with what I'm doing, so it's wild! Those live sets are part instrumental part vocal songs and have kind of a Minutemen style of just pounding in sixty songs into a night or however much time we're allotted. All our songs are in the two- to three-minute range and there's no gratuitous solos all over the place. There are solos, but we kind of hit it and quit it with every song, flying fast and furious -- I think that pace makes for a really fun show. 

ES: You mentioned the problem of a bass player riding over the piano player's lines and that was one of the very first things I thought when I heard the news, "They added a bass player? Oh man, they really don't need a bass player with your left hand going all the time," but once I saw the live performance, it works so very well. 

JI: Yeah, Zach is also a really fine singer. I'm really, expressly, trying to write some songs for him now because when you have multiple singers -- it just keeps things moving, keeps things interesting, to mix up who's delivering the vocals, especially with different stories to tell. 

ES: Could you go through the lineup?

JI: So Berit Ulseth is the other singer, and then Matt Torre is the drummer, and I'd also played with Matt in Chicago, he's from the Detroit area. Matt was actually the one that introduced me to Berit, who's just such a beautiful singer. She's from Minnesota and has been in Chicago for years. So none of us are from Chicago, we all met here. That's one of the great things about the city is you just meet musicians and people from all over the place; you get its own kind of melting pot. 

ES: I was fortunate enough to catch this version of The Claudettes at a house concert here in St. Louis not too long ago. 

JI: Yeah, in November. 

ES: Yeah, and Berit's voice is just mesmerizing. She just kind of closes her eyes and it's like she's going someplace else and the guys are still all doing their thing around her. Hey, I know you've got a new album in the works coming up a little later this year. Care to talk about that with a little bit? 

JI: Actually, our drummer Matt was the one who urged me to spend our winter filming some videos. He said, "Let's do some kind of acoustic videos right around your piano," because we had this one show we did in Connecticut at a festival where they lost power, and it was in an old field house and there was an acoustic piano, just an old upright against the wall, so we left the stage and went over there and played the last 40 minutes of our set with tambourine, singing and piano. The reaction we got was just so rapturous. It was more so I think than even when we'd been plugged in. Matt was saying, "How many bands that really just churn out the electric sounds can also just do a whole set around a piano, and one that sounds so good and gets such a great reaction?" So we decided to do a video series of acoustic, unplugged performances and we filmed them and posted them, then our label Yellow Dog Records -- who put out our first two albums -- asked if they could put out the audio as an EP introduction to the four-piece Claudettes, to cast a spotlight on the softer side, the intimate side. It even makes me think of old '50s and '60s records, like we should title it "The Other Side of The Claudettes." 

ES: It does! 

JI: Because the album that we have coming in the fall was produced by Black Keys producer Mark Neill who had gotten ahold of me, who had gotten hip to the band and really liked the piano approach to the band and wanted to record us -- so we went down to his studio in Georgia and recorded a really pretty crazy, really great, wild ride of an album that's going to be out later this year, kind of in anticipation of that electric album we have this acoustic EP that is up on the Yellow Dog Records website right now. It's seven songs, it's some of our own songs, kind of previews from the forthcoming album and all, our takes on some soul and pop and other songs that are on there. 

ES: And I would say there are a couple surprises on there. I've listened to it several times over and am enjoying it very, very much. Now those new, live videos, are those going to be the only songs that are on the new album? Or will it also mix in some of your older material? 

JI: There's a few covers on there too, a couple songs you've probably seen us do live. There's a Leslie Gore song and there's The Ikettes' debut "I'm Blue," and the version that we did was more like the Shangri-Las, which is really fun to do live. So those two, but otherwise it's all songs from the next album. Also a couple of them that we're going to post last are our instrumentals from our first two albums that now have been expanded to have bass guitar; they were recorded with just piano and drums. Kind of wild gonzo-blues piano drum songs. 

ES: That's a pretty good description right there, and actually that was going to be the next direction I was going to go. I was going to ask you how you describe your sound on the new album and I say that because some of the material that your publicist gave to me, there's several pages, there's one page that's just all quotes and one that really struck me was from Eden Brent who said it has "all the sophistication of twenty-first century serious music with a hell of a sense of humor, most interesting piano album in my collection since Brubeck's Take 5," and that's coming from a person who is a heck of a piano player herself. 

JI: I was thoroughly charmed by that.

ES: Yeah! That's pretty cool, and the fact that Mark Neill sought you out, right? Is that correct? 

JI: Yeah, which was quite amazing because we were looking for a producer that we thought might bring other artistic flavors to the songs that we had written. It was really quite amazing that while I was contacting some other producers, Mark contacted me separately in an unrelated fashion. It was amazing timing because that was just exactly what we wanted to do was to ally with someone who was going to have their own outlook and their own take on the sound. And in fact, it was not all peaches and cream recording. When you have someone like Mark that's such a strong personality with strong principals of recording as well as arrangements -- he was unyielding in some ways and it made us squeeze out something that could please all of the above. It was quite a process.

ES: Yeah, I know from the description and the notes that I have. I wished there would have been a picture of him because your description of the man was pretty entertaining, so I am so looking forward to hearing this new album. You all doing your thing working with him and the combination of making something even greater than the sum of the already very, very nice parts. 

JI: I should quickly read you the quote that Mark Neill sent me about the album. He wrote: "Haunted cabaret, David Lynch movie-music crossed with Allen Toussaint's driving piano sound. And sort of like when you're driving late at night in the South and two radio stations are coming in together and it's perfect. Like Otis Spann and Mark Sandman from Morphine sitting in with Keely Smith. I'm kind of riffing here but seriously nobody sounds like them, I love this new record, it's crazy good."

ES: I'm glad you read that because that struck me as well, I did want to touch on that. It kind of got lost in my mind here but I'm really glad you mentioned that one; that is so good, and it's apt and it's perfect. That is a very good description of The Claudettes sound right now.

JI: It's indicative of the sort of doom we're in because you're supposed to be one thing. That's what the music business is all about. Unfortunately for us we're real living, breathing, flexing human beings with lots of interests and passions and it all comes out as this new thing, and yet to me I think we have one sound and I think it's rooted in American roots and blues music, but it's certainly not slavish to the past or dead on arrival like so much of blues and roots music sometimes is when people are too timid to let their own personalities and eccentricities lead the way. 

The Claudettes will be performing at Off Broadway on Thursday, March 16 with Tortuga opening.

 

Gene Jackson will remember night of March 10, 2017 for the rest of his life. It is the date of his Beale on Broadway release party for his first album, 1963. It has been a long road for the well-known local soul singer but the wait has been worth it. 

Gene, a 1979 Soldan graduate, started life in the Pruitt-Igoe projects with his mother, Mary Coleman, who loved to sing and did freelance work with Ike and Tina Turner, The Shirelles and others. She provided the R&B and soul influence while encouraging his interest in music by signing papers when he was 15 to enable him to play with bands. Back in those days he says he was "too shy to sing on stage," so he stuck to flute, congas and drums and limited his vocals to the Mt. Gideon church choir. 

As a teen, Gene began a nine-year gig with Doc Terry, the house band at the Mary Moonlight Lounge on ML King, playing flute and congas while his friend Skeet Rodgers played the drums. Rodgers (Inner City Blues Band) eventually stepped out front as a singer which inspired Gene to did the same. He joined Power Play as a pop singer thirty years ago and added blues/soul to his catalogue when he joined Soul Reunion sixteen years ago. A decade ago, after losing his day job, he decided to make a go of it as a full time singer. 

The only other time Gene recorded it was a music industry rip off story. In 1989 he recorded two singles. One, "The Night I Fell in Love," became a smash hit in England but he didn't know it. When he found out he discovered his name was spelled Jean and another person's picture was on the cover. He and his attorney daughter, Venus, are still chasing the royalties that were stolen from him. 

It was trust and respect that brought Gene to Paul Niehaus and his Blue Lotus Studios. He was impressed with Niehaus and Kevin O'Connor's work as co-producers of Roland Johnson's 2016 CD, Imagine This, which was first original music release of Roland's career. Like Johnson, Jackson had covered others work for years but hearing that release convinced him it was time to do one of his own. 

When Gene called Paul to see if they could do something similar his response came easily: "I said yes because I love his voice and emotional singing style." Once they began working together "it became clear," Gene says, "they were meant to make music together. He reminds me of my younger self." Their five-month effort with co-producer Kevin O'Connor, resulted in a deeply personal album about love, desire, marriage, joy, poverty and death that draws upon Jackson's life experience. 

The 10 cuts selected for on 1963 came from the 15 they actually wrote. While soul flows through the album, Gene and Paul describe it as a "bit out of the box." Jackson says it has "the feel of the early movement 60's through the roughness of the 70's with each song in a different key." And, he loves the "icing on the cake" that Paul adds to the songs at the end of their creative process. Paul agrees citing one of the out of the box elements: "Some of the tracks have 'wall-of-sound' elements in their production style, which was really fun to make."

Their creative process begins by finding a groove/a feel for a song. From there Paul says, "I would write a song form to it, to get all the phrases and sections. Then I added guitar and keyboard parts, and bounce out a rough mix." Gene would then take the music and work out the melody and lyrics. There was plenty of give and take between Jackson, Niehaus and O'Connor. Jackson co-wrote seven of the songs with Niehaus; O'Connor, who played drums and handled the string arrangements, joined them in writing the other three. 

In the case of "Ain't No Way," which also appeared on the new St. Louis Blues Society 16 in 16, Jackson had a melody in his head and Paul and Kevin turned into music. On "Son" it only took Paul playing a few chords for Gene to tell him, "I have it, the music speaks to me. I can write the words easily." 

Other songs weren't as easy. Both say "Rag Doll," even thought it was the first song written, and "Voodoo Girl" were the toughest and last to be finished. The creole flavor of the latter "was a real change of beat and rhythm," Jackson says, "I had to get online and do a lot of research to understand what it is so I could find the right words." 

The traces of Stax and Motown run through 1963. Listening to the opening chords on "That's Why I Love You," "1963," "Only God Can Help Us," "You're Gonna Get Hurt," and "Married at the Station" will make you think of other hits from those labels. The opening of "Love at First Sight" even echoes the Beatles. The icing on the cake Gene loves here is the "lushness and change of direction" that Paul achieves with the final elements he incorporates such as a conga drum, violins or orchestration. 

Gene and Paul are pleased with the outcome. Paul is excited because "this album has one foot rooted in classic 60s soul and another reaching forward into the future." Gene says the message "is about life and I hope people get enjoyment from what I wrote." As a guy who grew up in Motown in the '60s, all I can say after listening to 1963 is well done, brothers, well done. 

Click below for Bob Baugh's photos from the album release party.

Gene Jackson '1963' album release at Beale on Broadway, March 10, 2017

 

In the grand scheme of things being a "local" musician doesn't necessarily mean much to national media. However, when you're putting out quality work and incorporating some of the best musicians in your community the significance is undeniable. John Henry Parr, or John Henry as it goes, has proven to be a talent beyond the oversimplification of "local musician." His most recent album Dark City, Dark Country was released this past September, the same day he played Loufest 2016, and has been gaining momentum ever since. 

John Henry, previously known as John Henry and The Engine, scaled down the name in the past year or so as an effort to expand his capability to take on live shows in whatever format they were offered, regardless of the availability of additional musicians. "I was spending a lot of time in Nashville and I was noticing the flexibility that a lot of these musicians had playing with a lot of different people," says Parr, "I wanted that flexibility of being a solo artist without wanting to hurt anybody's feelings. So if I wanted to play a show I could put a band together and play it -- even if somebody couldn't make it," which can oftentimes be the case. 

Parr has assembled an all-star cast for his regular line-up. "All the guys in the band are in that situation with other projects too," says Parr. Involved indeed. John Horton (The Bottle Rockets) recorded on three of the songs from the record. Other St. Louis music alums include Bryan Hoskins (Cold Hearted Strangers, Red Eyed Driver) and Jordan Heimburger (Red Eyed Driver, School of Rock St. Louis), and Tony Barbata (St. Louis Drum Lab) all have their own commitments to other musical endeavors both in and outside of the city.

Parr has constructed a band of seasoned professionals with which to collaborate both in the studio and in a live setting. The final product translates as a well-constructed rock band with solid notes from acts ranging from Hall and Oates or Rick Springfield to Modest Mouse or New Pornographers. Hoskins and Heimburger especially throw in unique textures with the flexibility to provide a gang vocal sound that would give Arcade Fire a run for their money, while at the same time they are able to put forth the eloquent, precise harmonies that would rival pros like the Indigo Girls or The Everly Brothers. "I'm a big believer in that everything you listen to somehow filters into what you end up writing," says Parr, "Ultimately, I just want to sound like me. I think that this records sounds most like me than ever before." 

Dark City, Dark Country was recorded with St. Louis' own David Beeman at Native Sound on Cherokee Street. "John's dedicated to the craft creating a song. His attention to every detail is truly impressive," Beeman stated. The product is a solid representation of a rock band who knows exactly what they're doing. The album is a versatile; at times aggressive, at times vulnerable with a wide-ranging appeal. "I consider myself, our band to be a Rock-n-Roll band," Parr states, "but there's Americana, some blues, a little country, modern tones -- but ultimately it's rock." 

John Henry will be debuting the video for his song, "Fade to Black" at Off Broadway on Saturday, February 4, followed by a show with his band, Letters to Memphis, and The Brothers Lazaroff.

 

 

Paul Niehaus hears things in his head and St. Louis is about to hear them too because this year's St. Louis Blues Society Compilation album, 16 in '16, has just been released. It builds upon the success of last year's 15 in '15 which topped the list of KDHX's "Top of the Spins for 2016."

16 in '16 brings together yet another group of St. Louis musicians performing all original music. The producer and St. Louis Blues Society board member, Paul Niehaus, has been invaluable to this process volunteering his time and his Blue Lotus Studios to create the project.

Paul was a horn player in school but after hearing BB King's "Live at the Regal" at the age of 14 he bought a guitar and began playing. Then he began adding instruments -- bass, keyboards and percussion -- as he began performing with local bands. A 2009 music degree from Truman State followed and he returned home to "practice music as a professional freelancer." He has toured with several blues bands and now is considered one of the most desirable sidemen in town.

While Paul has a passion for playing music it's his audiophile instincts for the quality of the sound that got him into the studio. He says it was the "sounds in his head that got to him": "I'd go to shows and hear how the soundboards and live mixes all too often didn't sound that good. I was obsessed and I would dissect what I would do to it." It all added up to one cognitive experience that "the better you manage all those little parts of it the more awesome the end result."

Paul's sound obsession became a craft as he upped his knowledge, skills and recording equipment. It was formalized with the creation of Blue Lotus Studios in in 2015. He chose the name because "in Indian spirituality the lotus represents this beautiful plant that rises from murky muddy water." He describes sound engineering much the same way; "sometimes an artist comes in with a song and within it there is the statue. But it's like a massive block of marble that needs chipping away at steadily revealing this awesome structure that's underneath it." 

Sometimes there isn't even a block of marble. Soul singer Gene Jackson's 16 in '16 song, "Ain't No Way," was just a melody in his head. He came to the studio and hummed it for Paul. "Then Paul picked up a bass and started playing and then added a guitar and some organ. I went home with the music and wrote the lyrics. Then strings were to create this sort of Irish soul sound," explains Gene. It worked so well they are now making an album together for a spring release.

The other side of the production business is people skills. "Every time you get musicians together it is a combination of sum factor of all their personalities, their feeling that day, their moods -- artists are complex eccentric people, myself included. It's all about getting them comfortable and stimulated for a good take and I'm still learning," said Niehaus.

The production of 16 in '16 began over four months ago with conversations between Paul and Jeremy Segel-Moss (Chairman of the STLBS) about potential bands to invite. Each band has the freedom to choose how they want to be represented on the album but it must be original music. The primary goal is to produce a stylistically diverse well-rounded album and Paul feels they have. "If the Blues were an octopus, we got all eight arms represented," says Neihaus.

16 in '16 showcases the talent, energy and momentum in the St. Louis blues community. People like boogie piano man extraordinaire, Ethan Leinwand, moved here to be part of it. The story's the same with our highly regarded Texas transplant, John McVey. McVey describes his up tempo swing boogie cut, "She's My Girl Now," as "sort of a garage band blues rockabilly." He moved to St. Louis because "there are more good blues in this area than the entire state of Texas, and you can reach half of the country in a day trip. In Texas we considered a 17 hour drive a day trip. No more of that for me." Ethan and John have become part of a "self-amplifying feedback loop," as Paul put it, "They love it here and want to be a part of it and make it better."

Those tentacles keep coming with younger musicians like vocalist Emily Richard and pianist/arranger Chase Garrett of Sweetie and the Toothaches with their song "Bigger Fool." Emily says she and Chase "are energetic happy people so jump blues fits our style." The song is personal. "You gotta go through the bad to write good blues," Emily says. Chase, another recent transplant and friend of Ethan Leinwand's also moved to St. Louis "because this is a piano blues city." Another up tempo contribution comes from Little Rachel with "Time Flies in The Friendly Skies." Paul says it is simply "2:42 minutes of dynamite of rockabilly energy."  

Leroy Pierson and Tom Hall keep it authentic with their resonator guitars. Leroy's cut, "Easy Rider," also features Curtis Buckhannon on mandolin. They have played it together many times over the last 45 years. Leroy explains that "the tune is basically traditional blues with Lightnin' Hopkins and Henry Townsend influences . . . but if I listen closely I could probably find ten different influences in this song." Tom says his cut "Texas Twister Blues" draws from "a bit of North Carolina Piedmont blues and my own licks with Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis influencing the tune."

Traditional and urban blues, soul and R&B are also on board. Beulah Foehner, daughter of local musicians -- Sharon and Doug Foehner -- makes her vocal debut on her mother's song "Homeless Child." A straight up blues song she wrote "after seeing a photojournalist report about children living in homeless shelters." Skeet Rodgers & The Inner City Band, the urban blues specialists, weigh in with a slow tune, "I Wonder." David Dee's "Bit by The Blues," takes on a Memphis Stax-y kind of R&B blues ambiance that pairs well with Gene Jackson's soul groove. 

Tyler Stokes and the Delta Sol Revival stir up the 16 in '16 musical gumbo with "I'd Rather." He says he wrote "a blues-centric song in a way that fits with their Latin/New Orleans/ Rhumba style." The Maness Brothers, a guitar and drums duo, bring a bluesy rock style with "Drive Me (And My Soul)" that is reminiscent of the Black Keys. Tommy Halloran takes us on a jazzy/folksy Americana blues ride with "Sleepin' Dog" that features Eric McSpadden on the harmonica and some killer harmonies from Kari Liston and Leslie Sanazaro. Bob Case, who used to tour with JD Hutto and others offers up "Sometimes It Feels (Like the Whole World's Gone Crazy)" which has an early electrified Bob Dylan flavor to it.

Marty Spikener brings a couple of grooves. One is "to keep the blues scene thriving" which he does as a St. Louis Blues Society board member and by working with kids through "Blues in the Schools" program. The other groove is with his On Call Band that brings a Texas shuffle/backward beat style to the compilation with "Crawling Back." Paul calls it a "quintessential textbook cool blues with some funny lyrics in it." Marty laughs and says, "Paul also calls it a flat tire groove." Paul Bonn & The Bluesmen are also shuffling with "Stop the Killing" that brings an electric low down blues style featuring Jon Erblich on harmonica.

Tom "Papa" Ray brings it all home with a poignant St. Louis story, "Saint Louis Gunshot Blues." He said he wouldn't write songs for a long time but when asked this time he said, "I thought it was time for a proper weather report about our city." Tom says he "wants to do blues for the 21st century" and this styling is "somewhere between Slim Harpo and Gil Scott Heron."

What a way to start the year. The St. Louis Blues Society 16 in '16 has it all: octopus tentacles, gumbo, weather reports, and some great St. Louis sounds that will get stuck in your head.

This article was originally published in the January issue of the St. Louis Blues Society's monthly BluesLetter. To see more photos of Paul Niehaus' Blue Lotus Studios, click the image below.

Paul Niehaus and Blue Lotus Studios

  

If an album could best reflect America in 2016, it would have to be Drive-By Truckers' American Band, released just over a month shy of the most heated election in our nation's recent history. DBT's eleventh and most blatantly political album to date, American Band oozes with imagery that gouges into the heart of some our most controversial issues, most notably racism and gun violence. 

It also happens to be one of the best albums of last year, pairing the vivid lyrics and supreme storytelling abilities of songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley with the band's signature hard twang and guitar mastery. Twenty-one years after starting out, and after numerous lineup changes, Drive-By Truckers sound stronger and bolder than ever. 

The Cooley-penned album opener "Ramon Casiano" recalls the 1931 shooting murder of a 15-year old Mexican boy on the Texas border by future NRA leader and gun-rights activist Harlon Carter. Hood's haunting "Guns of Umpqua" takes us into a classroom at Oregon's Umpqua Community College on the day a gunman walked in and opened fire in 2015.

On "What It Means," the most jarring and powerful tune on the album, Hood speaks unflinchingly about the murders of Trayvon Martin and (closer to home) Michael Brown, wailing softly, "If you say it wasn't racial when they shot him in his tracks / Well I guess that means that you ain't black / It means that you ain't black." 

Cooley's deceivingly upbeat foot-stomper "Surrender Under Protest," the first single released from the album, stares down the South's dirty legacy of racism disguised as tradition, asking, "Does the color really matter / On the face you blame for failure / On the shaming for a battle's losing cause?"

I spoke to Cooley by phone just ahead of DBT's show at the Pageant this coming Friday night about the album and the heavy issues it takes on.

 

Amy: You guys have never shied away from social and political issues in your music, but American Band holds nothing back. Did you set out with the intent to make a protest record or did the songs just come together that way as you were writing?

Cooley: It was one song at a time, really. Because some of the songs go back several years, it wasn't until Patterson and I went in and recorded the first several songs that we realized it was going to be this kind of record. It was like, "Okay, I see where we're going with this. Let's go forward." 

Amy: Many of your past albums have been steeped in the imagery and stories of the South, whereas this one paints a broader picture of America as a whole. I'm assuming the title was part of making this distinction. 

Cooley: Exactly. We didn't think about the title until afterwards, and there are a lot of things you can draw into that; but it also occurred to me that, though it wasn't our intent, it does say, "We are not a Southern Rock Band and please stop calling us that" right there on the cover. But they'll still keep calling us that. 

Amy: This is also your first album in nearly 20 years to not have the signature cover art painted by Wes Freed, but rather a darkened photo of an American flag at half-mast. What made you decide to depart with tradition for this cover? 

Cooley: At some point, we just all at the same time said, "Y'know, it might be time to have a photo cover." We all like photo covers and I think Patterson came up with the idea that the subject matter and direction we're coming from needed something that looked a little more photojournalistic. 

Amy: Is the photo also at all in reference to the song "Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Dawn?"

Cooley: Well yeah a little, and of course the flag at half-mast in correlation with all of the shootings that we were talking about -- not just mass shootings, but shootings of unarmed black people and our incredible number of innocent bullet recipients. 

Amy: Speaking of that, you wrote the tone-setting opening track, "Ramon Casiano." What compelled you about this particular story and how it ties to what is happening in our country today?

Cooley: I wanted to write the song before I found the story; and I particularly wanted to shine a light on the cultish nature of what the NRA has created and cultivated since the late 70s. I was always interested in the whole transformation of the organization, because I knew it wasn't always what we know it to be today -- this kind of right-wing activist organization. So, as I was learning more about that, I came across this story that just happened to be the back-story of the man who headed up that transformation; so all I had to do was tell that story. I was like, that's the song. And I really set out to shine a light on the white supremacist streak that runs through that whole crowd and what really motivates them. 

Amy: Tell me about writing the song "Surrender Under Protest" and how you feel the South has or has not progressed with regards to its racist traditions.

Cooley: I was banging my head against the wall writing that song for weeks because it was in the aftermath of the church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina and I was just floored by that, because even though I know that obviously racism is not over, this was a 21-year-old resurrecting some old-school racist terrorism and lynch mob talk that really did shock me. It showed me just how much worse the resurgence of white supremacy was after Obama's election than I even thought it was because that was what prompted this guy to go radicalize himself.

Then, in the aftermath of that, the whole controversy over the Confederate flag erupted and we got to learn why the flag in question there next to the South Carolina capitol came to be there and why it had to be a thing. And it's so typical of the South -- it's a hallmark of Southern politics that they were feeling a little pressure in 2000 to remove it from their actual capitol building because, lo and behold by the year 2000, having a racist flag on your capitol building wasn't good for business anymore. So they felt the pressure and in order to make one of those grand compromises in the tradition of George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door or the push back against marriage equality, they basically had to take a stand. 

So when this horrible shooting happened, one of the victims happened to be a member of the State House of Representatives whose body would, in political tradition, lie in state; so they decided to "surrender under protest" basically and pass a law requiring two-thirds vote in both houses to take it down. They couldn't just quietly go out there and take the stupid thing down without anybody noticing. That was their act of pointless defiance to simply be dragged into the 21st century. 

Amy: What was it like growing up liberal in Alabama with its long history of racism and being a catalyst for the civil rights movement? 

Cooley: Well, a lot of us have. I think the thing is for some reason, Southern people and Southern politics have never really been in line with one another. I recently was reminded that Alabama celebrates Robert E. Lee's birthday on the same day as Martin Luther King Day; so that was their act of pointless defiance to comply with that becoming a federal holiday. You put up with a lot of that and some of us find it embarrassing and disgusting; and some say they do and I don't buy it; but it's frustrating. You still have to confront those kinds of things all the time. 

Amy: With American Band being released just prior to Election Day, you obviously didn't know what the outcome would be; but these songs seem even more urgent now. 

Cooley: We were basically writing this album saying, "What the hell is wrong with you people?" without actually knowing just how bad it was. When we were writing a lot of this stuff, Donald Trump wasn't even a candidate. When we started recording it, it was a few months before the primaries even happened. In a way, this record is really about the forces that made him possible. We just didn't know how powerful they were. 

Amy: The band has gone through a lot of changes and road-bumps over the years. What do you think has allowed Drive-By Truckers to not only survive, but also continue to thrive?

Cooley: Mostly a real strong unwillingness to have a day job. [Laughs] When me and Patterson figured out that we could do this for a living, we were pretty determined to make it work no matter what came about. So picking up a new member and fixing what's broken and booking the next tour is really always been the priority for us. There aren't a lot of jobs for 50-year-old men without a college education and a big long gap in employment.  

Amy: How has your relationship with Patterson evolved over the years as fellow songwriters, band mates and friends?

Cooley: It's finally just reached this level of consistency. It's just like a marriage, you know? If you stick it out long enough, you just learn that the other person's there whether you can stand 'em or not. We just finally figured out that there was this thing we could do that would work better if we could do it together. 

Click below to view Tim Farmer's photos of DBT's performance at the Pageant with guest Kyle Craft. 

Drive-By Truckers (with Kyle Craft) at the Pageant, January 27, 2017

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