‘Always in pursuit of that elusive great song’ An interview with Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers
For the past 15 years Drive-By Truckers have stayed extremely busy. The Athens, Ga. based group has released nearly an album a year, toured to support their output and served as the backing band for other luminary musicians like Booker T. Jones and Bettye LaVette. All the while Patterson Hood, guitarist and main songwriter, has been at the center of it all.
Recently, I got the chance to ask Hood some questions via e-mail, in advance of the Drive-By Truckers appearance at the Pageant on October 28. Hood and I discussed his recent hand injury, the plusses and minuses of live shows and getting a chance to slow down a bit over the next year. Here’s what the prolific writer had to say.
Scott Allen: First, an update on your breaking news in late August: You wrote on the Truckers’ website that you had fallen at your daughter’s school with a glass water bottle in your hand. The bottle shattered upon impact, shards of glass embedded into your left hand, which is a guitarist’s bread and butter. How is your hand healing?
Patterson Hood: Thanks for asking. It’s healing up, slowly but surely. I’m going to physical therapy twice a week when I’m home and working on it on the road. They actually said all the guitar playing helps. I didn’t cut any of the tendons but got really lucky as I cut all around them and had some deep muscle and nerve damage. Then I got some kind of staph infection which really sucked ass, but I’m on the backside of that now. The September tour was miserable but it doesn’t really hurt to play anymore, and my playing is getting back to normal slowly but surely. My goal is to play better than before when it’s over.
The band has been on the road a lot this year and just started a fall tour on October 20 in Cincinnati. While the road can be rewarding it must be a grueling life at times. Do you find it hard to leave your family?
Being a way from my family is by far the hardest thing about my job (except for playing when sick or injured, which sucks, but thankfully doesn’t happen too often). I miss my family, but I try my best to make it up when I’m home by being really active in their lives. I’m a pretty sweet Daddy.
Where’s the worst food? Are there venues that you play where you say to yourself “Oh no, not this place again?”
We try to eat pretty well on the road, but sometimes you hit those towns where there just isn’t anywhere that doesn’t suck. We usually eat pretty well in STL. Likewise, we don’t play many bad venues anymore. Lord knows we have in the past, but if it sucks we usually don’t go back. We always enjoy playing the Pageant.
Concert review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit blow through the Old Rock House like a hurricane, Tuesday, May 31
On the opening track “Alabama Pines” from his new album Jason Isbell laments, “No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about.” The faithful that came out to see the impressive 32-year-old Alabama songwriter certainly did give a damn.
Opener Maria Taylor, one half of the duo Azure Ray, also brought her seemingly made for television sound to the Old Rock House stage. The Birmingham native presented a nine-song set lasting 45 minutes that elicited approval from the Isbell fan base. Bringing along her sister on drums/backing vocals and brother on bass guitar, Taylor’s sound was rounded out with great leads from 400 Unit guitarist Browan Lollar. The 35-year-old songwriter with three solo records and multiple appearances on Bright Eyes’ albums mentioned before playing a new song that it was “written about someone being 35 and acting like you’re 20.” Coincidentally, her diary-like songwriting and mousy stage presence mirrored the remark which seemed a bit young for her.
With flashes of brilliance and a strong acumen for classic rock, Muscle Shoals-based Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit delivered a solid performance to the sweaty St. Louis audience of 25-45 year-olds. Mixing in new songs from his recent album Here We Rest with songs written while still a member of the Drive-By Truckers and sprinkling in classic and obscure cover songs, Isbell played an hour and a half set of soulful Southern rock to a crowd that only filled about a third of the venue.
Starting with a couple of songs from the new album, Isbell warmed up with his Gibson hollow body guitar playing “Go It Alone” and “Tour of Duty,” then took swigs from a bottle of Jack Daniel’s before pulling out the dirty, gritty full-on rock sound of “Try.” Having performed the song live for a few years now, the quintet locked in as Isbell and guitarist Browan Lollar traded shredding rock solos and drummer Chad Gamble thoroughly abused his drum set bringing greater power to the live sound. Taking it back down a notch, the band moved to one of the strongest tracks from the new record, the album opener, “Alabama Pines,” before transitioning into the first covers portion of the set.
Two tracks written during Isbell’s tenure in the Drive-By Truckers (“Goddamn Lonely Love” and “Outfit”) book-ended the middle of the set highlighted by two choice cover songs. First up, the lead single from the new album, a cover of Candi Staton’s 1970 R&B dance floor-filler, “Heart on a String.” Isbell said from the microphone that while he didn’t feel that their version stood up to the original that he was paying homage to a track recorded at the now famous Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals. Let’s just say if a horn section was in the tour budget it would have killed. Isbell then introduced drummer Chad Gamble and the band tore into a cover of The Meters’ 1974 single, “Hey Pocky Way.” Gamble laid down a loose, funky rhythm and Isbell further highlighted the song adding a superb slide guitar solo.
Using the Drive-By Truckers song to segue back into his solo material, Isbell played the Here We Rest standout track “Codeine” followed by “Cigarettes and Wine.” Handing over the microphone to guitarist Lollar, the band paid homage to ’70s New York icons the Talking Heads with a cover of “Psycho Killer,” a song that’s worked its way into many live sets. Appropriately timed for the recent Memorial Day holiday, a moving version of the slow burning title track from the now classic Drive-By Truckers album Decoration Day had the crowd singing along ending the set on a one-two punch.
After the main set the band made the awkward stroll through the audience to an off-stage area. Clapping and chanting, the audience called for an encore, but sustaining their desire for more music seemed difficult. Isbell and his band finally emerged during a lull in the shouting. Arriving to his cache of guitars, Isbell chose his gold-top Duesenberg that he hadn’t played all evening and cranked up the volume on his Sommatone combo amp ripping into the opening chords of the Neil Young song, “Like A Hurricane.” With a closer that any classic rock radio fan would have appreciated, Isbell demonstrated his musical roots and songwriter reverence all in one choice.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit set list
Go It Alone
Tour of Duty
Goddamn Lonely Love (Drive-By Truckers)
Heart on a String (Candi Staton cover)
Hey Pocky Way (The Meters cover) (Chad Gamble lead vocal)
Outfit (Drive-By Truckers)
Cigarettes & Wine
Psycho Killer (Talking Heads cover) (guitar player sings)
Decoration Day (Drive By Truckers)
Like A Hurricane (Neil Young cover)
Robbie Fulks follows his own path. Trying for years to break into the country music scene in Nashville, Fulks eventually gave up, striking out on his own and releasing Country Love Songs in 1996. Never looking back, the twists and turns of his career have been as unconventional as his songwriting.
Demonstrating his wit and sense of musical adventure, he’s released a “best of” album filled with original songs never previously released, a live album containing his well known songs plus new material and an album of Michael Jackson songs. I recently talked with Fulks by phone from his home in Chicago as he “trained” for his upcoming Twangfest 15 show at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on June 10.
Scott Allen: You’ve played St. Louis quite often in your career. What’s your favorite memory of a past gig here?
Robbie Fulks: My favorite memory of St. Louis is probably the Hi-Pointe back in the day. Those are real good memories. Kind of a difficult load in and a real filthy club filled with smoke and strange people. But, it was always a good punk rockingly good time over there.
Unfortunately, the Hi-Pointe is no longer functioning as a music venue at this point.
I think I’ve closed down a lot of places there. The Side Door isn’t there and like five other places I’ve played aren’t there either.
You’re playing your Twangfest date with Nora O’Connor. How did you two first meet and begin a musical collaboration?
Well, we met probably 20 years ago. You know, Chicago is kind of a small town in certain ways. In country music ways it’s a real small town so we’ve known each other for a long time. We didn’t really start singing together as an “act” till about two years ago. I have a little residency here in Chicago and she came and did a night and we kinda clicked and went from there. We don’t play together every week, but we play pretty regularly — probably a gig a month somewhere.
What’s the best part of doing shows with Nora? What does she bring to your music?
It’s different when we play just as a duo. That kind of show is real quiet and we draw from her records and mine. We also do various songs that we’ve recently fallen in love with and arrange for duo. What we’re doing in St. Louis (for the upcoming Twangfest date) is I’m bringing my band and she’s backing up a lot of my songs. Then, maybe she’ll sing a song or two on her own. It’s kind of like me-centered. She sings a lot all over everything, dances and plays tambourine and looks real good.
Your songwriting and the writing that you do for your website both seem quite cerebral. Can you tell me a little bit about your educational background?
Oh, I thought you were going to say surreal. (Chuckles) Yeah, that too. (Laughs) Almost zero! I think I was M.I.A. through a lot of high school and college until I dropped out of college. I think I had two years of post-high school and then have been banging away at music ever since. But, I love words and I love books and so partly autodidact and partly whatever osmotically crept in through high school lessons when I was otherwise gone on marijuana or idle daydreams.
What are some of your earliest memories of music and what type of music influenced you growing up?
I would have to say Doc Watson was probably the first thing to make a huge impression on me. My dad had his first couple of records on giant reel-to-reel tapes. Doc is such a strong stylist and continues to impress me over the years. I would say people like him, John Hartford, the Country Gentlemen, and a little bit later Bob Dylan and the Beatles. All those people came from different points of view, but impressed me with individual style and not being afraid to follow their muse all over the musical map.
One of my favorite songs of yours is “Let’s Kill Saturday Night.” Can you tell me a little about your inspiration for the song?
Yeah, it probably wouldn’t make any sense, but the inspiration for that song was really kind of…I was at a show that Harlan Howard, the songwriter, used to put on in the parking lot of the BMI building just off of Music Row. Every year he’d throw this birthday party and different people would sing. Nanci Griffith got up and sang “Outbound Plane” by Tom Russell. That was kind of the germ of it. It didn’t come out sounding anything like that in the end. It took about nine months of twists and turns before that ultimate product. Oft times I find that I start from a different point than I end up at.
In memory of March 16 -20, I present my Top 10 Uncle Tupelo songs.
10. “Before I Break” – No Depression
From the debut. On an album of mostly dark small-town songs fusing punk rock along with country comes a song that fuses punk rock with country and is about trying to get through the small town days with the help of liquor. Coming from a small town like Belleville, Ill., a town of German heritage with a brewery (Stag, which closed in 1988) and many industrial businesses, the thought of growing old and spending your last dime on liquor must have seemed like a very real possibility and this song embodies that possibility.
9. “Still Be Around” – Still Feel Gone
In the midst of the punk/country maelstrom that is UT’s second album, Still Feel Gone, comes an acoustic song that could seem out of place; when it’s a song this good, it makes perfect sense. The acoustic guitars and plaintive vocal from Jay Farrar singing “When the Bible is a bottle and this hardwood floor is home,” you can’t help but feel for the bedraggled protagonist of the song and answer that, yes, you’ll still be around to put him back together when he breaks in two.
8. “Wipe the Clock” – March 16-20, 1992
For their its album, UT hired Peter Buck to produce a 90 degree turn from the assault of the first two albums. March is a gorgeous album of original songs that fit perfectly with the 6 traditionals and 1 Louvin Brothers track. “Wipe the Clock” is an original (I would have included “Moonshiner” and possibly “Coalminers” had I included traditionals in my top 10) that closes the album with harmonica, grace and one of the strongest Jay Farrar vocals ever.
7. “Fifteen Keys” – Anodyne
Anodyne, Uncle Tupelo’s fourth album, is my favorite. The blend of pedal steel and banjos open up the songs and give them a more personal sound to make up for the lack of the personal lyrics of the first two albums. I admit to being more of a sound and music listener rather than someone who focuses on the lyrics. Sometimes the simple sound of the lyrics and how they’re sung can make the best instrument. For example, listen to the line “Danger slow sign ahead, exhaust fumes Thin Lizzy instead…” and let the words wash over you.
6. “Grindstone” – March 16-20, 1992
An opening song that marked a new Uncle Tupelo, one that was willing to risk an absolute change in direction and managed to mesh perfectly with the murder ballads and traditional songs yet to come. “Maybe a waste of words and time….” Hardly.
Old 97′s may come from Texas, and they may be a Texas “bar band” through and through (clad in the requisite cowboy shirts and boots), but last night, to everyone at the Pageant, it felt like they were home again. “When the sun goes down on [St. Louis] town / That’s when I’ll know I’m home.” Right?
“Hiy’all doin’ St. Louis?” lead singer Rhett Miller shouted in greeting to the packed theatre. In response to the fans’ “wooooooo!” Rhett laughed and said, “Yeah me too, me too. It’s nice to be back in St. Louis.” It is nice, Rhett!
“Do you want to dance with me,” fans of the Old 97′s? Apparently, yes, you do. Following Whiskey Folk Ramblers and Those Darlins, we rocked out last night to the Old 97′s most recent return, though Rhett was sure to remind St. Louisans of their long history in this town: “We’ve always had great shows here, all the way back to Cicero’s and the Hi Pointe.” He reminisced, “I always bumped my head on the ceiling at the Hi Pointe. The Pageant has their shit together; they didn’t put a metal beam right here!” What town doesn’t love a band that loves their town?
Rhett set a perfect tone for the night — humor, excitement, familiarity with the local scene. And the band opened the set strong with “The Grand Theatre,” followed by a handful of songs from recent albums (2008′s Blame it on Gravity and 2010′s The Grand Theatre: Volume 1). From my vantage point, I could see the standing-room-only crowd pushed close to the stage, grooving and swaying (“Movers and martini shakers”), and even noticed the seated crowd who, judging from the median age, were likely fans of the Old 97′s since the early days (mid-1990s), nodding their heads and relishing this opportunity to see them live, maybe again after having seen them at the Hi Pointe years ago, or maybe for the first time (“Once in your life / And the time has come”). It’s always nice to see a band you love make it, and even nicer to see a group known as being a “bar band” successfully fill a big venue and not get lost in the space.
Yes, a lot of niceness all around last night, all the way through song 14. And 15. Aaaaaaaand 16. (“Yeah, I’m a little bit afraid that we’re out of control now.”) At song 17, Rhett exclaimed, “Don’t get too excited St. Louis — we’re NOT DONE YET!” Indeed.
Maybe like any long-lost love or friend or relative coming home again, fondness is commensurate with the length of the absence. And maybe like any house guest who can overstay the welcome, a 27-song show is a bit much.
But after song 21, the obligatory pre-encore stage exit, audience cheering, and band return, the encore seemed likely to deliver an earlier promise of “But you make it all right, you make it OK.” All right, Old 97′s, “I’ll stay all night / I’ll wait right here.” Let’s see what you’ve got for us.
For the first song of the encore, Rhett performed an acoustic solo of “Singular Girl.” It was lovely, truly. The second encore song featured bassist Murry Hammond performing an acoustic solo of “Valentine” with Rhett harmonizing. Very, very lovely. Then for the third song of the encore, the whole band rocked out solidly to “The Fool.” Fantastic.
Admittedly around song 14 I had thought that perhaps I didn’t want to stay until the end. By song 2 of the encore, I fully felt those lyrics, “You make me sorta glad that I waited”; yes, indeed, Old 97′s, “you thought I wasn’t listening / but I was.” Those first three songs of the encore were more than nice — truly, they were an awesome close to a really good rock show.
But then, oh wait, there’s another song? And another? Oh my god, there are SIX encore songs? At encore song 5, I asked the doorman how many more, and when he answered “2 more,” I hate to admit it, but as I tried to avoid standing in the way of the masses exiting the Pageant, the words they sang hit a little close to home: “‘The end is coming soon,’ but not soon enough / Restring all your guitars / Pack up all your stuff.” Now, I won’t go so far as to say that I would have embraced the sentiment behind the lyrics, “Now I’m begging and I’m pleading,” but I will say that after nearly 2 hours, I did enthusiastically join the refrain of “I’m on my way / I’m on my way / I’m on my way.”
Frontman Rhett Miller stood center stage and belted out song after song of heartfelt lyrics, only taking a break to wail and flail around as he strummed on his 6 string. Miller and his band’s professionalism on stage, along with their well-crafted tunes, make it easy to understand why these veterans fill venues across the country.
Opening was Nashville-based, 4-piece band Those Darlins. With Jessi, Nikki and Kelley Darlin took charge of the guitar and bass duties, while drummer Linwood Regensburg held it down on the kit. The group played a set that consisted largely of numbers from its upcoming sophomore release, Screws Get Loose. Known for wild, unpredictable shows, Those Darlins kept themselves in order and let their new batch of songs do the rebel rousin’. Look for an album release sometime in March.
All photos by Nate Burrell. See more at my Flickr stream.
Of all the bands who have played Twangfest over the last 14 years, the Deep Vibration is one of the most controversial. Not because it took the stage and preached politics (that would be another band), berated the audience (yet another band) or destroyed the backline (one mic stand fell over, not a crime). Some found the Nashville rockers’ assault on blues and country too haphazard, too dissonant, or maybe lead singer Matt Campbell was just too theatrical in his gesticulating, teetering, moaning delivery.
I love the band, without apologies, hooked on a single EP Vera Cruz, which came out in 2008 on Dualtone. Since then, the Deep Vibration has been keeping a relatively low profile, surfacing only for a Daytrotter session here, a Paste video there.
With Strange Love, the band’s first full-length album (just released digitally at iTunes and Bandcamp), Campbell and company turn up, get down and push all the rock & roll & blues & punk & post-honky tonk buttons. It’s not a record showing up on buzz lists, but it’s one of the best albums of this still young year.
On the track “Worried Mind,” the group cops the moves of any number of Dylan electric blues; it never feels like an homage nor quite outright theft. The pacing is at once lurching and deft, the singing wasted and charismatic, the playing — from the horns to the organ to the tambourine — in the pocket and out-of-hand. It’s a potent and polarizing sound; for me, it’s been worth the wait.
Listen to the whole of Strange Love at Bandcamp.
“Worried Mind” — The Deep Vibration
Concert photos: Still Be Around: A Tribute to Uncle Tupelo and KDHX Benefit at Off Broadway, Saturday, December 4
An assortment of local bands played tribute to Uncle Tupelo in front of a sold-out crowd at Off Broadway. The crowd rocked, swayed and sang along to songs that they knew and loved. It proved to be another affirmation of how much this city loves local music and the radio station that supports it.
All photos by Kate McDaniel. See more at my Flickr stream.