Drive-By Truckers takes the socio-political focus of 2016’s American Band even further on the group’s upcoming The Unraveling — from which “Thoughts and Prayers” is premiering exclusively on Billboard today (Jan. 14). But frontman Patterson Hood says the set, due out Jan. 31, did not come easy.
“It was hard to figure out what to write about,” Hood tells Billboard. “I figured we would follow [American Band] up with something pretty different. That’s generally how we operate. We didn’t want to repeat ourselves and keep saying the same s–t. But I don’t think it occurred to us that things would take the turn they have taken nationally and politically, and s–t kept happening that kept inspiring us to write those kinds of songs — even just for our own sanity’s sake.”
Hood’s own acknowledged writer’s block was broken by the track “21st Century USA,” an observation about the current state of affairs he came up with during a tour stop in Iowa, while walking from the band bus to a nearby diner for some breakfast. Scrawling those lyrics on a napkin opened a floodgate for both he and fellow DBT writer Mike Cooley, leading to plain-spoken commentaries such as “Babies in Cages,” “Armageddon’s Back in Town,” “Grievance Merchants” and more.
“I think what we did a little differently this time was addressing it from a more personal standpoint,” Hood explains. “Even though I may talk about things that are political on a national level or a global level it’s all kind of from the base of how you deal with it yourself, within your own soul and within your family. What do you tell your kids about this s–t? How do you explain Donald Trump to your f–kin’ children? How do you tell your seven-year-old when he’s misbehaving that it’s not OK to act like the guy in the White House.”
“Thoughts and Prayers,” in fact, takes that on directly, as Hood takes stock of gun violence and mass shootings — particularly those involving children. He sings about needing “a pressure valve to keep from blowing up” and laments, “When my children’s eyes look at me and they ask me to explain/It hurts me that I have to look away,” as well as predicting that “the powers that be are in for shame and comeuppance when Generation Lockdown has their day.”
“It’s so prevalent right now,” Hood says. “Columbine wasn’t the first time it had happened, but it was still a fairly rare thing and a big story. Now it’s almost like a local story. There was an incident in my daughter’s playground. Fortunately the guy wasn’t armed with a gun, but he was armed with something.
“So it’s almost like a daily thing now, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t have any answers, but at least by writing about it … Well, it doesn’t even make me feel better. That was a weird thing coming to terms with this record, too: Generally I’ve written songs from a place of if something’s bothering me I’ll write about it and at least I’ll feel better about it in some way, but I can’t say this made me feel better, and that made me second guess everything about it as we were doing it. It becomes a vicious cycle of darkness, and I don’t want to live like that. But this is what I had to say, and I had to trust that.”
While writing The Unraveling was difficult, Hood says making the album was a pleasure. Reuniting with DBT producer David Barbe, the group recorded for the first time in Memphis, at the Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio, soaking in the history of the legendary room. (Additional recording was done back in the group’s hometown of Athens, Ga.) North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson guests on “Babies in Cages,” and DBT had an unexpected visitor when Mick Jagger dropped in as part of his duties co-producing the film adaptation of Peter Guralnick’s celebrated 2015 book Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll.
“Mick Jagger and Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights to that book, so Mick was in Memphis and came over to Sam Phillips Recording,” Hood recalls. “We knew Peter was coming, but I didn’t expect Mick Jagger to be with him. That was a pretty amazing thing when you’re sitting there and Mick Jagger sticks his head in your studio and says hi. He was super, super nice, very much the British gentleman. The Stones recorded part of Sticky Fingers at my dad’s [David Hood] old studio in Muscle Shoals, so I thanked him for being in the Muscle Shoals documentary and he asked me how people were doing. We didn’t have any super long conversation, but it was super nice. It would’ve been awesome to [have Jagger sing on The Unraveling] but I didn’t want to push my luck.”
Hood says DBT will be touring in support of The Unraveling. The group also plans to host voter registration drives at its shows. “We’re trying to do what we can,” Hood says. “I’m willing to do whatever I can do. Any small part I can play, I’m all for it. This madness has to stop.”
Listen to “Thoughts and Prayers” below.