With the Oct. 30 release of It’s Great To Be Alive!, the Drive-By Truckers’ five-vinyl/three-CD box set on ATO, the band brings the sort of intensity and excitement that first put them on the map with their 1999 live album Alabama Ass Whuppin’. Alive!, which takes it’s name from the closing statement of Hood’s “World of Hurt” from 2006 album A Blessing and A Curse, features 35 of DBT’s best-loved tracks from the last 20 years, a period that has seen the band survive numerous personnel changes and internal strife to emerge with what singer/songwriter/guitarist Patterson Hood, co-founder of the band with Mike Cooley, feels is their most solid lineup yet.
Recorded over the course of three packed houses at San Francisco’s Fillmore last November as the band wrapped its tour in support of English Oceans, Alive! tracks the current lineup of Hood, Cooley, drummer Brad Morgan, bassist Matt Patton and multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez as they bulldoze, cavorts and caresses their way through such classics as “Lookout Mountain,” “Putting People on the Moon,” “Mercy Buckets,” “Zip City,” and set closer “Grand Canyon” from 2014’s English Oceans.
Billboard spoke with the Truckers’ Patterson Hood recently about the new album and the long and tangled history of one of rock ‘n roll’s most ferocious live bands.
Billbooard: This new album recalls Alabama Ass Whuppin’ in terms of its rawness and energy.
Patterson Hood: We kind of wanted that. When we went back and did that re-mastering of Alabama Ass Whuppin’ I hadn’t heard that record in years, because I’d always been really unhappy with the way it sounded. Then, when we dug back and found the original reel-to-reel tapes, and I couldn’t get over how good it sounded. I guess the record got screwed up in the mastering process and it was so muddy and bogged down. But I love the immediacy of that record, and we kinda kept that in mind when we made English Oceans, for that matter. We felt if we could conjure up more of that, it would make for a better record, and I think it does.
Why did you record It’s Great To Be Alive! at the Fillmore?
The Fillmore has always been kind of an extra special room for us, and how we would measure how we were doing. When Southern Rock Opera (2001) came on, and all of a sudden we had management and a booking agent and things like that, our measure of success was “when will we get to play the Fillmore?” [Agent] Frank Riley at High Road said, “you’ll play it within a year, you’ll headline it within three,” and we did, we beat both of those benchmarks by few months each. Last year was the first time we’ve ever done three nights, so it seemed like a great way to end the year, “shit, we’re in a great room, let’s make that live record we’ve been talking about for years.” Everything’s kicking ass and good, it’s like, “let’s show off what this band sounds like, like we did on Alabama Ass Whuppin’ all those years ago.
You also have the live DVD from Dirty South , which I’ve always felt was a prime showcase of that era of the band (which featured Jason Isbell’s songwriting, vocals and guitar, and Isbell’s then-wife Shonna Tucker on bass).
I haven’t seen that since I signed off on it, 11 years ago now. At the time I was really unhappy with it. It’s weird, I’m sure I wouldn’t feel that way now, but at the time, the band was so good that I felt like it was an off night. We’d had a really long drive that day, and we’d had a hellish drive getting into the [Athens], we spent about two hours sitting on the side of the road in Atlanta, we got to the 40 Watt and threw everything on stage. There were a ton of technical issues that at the time drove me crazy that I’m sure now I wouldn’t give a shit about. Initially, the only reason they filmed it was they were gonna do a video for “Never Gonna Change.” The label hired a guy to film it, it was all label stuff, so I was probably grumpy about that, too, being honest about it years later, it was kinda shoved down our throats a little bit. And after they filmed it, the label decided they wanted to put the whole thing out, and we really didn’t want ‘em to because it wasn’t what we wanted to do at the time.
We had infamous numbers of battles with the label [then New West], and that’s one that, all these years later, I have to say they were probably right about. It has served us well, I’m glad it’s out there, I’m glad there’s a document of that era. I had no idea at the time that that era was going to be so short-lived, I honestly thought we were going to have that band forever [Laughs]. Now I’m really grateful that it all got filmed.
To have those three songwriters — Hood, Cooley and Isbell — in one band is pretty amazing.
It was a special thing, I’m lucky I got to experience it, and lucky that I lived though it [Laughs]. I don’t think some things are built to last. It’s a shame.
That was a moment in time, and almost an anomaly in the history of this band. This current musicality feels more like how you started out. It has the crazy wailing moments, but also the quieter moments you deliver so well, and the bottom is rock solid throughout.
Yeah, Matt Patton has been a really special addition to the band. He’s a great bass player, and he’s also a great member of the band in other ways, too, besides his playing. He brings a lot to the table, and he has great producer instincts. He’s been doing more and more production on his own, when the band’s off, down at the studio in Water Valley, Miss. He’s finding really young bands and producing these cool records on them. He brings a lot to the table, he’s opinionated, and he has a very strong personality, but it melds really well with ours. And of course Jay Gonzalez is a secret weapon that’s not that big a secret any more. His keyboard playing, his harmonies, and I love his guitar playing. He’s one of my favorite guitar players I’ve ever played with.
How did you choose which songs to include on the new album?
Last fall we were going though looking for songs that we hadn’t played as much that we needed to pull back out and kind of intentionally getting them back worked in so we would be ready. We don’t do a set list, so that makes doing a live record an extra challenge. We didn’t want to do something different for this, that’s part of the fun of the whole thing, we don’t know what’s coming next. We wanted to be able to retain that, but we also had an agenda. So we kind of compromised. We had a list, but it wasn’t a set list, it wasn’t in an order, it was just a list of songs that we wanted to make sure we hit over the three days. So at the end of the first night, we’d say, ‘OK, we got a good take of that one, mark it off,’ and whittled it down to where by the third night we had a pretty manageable number of songs we wanted to make sure we got a good version of. We ended up getting keeper takes of about 50 songs, and we took the best 35 of that for the record. I’m really happy with it, really proud of it.
Why was it important to get a live album on this band now?
Just because this band has gone through so much shit, and we came out the other side so strong, I wanted to capture it. I wanted to capture this incarnation of the band playing an overview of, at that time, 18 years worth of songs. I guess the oldest song on there is “Runaway Train.” “Lookout Mountain” is almost that old, I wrote it about 1989.
“Lookout Mountain” is a heavy, dark song about suicide.
I was pretty unhappy when I wrote that. I think I kinda lived there then, that’s kinda where I was. That was a pretty unhappy time of my life.
Is it hard to go back there when you perform it?
No, it’s not. That song’s very cathartic. I guess it’s like the old bluesmen, they’d sing on Saturday night about the hardships they’d lived through all week, but that singing about it makes ‘em feel better, it kind of redeems it. That’s my feeling about it; we’ve all lived through some rough times here and there, but the singing about it is what’s kept us going, kept us alive.
You touch on a bit of everything across the band’s career, and it’s pretty balanced. I see cuts from the first two albums [Gangstabilly from 1998 and Pizza Deliverance from 1999] there, songs I’m not sure the Dirty South-era band could have, or would have, delivered so well.
That [Dirty South] lineup was really killer at the onslaught, and of course there’s a huge faction of our fan base that that’s what they want all the time, the onslaught. But I don’t want everything to be that. I love that we can do that, and I’m really proud of that, but the bands that I love usually have all kinds of stuff that they do, and I prefer it to be more varied. I want to be able to get the quiet moments too, to be intimate. To be able to whisper to you as well as scream at you. I’m workin’ on trying to improve my quiet singing, that’s a whole other challenge. In fact, it’s harder, and after all these years, I’m still pushing myself as hard as I ever did, probably harder, because I don’t have as much bullshit in my brain taking me away from what I need to be doing. There’s so many different directions the craft can take you, if you’re willing to put in the time to learn it. That’s what keeps us doing it, like Cooley says, “when we’re not still getting better at it, I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Artists that do that tend to have longer careers.
Yeah, and I want to die with my boots on, hopefully still in this band. It would be the greatest irony in the world after this band was so legendary for personnel changes, if this lineup lasted for the rest of our lives, and we all died as old men playing together. “Yeah, back in the oughts, this band went through five bass players and five third guitar players, and all of a sudden this lineup stayed together for 30 years.” [Laughs] It could happen, it’s such a good place we’re in now. None of us are 22 and stupid any more, which I don’t mean as a slur against any particular stupid 22 year-old, because I think we were all stupid at 22. We’ve lived through that, and come out the other side. Hell, Jason Isbell is well up in his 30s now, and Lord knows he’s not stupid, he’s got his shit together about better than anybody I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t be prouder of what he’s doing, and how well he’s doing it, from a personal and a professional and artistic level. Surviving’s cool.
Listening to “World Of Hurt” again makes me think it might have saved a few marriages. It’s a special song, but it probably came from one of the most tumultuous periods for this band.
Oh, god, yeah. It’s funny when I sat down to write that song initially, I think I was writing it to Jason and Shonna. And when I finished writing it, it was about me. I don’t know what that says, I might be admitting to something terrible here, I don’t know. But I think that during the duration of writing it it morphed, I was kind of considered like the “elder brother” a little bit at the time [for Isbell], that was a little bit of our relationship, which, by that time in the band, was one of the problems in our relationship, because I’m not sure he wanted an older brother at that time in his life. I think I sat down writing it from that point of view, then somewhere in the middle of the second verse I tapped into something that was way more about me.
I’ve been writing songs now since 1973, when I was eight, and after all these years and way over 3,000 songs, it’s still a mystery to me. I know how to do it, I know craft, and I know technical shit, but that’s not what makes a good song. That helps you deliver a good song, it helps you complete a good song, but that doesn’t make a good song. The part that makes it good is still a mystery to me. If I knew how to do it, I’d do it every damn day, I’d write so many good songs and hit songs and everything-else kinda songs. But I guess that’s part of the attraction, because after all these years it’s still absolutely a fuckin’ mystery to me.
I’m curious what the reaction to “World Of Hurt” was when you brought it to the band back in the day.
I can’t remember anyone being overjoyed about it, except me. I was really proud of it, I think I went on record as saying it was my second best song after “The Living Bubba,” which I’ve always considered to be the best song I ever wrote.
Songs are great for different reasons, but I’d put “Mercy Buckets” and “World Of Hurt” up there with your best. Who knew you could offer such sound advice on relationships.
Yeah, I probably learned by failing so many times. I’ve come out the other end of so many things in my life. I’ve always been a late bloomer. I’m 51, and I feel like I’m just now becoming a pretty decent singer, my guitar playing has really improved in the last few years, I’ve worked really hard at it. My writing I’m still trying to get better at. And the personal stuff. It’s not easy being married and having a family, especially doing this for living, tying to figure out a balance to where I can still be the crazy artist but not have my family suffer for my art, is a big one, and it’s a work in progress on any given day. But, at the end of the day I think my kids like me pretty good, and I think they think I’m a pretty OK daddy. I sure try. My wife’s keeping me, last I heard. I just saw her a minute ago, she took off to the store but I think she’s coming back. So I’m getting the hang of it all.
The ending of the set is strong, to roll from “Angels & Fuselage” to “Zip City” and “Grand Canyon.”
Live records don’t really get done anymore, and when it does happen its not something anybody pays attention to or gives much of a shit about. This will be our fourth release with ATO, plus I did a solo record with them, and they’ve been so great at every turn. Every time we want to do what on paper doesn’t really make sense, and without exception they’ve been great about it, and this is a big one. “OK, we want to do this massive live thing in era when nobody’s really doing that any more,” and they’re, “oh, that’s great, that’s gonna be epic.” All the things that so often a label would be arguing against they were actually pushing for, “if we’re going to do this live record, we’re gonna do the fuck out of it,” and it does kinda hearken back to those days of ’75 when all those definitive arena rock live records came out. I hope people hear and notice it, because this is what we do, what we’ve been doing, and trying to build up to for a long time. It feels good to have it documented for posterity. Some day when I have grandkids and I’m this slobbering old man I’ll say, “this is what your ol’ Granpa did for basically your parents’ whole lives and for years before they were born.” We’ll see.
How do you think history will document Drive-By Truckers?
I don’t know, we’re kind of practicing a dying art. I’ve always felt like if we’d been doing what we were doing a decade or so earlier we’d probably have been a bigger band. We do this thing. I’m proud of it. I think we’ve written some real good songs, made some real good records, played some real good shows. I don’t know if anyone will remember or not. You never know. No one knew who the fuck Big Star was, but now everybody knows Big Star. At the same time, there are bands that were huge in their day that no one really remembers. You don’t know what will click with some future generation, and people have so much music at their disposal now that it’s become sort of disposable. And we’ve never looked at anything we’ve done as disposable. Whether it’s from being pretentious or thick-headed or whatever, it was always important — to us, anyway — at every point in the game. The things we did that didn’t work, it wasn’t for a lack of trying. We never put a single song on a record that wasn’t there intentionally. At the time, it was always done with the intent of it working. We never phoned it in. Our worst eras of the band weren’t for a lack of trying. Sometimes it don’t work, and if you’re going to be trying new things and pushing yourself, you’re going to have situations, records, or songs, or whatever, that just don’t work.
I don’t want to wrap this without mentioning your op-ed letter to the New York Times about the rebel flag controversy. You told me you think more people read that letter than heard your songs. What can you say now about how that letter landed?
It’s something I feel strongly about. I feel like there’s so many good things about the region of the country we come from. So when people say “it’s heritage!’ man, it’s bullshit. Our heritage, the good and the bad, it’s way beyond some stupid flag or some symbol. If you want to be proud of heritage, let’s talk about being from the same region that gave the world Faulkner, Harper Lee and Truman Capote and Hank Williams. Tom T. Hall. That gave the world R.E.M. That’s the heritage I’m proud of.