The Delicate Balance of Patterson Hood

The Drive-By Truckers play 930 Club Feb 28 and 29.

By Steve Houk

Looking at things from a bird’s eye view — maybe one of an Osprey or Cooper’s Hawk sailing over his home in Oregon — Patterson Hood has a damn good thing going as he soars along in his mid-fifties.

I mean, regarded as one of music’s most compelling songwriters and still the leader for the past 24 years of one of rock and roll’s most stunningly powerful and still somewhat underrated bands, Drive-By Truckers, along with a new album out and a new tour, and at home, his wife and two kids? Yeah, life is good for Hood.

But now and then, without fail, his oft-tormented mind cannot rest. Along with the immense joy of being a bandleader and a father can also come a simmering, percolating fury at the so-called bullshit of the world, to Hood that being the current direction of the country and the ancillary consequences that have blanketed his psyche and threatened the security of his children. It is this fury that can, at times, overshadow the good and startlingly remind him of the bad. But that’s where Hood’s churning torrent of magnificent expression, his outpouring of seething emotion amidst honesty and eloquence, that’s where it all comes into play and creates remarkable music. And that’s the delicate balance of Patterson Hood’s life.

“I mean, it’s a pretty shitty time, but I’m trying to stay positive with it,” Hood told me from his home in Portland days before the current Drive-By Truckers tour begins, one that hits DC’s 930 Club Feb 28 and 29. “I’m by nature a fairly optimistic person, so it’s all a balancing act. Any given day, the balance is tilting too far in one direction and there’s always an ‘Oh shit!’ Too much weight on the back of the plane, move the weight to the front of the plane. I’m always trying to kind of figure it out, it’s still a work in progress. The good news is I do enjoy my job.”

As the DBT begin their US tour on the heels of their 12th record The Unraveling, Hood is stoked. He is clearly infused with the boundless energy that musicians feel as they hit the road again with their beloved band after a brief break. And like before, it’s taking the brutally honest and often dark and real subject matter of some of his and his band’s new songs and turning it all into a rock and roll euphoria that is part of his adroitness, his prowess, and his magic.

“I enjoy the rock and getting out there doing it,” Hood said. “The goal is now to take these dark fucking songs and kind of find the joy in playing them live. It’s almost like the Blues tradition, no one really thinks of our band as a Blues band in the traditional musical sense of what 12 bar blues sounds like or whatever. But in the sense of how Blues music came to be and what it stands for, is kind of what we do. I mean you take your troubles, you play them in a celebratory manner on a Saturday night or whatever night it happens to be, and people come together, and it kind of chases the darkness away, at least for the night. This record’s very much kind of like our Blues record, and our shows have always been fun and celebratory, so I definitely want to retain that as we tour behind this record and kind of tie it all in together. That’s the goal. But yeah, the band’s more fun than ever, to be in and to play in, and I think that’s reflected in how the record sounds. We’re in a really good place as a band.”

With songs on the new album like “Babies In Cages,” “Thoughts and Prayers” and “21st Century America” that address Hood’s disgust with current administration policies and their after effects, once again he has done brilliantly what he has done so many times before, write songs with such power and directness, telling it like it is, no holds barred, a punch in the gut, from his perspective. And yet as Hood says, along with the dark comes the light, so even though it was a longer recording process, being back in the studio with his longtime band was a true joy and helped to define and hone the album’s direction, one that included a little, well, political strategy persay.

“It was definitely a long process of figuring out what the album was going to be,” Hood thoughtfully said. “We only took a couple of weeks to mix it all, but then it was months of just kind of listening to it in different sequences and pulling this out and pulling that out, put this back in and all of that. And then it came together kind of quickly, it was fun once we figured it all out. It was a matter of getting our heads wrapped around what it actually was supposed to be. Then we first talked of originally putting it out in some form last year, then we kept pushing that back for various reasons, sometimes personal reasons, sometimes business reasons. Finally, it’s like, ‘Why don’t we just wait and put it out in January, it’s the primary season. It’s about to kick off and let’s go with it. And let’s just put the emphasis over these songs.”

Patterson Hood (L) with Mike Cooley (Photo Courtesy Getty Images)

Hood has had some astoundingly good company along his songwriting road with the Truckers, including of course Jason Isbell and Hood’s current longtime bandmate Mike Cooley. Die-hard Truckers fans will notice that there may have been a couple less Cooley tunes on The Unraveling than the several that were on DBT’s previous American Band record, but that’s just an accepted part of the whittling process, and Cooley remains a revered part of Hood’s team.

“Cooley is by nature, a super prolific type of writer. We’ve gotten lucky a couple of times with the last couple of records and had more of his songs than usual, and that’s always a blessing. To me, the world’s a better place with the more Cooley songs, the better, because I’m a big fan. If I wasn’t in this band, he would be one of my very favorite songwriters, period, anywhere. And so I’m always happy for as many as there are, but at the same time, the quality was there, I think “Grievance Merchants” is just a fucking top shelf song, and I think “Slow Ride Argument” is kind of different than anything we’ve ever done in a really cool way. And then after we get through next year, we’ll figure out what we want to do with all the other songs we wrote, and maybe turning that into a record, a very different kind of record. So that’s kind of where we’re at.”

And then there’s The Unraveling‘s album cover, which largely sums up Hood’s currently riled mindset as well as his always underlying optimism. Taking a different direction than artist Wes Freed‘s remarkable fantasy-like drawings that graced past DBT album covers, the simple image on The Unraveling is a stunningly beautiful photograph of two children, Hood’s 10 year old son and his best friend, standing at the Oregon seaside at sunset, dressed as Indiana Jones, their current obsession back when. But to the contemplative Hood, there’s a lot more to it than just the natural beauty of the image.

“Once we settled on what the album was, I was looking for a photo that captured something about that, and when I stumbled across that photo, it immediately spoke to me, it’s like, ‘Oh, wait a minute, this is how I want this to look.’ Because any optimism I have in life comes from the kids, that’s where my optimism comes from. Sooner or later, us old fuckers are going to die off and hopefully they’ll be able to fix some of this shit that we’ve left them with. So it’s like they’re looking out at that sun saying, ‘Maybe this world won’t be as fucked up as it seems right now with some of these people that are leading it.’ “

Drive-By Truckers with Buffalo Nichols perform at 930 Club, 815 V ST. N.W. WASHINGTON, DC 20001. For tickets please click here.

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