Southern rockers continue to explore dualities on last year's 'American Band'

Drive-By Truckers famously explored the “duality of the Southern thing” on its 2001 breakout, the double-LP Southern Rock Opera. Now, more than 15 years later, the Southern rock band is still exploring these divides, even if they've taken on far broader scope, extending to society as a whole rather than a single region.

“Our band has always dealt with dualities. Most people talk about the line on Southern Rock Opera, but really the whole duality thing kind of defines our work previous to that and even more so in the records since then, including [the 2016 album] American Band,” said singer, songwriter and guitarist Patterson Hood, reached on a tour stop in Asheville, North Carolina. “It's the duality of the American thing. This is a great country, but…”

Though the musician trails off before completing his thought, the sharply realized American Band does a fine job picking up the thread, with Hood and fellow songwriter Mike Cooley confronting everything from the crushing weight of depression (“Baggage”) to mass shootings (“Guns of Umpqua,” penned following a 2015 incident at Umpqua Community College in Oregon that left 10 dead, including the gunman) and the increase in the shooting deaths of young black men at the hands of police.

“And when they turned him over/They were surprised there was no gun/I mean he must have done something/Or else why would he have run,” Hood sings on the searing, searching “What It Means.” “And they'll spin it for the anchors/On the television screens/So we can shrug and let it happen/Without asking what it means.”

The dualities cited by Hood present throughout, both in the music (“Guns of Umpqua” is an airy, gorgeous song about an oppressively dark incident) and in the larger themes at play in the record.

On “What It Means,” Hood contrasts the marvels of the modern world with the poisonous forces gathered at its center, singing, “The outer edges move and dazzle us/But the core is something rotten.” The album-closing “Baggage,” in turn, presents something of a counterpoint, Hood offering, “There's this baggage that we carry and some sweetness locked within.”

The gap between these poles — humankind's potential for goodness and society's tendency to draw out the worst in us — proves fertile territory for the musicians, who have never shied from exploring challenging issues, whether on record or in print. (Hood's 2015 New York Times Magazine essay covering the Confederate flag, its hold on the South and the urgent need to scrub it from the public sphere is among the best penned on the topic.)

Hood's comfort level writing on issues of race stems from his early childhood exposure to the issue. The musician's father, David, played bass guitar in the Muscle Shoals house band, which provided musical backing for some of the era's best soul and R&B musicians, including the Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin.

“My earliest memories as far as my dad, it was him going off to work with black people at a time and place where a huge segment of the population where we lived would not have condoned what he did,” Hood said. “It was kind of a secret society going on at Muscle Shoals [in Alabama]. … They were these white, redneck kids who were playing on all these soul records. Most people who heard those songs on the radio just assumed it was black people playing those instruments. Often the artists themselves assumed that. … Wilson Pickett had some very colorful things to say when he walked in the door.”

In recent years, the band has even taken to performing in front of a Black Lives Matter banner, which has generated expectedly mixed reactions. “There's no predicting it,” Hood said. “We played in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the week after the election [of President Donald Trump] and it was fine. But then we were in Detroit, Michigan, and we had a couple people talking shit.”

A large part of American Band's widescreen scope was informed by Hood's 2015 move to Portland, Oregon, from his longtime home in Athens, Georgia. “I was in the thick of writing that record when we made the move,” Hood said.

Before landing in Portland, Hood, along with his wife and children, spent a night in Roseburg, Oregon, home of Umpqua Community College, and the musician's newfound familiarity with the town's pristine mountain surroundings shaped his approach on “Guns of Umpqua.”

“I was on our porch [in Portland] drinking my coffee when the story broke. … I was like, ‘God, we spent the night there. That's a beautiful place. What leads someone to get up on a beautiful morning like this and go do something like that?'” Hood said. “There's no understanding it, but that whole mixture of the beauty of the surroundings and the horror of what was happening in that classroom, that's the song.”

As in past years, Hood and Cooley wrote independent of one another, though, as is custom, the two appeared to be operating on a similar wavelength. Cooley's “Ramon Casiano,” for one, tells the story of the 1931 killing of Mexican teenager Ramon Casiano at the hands of U.S. citizen Harlan Carter, who cited self-defense and spent no time in jail (he'd later head up the National Rifle Association). The tale unfolds like a precursor to the “Stand Your Ground” killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, which Hood delves into on “What It Means.”

“That's always been part of what we do, and it's a special thing about the band. It's part of what kept us together when things weren't so good, because there have been many eras and years and times in this band where it was not the joyful thing it should have been,” said Hood, adding that the Truckers recently completed a short recording session that might contain the seeds of a new record. “The band's in a good place now. We went through so many changes before we ended up where we are, but we're coming up on six years with this lineup … and it could not be a more magical time to get to play with this band.”