Drive-By Truckers Give English Oceans an Abstract Accent

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Patterson Hood has just finished explaining to another music journalist that he really doesn’t “go around and listen to Southern rock all the time.” It’s not the first time the Drive-By Truckers singer, songwriter and guitarist has cleared up these misconceptions, which are bound to get old.

But the bottom line is Hood’s grateful that his veteran band still gets so many interview requests. During the promotion cycle for the Truckers’ latest album, English Oceans, Hood and co-founder Mike Cooley have fielded lots of questions about how writing separately led them to such similar song themes, precisely because they’re of a breed of roots-rockers who bear serious scrutiny.

As you’ll see, it’s nothing for Hood to wend his way from literary references to Country Hall of Famers in a single interview.

CMT Edge: On English Oceans, Mike Cooley’s song “First Air of Autumn” describes a sense of nostalgia. But the Truckers haven’t been all that into flaunting or fantasizing about youthful freedom, and that’s a central theme for a lot of rock and country bands.

Hood: Honestly, I think Cooley’s song is the antithesis of that. I don’t generally like to speak too much about the details of his songs, but we’ve been doing a lot of press for this record together, more than we’ve ever done before. So I’ve heard him articulate that that song was inspired by people he knew who felt like their lives had peaked at an age that he felt like his was just beginning.

Do you see any connection between your continued productivity as songwriters and the fact that you were writing about adult stuff from the beginning?

Sure. We never really got to take a big part in the youth culture of our time. It’s like the Grandpa Jones syndrome, where he played his [grandpa role] as a young man, and as he got older, he was able to grow into it. Sometimes I feel that way.

From what I understand, the Truckers’ experience of backing Booker T. Jones in the studio a few years ago caused you to reconsider the importance you place on music in relation to lyrics. How’d that happen?

I think the Booker experience definitely has affected everything we’ve done since then. I think we began to put an additional focus on some of the musical aspects of writing that I know I, for one, had been guilty of maybe not giving enough thought to in the past.

I began writing long before I learned to play. And I was always first and foremost a lyric guy. Working on that Booker record, which was an instrumental record, taught me about telling a story without words. I mean, he looked at that record very much as a concept record. … All the songs had stories. Our breakthrough was when he sat us down and started telling us the story that inspired each song.

Do you think the fact that you’ve leaned more on character studies than autobiography has helped keep you from getting burned out in your songwriting?

I don’t like to do the same thing over and over. I don’t think my life is interesting enough to make ‘em all autobiographical. But at the same time, there’s a lot of me in ‘em all, and certainly is a lot of me in this one.

Southern Rock Opera [the band’s 2001 album] had this narrative and agenda. … All of that was sort of an excuse to delve into growing up in the post-Civil Rights South. … The post-Martin Luther King Jr. South was the time that I grew up in, and a time when you’re having to live down some of the bad behavior and terrible things that happened.

Decoration Day [from 2003] was extremely autobiographical, even though the songs may have been disguised as character studies. … And so on, and so on. This one, I was delving into a little different area. This one’s a lot more impressionistic, and almost abstract at times.

I hear what you’re saying. No matter who a song’s protagonist is, you’re in it, too, because it’s filtered through your worldview.

Right. A lot of these songs are almost story-songs with the story removed. I mean, “When He’s Gone” is almost like a scene from a film without the context of the story that it’s based on. … I think that’s great that people are reading all these things into it that aren’t necessarily there.

Likewise, “Pauline Hawkins” was inspired by a book I read, Willy Vlautin’s The Free. I had some people accuse me of [portraying] this almost sexist view of a man towards a woman. And I’m thinkin’, “Well, actually the song was written from the point-of-view of a woman.” [laughs]

I left it more open-ended, just because so many of my songs have revolved around more of a narrative. It was kind of my thing this time to leave the narrative part of it out, just have the scenes.

Elsewhere, I’ve seen Tom T. Hall invoked as a point of comparison for your storytelling.

I do love Tom T. Hall. I think he’s probably the world’s greatest at the kind of writing he did, or does.

Despite the fact that he’s a Country Music Hall of Famer, I think he’s underappreciated. You’ve covered his song “Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a Chicken)” and maybe others too. What’s most appealing to you about where he’s coming from as a writer?

We’ve done so few covers as a band, or me as a solo artist — I mean, so few relative to how many bands cover other people’s material. We’ve covered two of his songs and that says a lot. I covered “Pay No Attention to Alice” on a solo record and the band did “Mama Bake a Pie.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if we do another one before it’s over.

I love his attention to details. I love the parts of the story he tells and the parts of the story he doesn’t tell. It’s like he instantly knew what part was important, not always the part that you would think would be. There might only be 16 lines in the song, and four of ‘em might tell you what the guy ate for dinner that day. But somehow he tells you more than some people can do in an entire book.

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