Inside Drive-By Truckers' Controversial New Album 'American Band'

With songs about gun violence and race relations, the Southern rockers release their most politically-charged record yet

Patterson Hood and the Drive-By Truckers have released the overtly political new album 'American Band.' Credit: Al Pereira/GettyImages

The first words out of Patterson Hood's mouth, after exchanging pleasantries, say everything one needs to know about American Band, the Drive-By Truckers' politically-charged new album.

"It's a fucked-up time we're living in," says the Truckers' singer, songwriter and guitarist, who, with his songwriting partner and onstage foil, singer-guitarist Mike Cooley, has written an album of blunt, pissed-off Trump-era anthems that already began to stir controversy months before its release.

"Neither Cooley nor I had really set out to write this kind of record, but there's just been so much crazy shit that's been happening and pissing me off, the album just wrote itself," says Hood. He sums up the sense of bubbling frustration and anger he's felt over the direction he sees the country headed by quoting one of the most renowned protest songs of his generation: "The Message," by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five.

"'Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge,'" he says. "It did feel that way."

The resulting album from Hood, Cooley and the rest of the Drive-By Truckers – bassist Matt Patton, drummer Brad Morgan and multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez – is an aggressive, punk-fueled protest record that addresses topics ranging from the NRA and racially-motivated police shootings to immigration and the ugly legacy of the Civil War. Nearly half of the album's 11 songs deal with gun violence.

"A lot of our records are set in another period of time," says Hood, "whereas this record is really about the 'right now.'"

All of these heavy topics coalesce in the opening rocker "Ramon Casiano." Sung by Cooley, it's a retelling of the little-known story of a Hispanic teenager's murder by a future NRA executive on the Texas/Mexico border in the 1930s.

American Band marks a huge perspective shift for a band that has often relied on gun imagery – in songs like 1999's "Nine Bullets," 2003's "When the Pin Hits the Shell" and 2011's "Ray’s Automatic Weapon" – to paint foreboding, occasionally violent, pictures. In a sense, American Band comes from the very distinct perspective of a group that remains burdened by, and reckoning with, its own bloody Southern history. The Drive-By Truckers have roots in both Alabama and Georgia.

But gun violence is just one of many things that Hood is feeling strongly about these days. The 52-year-old son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bassist David Hood speaks passionately about the partisan splintering of the media, the virtues of being a white ally to the Black Lives Matter movement, the ongoing legacy of the Confederate flag ("Get over the fucking flag. Fuck that flag," he says), and the disappointment he feels by the ongoing segregation he still sees at rock concerts – namely his own band’s shows.

On the day Rolling Stone Country spoke with Hood, he had just completed a drive from Alabama to Athens, Georgia, a trip that the Drive-By Truckers, the majority of whom are originally from Alabama, have likely taken hundreds of times since the group released its debut album, Gangstabilly, in 1998.

Three years later, the band would release their breakthrough opus, Southern Rock Opera, an impossibly ambitious concept album that married the doomed Lynyrd Skynyrd story with post-Civil Rights Alabama and set in motion many of the themes the Truckers have updated for the present on American Band.

For Hood, the 2016 election cycle has been an ugly reminder of the dark legacy of his homestate of Alabama, which spent the past half-century recovering from violently resisting integration in the Sixties. "The things Donald Trump says are way worse than a lot of what [Alabama governor] George Wallace said. It's like, 'God, haven't we learned anything? To have somebody want to take the whole country down the path Birmingham went down in the Sixties is pretty shameful. This fear of the other – fear of blacks or Mexicans or Muslims – it's a dead end."

"With the cops, you're deemed as being on the wrong side of things by how you look"

On "Surrender Under Protest," one of several typically razor-sharp songs Cooley wrote for the new album, the group addresses that very fear. "Does the color really matter" Cooley sings, "if the victims and aggressors / just remain each others' others."

The hard-charging anthem is just one of the songs on American Band that displays the Truckers' newfound sense of purpose. Hood is quick to point out how much he's been inspired over the last few years by socially-conscious art, be it Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly, Beyoncé's Lemonade or Ta-Nehisi Coates' award-winning memoir Between the World and Me.

"One thing I could really draw from the book is that [Coates] keeps saying that it doesn't just need to be black people saying that black lives matter. Maybe it's necessary to hear some dude that looks like me say it too. Maybe that's a step in the right direction. I don't have any answers for shit, but I know that the first step towards finding some answers is to start asking questions, and this record is just asking some questions and starting dialogues. I want to learn as much as anybody," says Hood.

"Historically," he continues, "white people are hesitant to talk about slavery and racial issues because we're the bad guys, so people pretend it doesn't happen or ignore it unless something happens that puts it right in your face. I felt like if I can start a dialogue, even if the dialogue is a little heated and a little uncomfortable, it's better than nothing.”

One song that has already started heated discussions among fans is "What It Means." The track tackles the recent high-profile shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, but its genesis dates back decades, to when Edward Wright, Hood's neighbor in Athens in 1995, was shot and killed by police while unarmed and naked. When Hood first posted some unfinished lyrics to the song to his Facebook page, he received thousands of comments – some angry, many supportive – within 24 hours. "It was like either I've fucked up, or I’m onto something," he says.

More than anything else on American Band, "What It Means" exemplifies Hood's recent political awakening. The Drive-By Truckers, who are currently celebrating their 20th anniversary as a band, have been not-so-quietly imbuing their music with progressive politics for years: the 2004 stormy Reaganomics critique of "Puttin' People on the Moon"; the bleary-eyed portrayal of the Iraq War and Bush foreign policy throughout their 2008 masterpiece Brighter Than Creation’s Dark; their harsh takedown of right-wing fearmongers on "The Part of Him," off 2014's English Oceans.

But after spending two decades doing the unglamorous work of relentlessly singing about class-consciousness, Hood and Cooley, who first met in college in 1985, look elsewhere on American Band. Hood says they've come a long way from the righteous indignation of Southern Rock Opera, with its third-person character sketches of poor white populism that featured lines like, "Ain't about no races / the crying shame / to the fucking rich man / all poor people look the same."

"I've definitely thought a lot about the place I was writing from when we were writing Southern Rock Opera. I was a lot younger and more naive," says Hood. "We have all kinds of problem with class in this country, and when I was younger I probably equated it all as being the same. Being poor sucks, and being poor and white sucks, but being poor and black might suck a little bit worse when you think about it.

"With the cops, you're deemed as being on the wrong side of things by how you look and how your car looks," he continues, "so a ratty car is going to get pulled over a lot more often than a Cadillac. But I know black men who have been pulled over in their Cadillacs too."

Hood isn't the slightest bit concerned about any blowback he and the Truckers might receive for the overt political nature of American Band. "Anybody that wants to get pissed off about that kind of thing, that's their prerogative. I'm not going to lose sleep about it," he says.

If anything, he's happy to challenge some deeply-held opinions or, at the very least, rile some people up. "I didn't get this job for someone to tell me what I can and can't write and say," he says. "If someone wants to try to control what we say or do, fuck 'em. Me and Cooley have been pissing people off for 31 years."