Patterson Hood considers himself to be a pretty cynical person. As one of the leaders of Drive-By Truckers, he’s spent the past 20-plus years channeling that cynicism into writing songs that expose the dark urges and broken promises of the American project in songs like “Putting People on the Moon,” “Goode’s Field Road” and most recently, “What It Means,” a meditative Black Lives Matter-era commentary on race and police brutality that appears on their excellent new album American Band.
The Truckers will be releasing an inspired live version of the song, recorded at this summer’s Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island as a charity single on September 29th.
But despite his lifelong pessimism, even Hood couldn’t have predicted the course the country has taken over the past year. “I hate to sound Pollyannaish, but I really don’t think I could’ve mustered up the kind of cynicism to predict the kind of bullshit we’ve seen over this past year,” Hood tells Rolling Stone. “When we recorded American Band, they hadn’t even had the first primary yet. We were writing about this dark time that I honestly thought was going to get better.”
The Drive-By Truckers have been barnstorming their politically charged set all over the country this past year, which Hood describes as the most rewarding run he’s ever had with the band. Despite a few exceptions, including a show in San Luis Obispo, California, where fans walked out en masse during “What It Means,” Hood says the reaction nationwide to his band’s political explicitness has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Most of the people we’re in contact with are pretty heartbroken over what’s happening,” he says. “I’m trying my best to hang on to some ounce of optimism, and I really get that from the faces I see out in the audience every night.”
Written in late 2014, Hood originally wrote “What It Means” as a response to the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and his one-time neighbor in Athens Edward Wright, black men who had all been killed by police over the course of several decades.
“I mean Barack Obama won, and you can choose where to eat,” Hood sings in the song, “But you don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.”
“I want people to hear the song whether they like it or not because it’s part of a conversation,” Hood says of “What It Means.” “As a country, we still haven’t come close to even beginning to heal from slavery or Jim Crow or the assassination of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X or Robert F. Kennedy. Maybe this song can just be a small part of us starting to heal at some point in time.”
In addition to the live version of “What It Means” (which includes an impassioned four-minute spoken word introduction), the Truckers’ latest 7″ single will also contain a brand new original, “Perilous Night.” Hood describes the new song as the “true follow-up” to the type of directly topical songs on American Band, but he says that it may be the exception on the band’s new record, which they’ve already begun writing.
“A lot of what I’m writing now is deeply personal stuff, not that I consider songs like ‘What It Means’ to not be personal, because I do, I totally do. But the new songs I’m writing are a little less blatantly political.”
For now, however, the band will spent the rest of 2017 touring American Band, which continues to draw some of the biggest crowds of the band’s career.
“Everybody in the band really believes that we’re standing for something,” says Hood,” “and that’s important.”