Drive-By Truckers homecoming bridges more than Athens’ past and future

Patterson Hood moved away nearly decade ago. Here’s why it’s still home and why band means so much for town.
A house in Pottery Town in Athens, GA, surrounded by apartment buildings and a parking garage, used to be owned by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. The house had to be moved from the original location because of the new construction in the area. (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nell Carroll

Credit: Nell Carroll

A house in Pottery Town in Athens, GA, surrounded by apartment buildings and a parking garage, used to be owned by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. The house had to be moved from the original location because of the new construction in the area. (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

ATHENS — If Patterson Hood could push a button and go anywhere, he’d be a short walk from downtown bars and weeknight music shows near the river at the bottom of the hill on East Broad Street.

The mill house built nearly a century ago where Hood and his family lived for roughly 15 years was painted golden yellow with a faded burnt umber pressed tin roof and thyme green trim. A big star hung above the kitchen window.

The house still stands, but it was moved to an adjacent lot, after a development boom morphed the neighborhood into something that pushed Hood to leave. The big star is gone.

“I would have gladly stayed there and maybe added on, maybe built me a little studio place,” he said. “That would be about heaven to me.”

While he can’t go back in time, Hood and his band Drive-By Truckers continue to bridge the past and future of Athens music culture, especially during their annual Heathens Homecoming.

The four-night residency, starting Wednesday at the storied 40 Watt Club, is both an artistic and economic driving force that key figures in town point to as increasingly important as downtown Athens continues to change.

“One of the great things about being Southern is you do care where you come from and you never forget and you want to maintain the lifeblood of the place that made you what you are,” said R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills, who plans to attend at least one of the homecoming shows.

File photo of Drive-By Truckers — Matt Patton (from left), Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez. CONTRIBUTED BY DANNY CLINCH

Credit: Danny Clinch

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Credit: Danny Clinch

Drive-By Truckers formed what Hood calls a “Southern punk rock band” in Athens in 1996 and rose to national prominence in the early 2000s with a lineup that included Jason Isbell, winner of six Grammy awards since splitting with the band.

Powered by provoking songwriting of Hood and co-founder Mike Cooley about Southern culture, politics and flawed characters and communities told from a sympathetic perspective, the band could opt for fewer nights and bigger venues like the Classic Center or Georgia Theatre.

That wouldn’t feel right, Hood says, because 40 Watt, capacity of roughly 700, offered a place to play decades ago before they could fill the room.

“That’s home,” Hood said.

Patterson Hood, singer-songwriter and co-founder of Drive-By Truckers, performs on his solo acoustic tour on Friday, June 18, 2021, at City Winery Atlanta. This was the first of two sold-out shows. (Photo: Robb Cohen for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Drive-By Truckers were included in 2020 in the Athens Music Walk of Fame inaugural class along with R.E.M., The B-52′s, Pylon, Widespread Panic, Vic Chesnutt, Danger Mouse, the Elephant 6 Recording Company, Hall Johnson and Neal Pattman.

Hood and Cooley, who both grew up in the Muscle Shoals, Alabama music scene, are ”two of the greatest songwriters I’ve ever worked with,” said David Barbe, a music producer and director of the music business program at the University of Georgia.

“It’s not just a classic, keen sense of observation, which every good writer has. It is the ability to look from inside in a non-judgmental way.”

Homecoming started in 2000 as a benefit to raise funds and awareness for Nuci’s Space, an Athens-based nonprofit whose mission is to prevent suicide. Proceeds from the band, an auction of art and collectables and fan donations in 2023 totaled $75,000, according to the nonprofit’s Dave Chamberlin.

Drive-By Truckers’ longtime association with 40 Watt and Nuci’s Space makes homecoming week mean more than nostalgia.

“It’s more about loyalty,” Barbe said. “There is a real connection. ... Independent venues of that level are going away around the country.”

There are at least 110 bars and restaurants in downtown and roughly 55 stages total in town for acts to play music, according to John Crowley, former dean of the UGA College of Environment and Design, who helped create a plan for downtown growth more than a decade ago. Still, there’s a tenuous feeling after venues including Caledonia Lounge and Go Bar closed in recent years.

“It’s hard to say about live music,” Mills said. “It’s never going to go away but it’s not supported in the way that it was when the 40 Watt was first opened.”

With more development planned — expansion of the Classic Center, hotels and housing — Crowley says community officials must “help it happen good,” in order to maintain balance between shiny new objects and historic charm.

A lone house in Pottery Town in Athens, GA, surrounded by apartment buildings and a parking garage, used to be owned by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. The house had to be moved from the original location because of the new construction in the area. (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nell Carroll

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Credit: Nell Carroll

Hood has experienced aspects of Athens he loved go away.

By 2015, his Pottery Town neighborhood had been swallowed up by development. Old homes and iconic spots like Jittery Joe’s coffee roaster, a tin structure with stained glass windows and intricate iron detailing on the porch, were torn down and replaced with brick and concrete high-rise apartment buildings with names like The Mark, The Standard and 909 Broad.

The lot where Hood’s house originally stood has been replaced by a multi-level parking garage.

With UGA enrollment swelling beyond 40,000 students, the number of residents in downtown Athens soared from roughly 2,000 people in 2012 to at least 10,000 today, according to Crowley.

“The downside of a cool town is everybody wants to be there,” Hood said.

He felt compelled to go somewhere entirely different as his beloved corner of Athens changed. A move to Atlanta or Nashville made sense business-wise, but he and his wife decided on Portland as the new adventure.

“We weren’t looking to move,” he said. “We didn’t have a choice. They were going to build it, and if we stayed they were going to engulf us.”

In 2012, Hood and Mills were outspoken in opposition about Wal-Mart potentially occupying an east downtown location. That didn’t happen, but student housing did.

“Obviously the University of Georgia is the 800-pound gorilla,” Mills said. “Students need a place to live. However, it certainly feels to me that in the mad rush to provide and make money off student housing, we’re losing some of the things that made Athens what it was.”

The changing landscape reminds Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz of residents who recall popular “juke joints” in the 1950s and 60s north of downtown on what is now Martin Luther King Parkway. Downtown was previously dominated by chain stores like J.C. Penny before they moved to the westside when Georgia Square Mall opened in the 1980s. The 40 Watt had multiple locations before settling in on West Washington Street in 1991.

“If I thought we were a town that was losing our creative capital, so to speak, I’d be really, really sad,” Girtz said. “But instead I think we’re a town where that creative energy has bounced around from place to place.”

Still, the growing population, and the likes of Target and Chick-fil-A moving in downtown, have driven up values.

“If rents keep going up, it’s going to be awfully tough to keep that independent flavor,” Barbe said.

A house in Pottery Town in Athens, GA, surrounded by apartment buildings, previously owned by Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers. The house was moved from the original location because of construction in the area. (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nell Carroll

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Credit: Nell Carroll

Nearly a decade ago, Hood’s house transformed into a symbol amid much debate.

He sold the quarter-acre plot to Landmark Properties for $800,000 (his wife purchased it for $74,000 in 1999) with the condition he could relocate the house outside of town. When the deadline passed in part due to inclement weather, many feared Hood’s house would be demolished.

“It was a very polarizing thing,” Barbe said.

The developer eventually moved the house to nearby Pottery Street. An affiliate of Landmark Properties owns and manages the property, and it’s being prepared to be rented.

“As a company founded by Athenians, we are proud to have preserved an historic home while creating new opportunities for the students who give the Classic City so much of its special character,” said Wes Rogers, Landmark Properties CEO, in a statement.

Hood says he’s thankful the house is still there. Bitterness eased and he became increasingly homesick during the COVID-19 pandemic when touring halted and Hood was unable to return for an extended time to Athens, where the band records music and members Jay Gonzalez and Brad Morgan live.

“Athens is still where I come home to,” Hood said. “I’m sure at some point in time we will end up back in Athens. It almost seems inevitable to me.”

Jay Gonzalez of the Drive-By Truckers performs a free solo show at the Athens Public Library February 4, 2024. (Nell Carroll for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Nell Carroll

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Credit: Nell Carroll

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