Drive-By Truckers navigate the politics of rock

Athens-born Drive-By Truckers return to Atlanta for two nights at the Variety Playhouse. Courtesy of Andy Tennille

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Athens-born Drive-By Truckers return to Atlanta for two nights at the Variety Playhouse. Courtesy of Andy Tennille

The Athens-born band is back on the road with a trilogy of new albums to showcase.

If ever there was a musical prism through which the divisive social and political events of the past five years could be viewed from a progressive perspective, the soundtrack would undoubtedly be provided by Drive-By Truckers.

While the Athens outfit has long been political with their releases dating back to 2000′s sprawling double concept album “Southern Rock Opera,” the Truckers have kicked into overdrive in the past five years, beginning with 2016′s politically charged “American Band.” The unexpected response to that album, founding member Patterson Hood said, resulted in a tour that was intended to last just months expanding to years.

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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

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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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

Credit: Robb Cohen for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Fast forward to 2021 and singer/guitarist Hood and the rest of the band — Mike Cooley (guitar/vocals), Jay Gonzalez (keyboards/guitar), Mike Patton (bass) and Brad Morgan (drums)—- are getting ready to hit the road again, having spent the past year and a half sidelined from their usual breakneck touring schedule. And while the band spent that downtime playing virtual shows, getting some Payment Protection Program money and relying on the kindness of hardcore fans buying their music from the online site Bandcamp on a monthly basis, the Truckers also released a pair of albums in 2020 that formed an organic trilogy with “American Band.”

The first, “The Unraveling,” was released in January and dealt with issues ranging from gun violence (the rollicking “Thoughts and Prayers”) to the Trump administration family separation policy (the dark and dirgy “Babies in Cages”). The December follow-up, “The New OK,” was inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests the Portland, Oregon-based Hood was experiencing on a first-hand basis. Hood’s response came as a result of noticing hip-hop and pop artists were the only ones addressing these issues with their art versus “...so-called rock and roll [artists] kind of pretending none of these things were happening.”

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The Drive-By Truckers — Matt Patton (from left), Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez — will perform Nov. 12-13 at Variety Playhouse. CONTRIBUTED BY DANNY CLINCH

Credit: Danny Clinch

The Drive-By Truckers — Matt Patton (from left), Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez — will perform Nov. 12-13 at Variety Playhouse.  CONTRIBUTED BY DANNY CLINCH

Credit: Danny Clinch

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The Drive-By Truckers — Matt Patton (from left), Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley and Jay Gonzalez — will perform Nov. 12-13 at Variety Playhouse. CONTRIBUTED BY DANNY CLINCH

Credit: Danny Clinch

Credit: Danny Clinch

“I think we ended up with an unintended trilogy of records, not to put a pretentious slant on it,” Hood explained. “It’s not like we sat down and said we were going to write a trilogy of records bitching about the current situation in our country. But that’s kind of what ended up happening. When we made ‘American Band,’ we looked at it as its own freestanding thing we were going to do and then we were probably going to move on and do something else. We didn’t honestly intend to tour behind it for three and half years. As a band that’s kind of known for our Southernness, and we’re obviously a bunch of these white, southern, middle-aged dudes, we kind of fall into the stereotypical Trump demographic. We thought it was important for people that look like us to speak out about these things.”

With the current state of the world, where musicians that voice their views through their art often get pilloried for not staying in their lane and singing about more generic and benign topics, the Truckers have been subjected to that kind of scorn from conservative fans. But it’s not something Hood concerns himself with, particularly given the fact that he and bandmate and fellow songwriter Mike Cooley (vocals, guitar) have been stirring the pot with political fare dating back to Cooley’s “Uncle Frank” from the 1999 album “Pizza Deliverance.”

“I think we’ve always been political,” Hood said. “I always assumed that it was obvious. I was kind of taken aback when people were outraged by ‘American Band.’ Some people couldn’t believe we’d done this, but we’d been doing this kind of thing all along, you just really haven’t been paying attention. You just listen to the hook or the guitar riff and thought, ‘This is like Foghat’ but not quite. That ‘Slow Ride’ song is a little different. In the lead-up of ‘American Band’ coming out, there was so much nastiness directed at us online. We kind of put that record out thinking that we were probably going to be selling half as many records and half as many tickets and that didn’t happen at all. It’s one of our most absolutely successful records.”

The last two-thirds of this album trilogy emerged from a 2018 seven-day recording session in Memphis as the Truckers were coming off from opening for the Tedeschi Trucks Band during the latter’s summer package tour. The opening slot provided an opportunity that spilled into this marathon bout of record making.

“Opening for the Tedeschi Trucks Band was a wonderful experience,” Hood said. “Every day we had an hour-long soundcheck. Our crew is fast and we’re a pretty tight organization. We basically had the work part of that done in the first five or 10 minutes, so we would spend that hour kind of woodshedding these songs. We went into the studio like a well-oiled machine. We cut almost all of ‘The Unraveling’ and two-thirds of ‘The New OK’ came out of that session and we’re intentionally sitting on three more tracks from that for this next project that will hopefully come out next year because they’re definitely thematic. As a band, we don’t often get enough time to go into the studio and record because it’s expensive and we’re definitely a working-class group.”

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Drive By Truckers, L to R: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez. PHOTO CREDIT: Danny Clinch

Drive By Truckers, L to R: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez.
PHOTO CREDIT: Danny Clinch

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Drive By Truckers, L to R: Matt Patton, Brad Morgan, Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Jay Gonzalez. PHOTO CREDIT: Danny Clinch

The son of storied Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, Patterson Hood was bit by the music bug early with memories of his father bringing home the Beatles’ album “Magical Mystery Tour” when the younger Hood was only three and listening to “Strawberry Fields Forever” while leafing through the album’s booklet. Having started writing his own songs when he was only 8, at age 16 Hood ran away from home to catch Bruce Springsteen on “The River” tour, where that marathon show transformed the aspiring musician.

“That showed me what a concert can be as far as catharsis and taking an audience to another place and then taking them to another place and then another place,” Hood explained. “Just building on where you were before that. Those four hours were definitely an education in the possibilities of rock and roll as an art form.”

Fast forward to the present, and with the band ready to hit the road with these two latest albums under its collective belt, Hood is quick to dispel any assumption that concertgoers will be served up only the latest material.

“With us about to hit the road for real, I’m not really looking at those records to be the focus necessarily of what we’re out to do,” he said. “They’re out there and we’ll certainly play some songs off of them. I’m proud of the songs, but we also have a pretty deep catalog that we’ve been off of for a pretty long time. The shows we’ve been playing have been kind of pulling from all over the place. We’re just having fun reconnecting with ourselves, each other and our fans. And we actually recorded what’s going to be our next record. We’ll probably start working some of those songs up live and try a song or two to see how they’re going, too. I’m kind of looking at what we’re going to do as Drive-By Truckers going and playing rock and roll. As usual, we won’t be using a set list, so anything goes.”


CONCERT PREVIEW

Drive-By Truckers

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. $35-$54. Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. NE, Atlanta. 404-876-5566, variety-playhouse.com.