Patterson Hood: Alabama Ass Whuppin’, Drive-By Truckers’ Upcoming Studio Album, and Thank God For Triple-A
You had two studio albums out at that point. What was the thinking behind releasing a live record?
The idea was that Pizza Deliverance and Gangstabilly had almost all acoustic instrumentation – more of a country kind of feel. When we hit the road with the stripped-down band, we weren’t playing the kind of rooms where you could do that. If we went in there with an upright bass and an acoustic guitar we’d be drowned out by the noise of the bar: “Fuck that – they’re not gonna be louder than us!” (laughter)
So I plugged my Ibanez Les Paul copy – that I bought when I was in 8th grade – into a Twin Reverb and turned it up as loud as I could stand it. (laughter) Cooley had … I think it was a 50-watt Marshall, but I’m not sure. At one point, he had a Sound City that was 100 watts and was louder than shit. That might be the amp on a lot of this album. And whatever bass rig Rob was playing through – he’d never really been a bass player.
Yeah – we needed a bass player so Rob switched to bass to kind of get us over the hump and ended up doing it for two years. He became a guitar player in the band again when Earl joined up for Southern Rock Opera.
So we just went out there and pounded it. We figured all these songs had been released with almost a country flavor; “Let’s put out a version of what we’ve been doing on the road.” So we took the best tapes of the year’s worth of Athens shows and it kind of sequenced itself.
We figured we could use the live album to kind of fund Southern Rock Opera – all that time, we were writing it – we were working on it. We weren’t recording songs yet, but we were learning how to play it and working on it kind of secretly. Every now and then we might play a song off it; “Let There Be Rock” in particular got played live now and then. But for the most part, we were still in the writing stages and that’s what we did on all those long drives: have these all-day brainstorm sessions – riding to wherever in the Midwest – about this crazy rock opera we were going to do … “Betamax Guillotine”. (laughter)
We figured, “Why don’t we do this live record? We’ve already got it recorded – maybe we can find someone who’ll give us enough money to put it out and then we can funnel that money into recording Southern Rock Opera. That’s basically what we did: we licensed it to a small start-up label in Atlanta and they gave us a few thousand dollars for it. We took all of that and funneled it into recording SRO, which we thought would get it done … but it didn’t. We ran out of money pretty quick. (laughter)
We were maniacs, man. I look back on it and I can’t even believe some of the things we did back in those days are true. We were crazier than shit.
So just the four of you – no crew?
No. We did everything ourselves.
And what did you have for wheels?
We had a 1988 Ford Econoline van. It had about 80,000 miles on it when we got it. I think some grandpa had it to take his grandkids camping or something – it was a conversion van. And we bought a used trailer we towed behind the Econoline and we just went.
One time we broke down in Huntsville, TX on the way to Houston. Cooley had wisely gotten a Triple-A membership (laughter) and we were two miles inside the perimeter line of how far they could tow you. They literally towed us – two of us in the van on top of the tow truck and the other two inside the cab with the driver – to the venue.
The driver dropped us and the trailer off there and towed the van to the shop. It was about five minutes before soundcheck; everybody there was laughing their asses off at us. (laughter)
Didn’t matter though: you made it.
That’s right: we never missed a show or cancelled a show in those two years; we did it just flat-out. We were like the Post Office: rain, sleet, snow, whatever – we made it.
We made sure we were the loudest band on the bill; the most energetic band on the bill; the hardest working band on the bill – and the meanest band on the bill. I mean, we were nice to everybody, but we had the meanness, you know what I mean? Like in the Rocky movies – the “eye of the tiger” thing he talked about … we had that.
We were so driven and obsessed with what we were doing that we’d walk in the room and just take it over. That’s what we had to do – we weren’t getting any younger. I was 34, 35 by then, you know?
So Alabama Ass Whuppin’ is basically the sound of four guys jumping off a cliff together.
Exactly! That’s exactly what it was.
And that’s why I like that record so much. I’ve always had an affection for Alabama Ass Whuppin’ – with an asterisk: it always sounded like shit. That’s why it’s stayed out of print for so long – and why this has been sort of a revelation for all of us. The tapes had been missing for years and years and we just assumed they were gone forever. For us to re-release it would have basically meant taking one of the original CDs and just duping off copies. Maybe we could have had someone run it through some kind of EQ and try to clean it up a little, but there really wasn’t much we could do.
And all these years later it turned out that Rob had the tapes?
Yeah – and I’m not even sure he knew he had them. He was going through the process of moving and he found this big box up in the attic.
Yeah. (laughter) He texted me: “You might want this.” (laughter)
So it wasn’t like they were exactly in laboratory conditions. (laughter)
We didn’t know what kind of shape they’d be in when we opened the box up. David Barbe and I went to the studio back in December to check out what we had and we were both kind of holding our breath. But they were fine. They’d maybe been a little warm, but they’d been kept dry.
The thing was, when Rob first told us he had some tapes, we didn’t know what they were. Barbe couldn’t remember if he’d mixed down to half-inch or quarter-inch tape … but as it turned out, looking back at his notes, it was the first record he’d ever mixed to half-inch on the machine he’d just gotten. Before that, all they had was a quarter-inch two-track to mix to.
We couldn’t believe how good they sounded. I mean, I’m still singing off-key and all … (laughs) We got Greg Calbi to remaster the thing just straight from the mix tapes and it sounds like a 1999 version of the band playing here in the living room – really fucking loud. (laughter) We’re really happy with it.
We thought if it was the unmixed stuff, there might be bonus tracks, but those tapes are still gone – we really don’t know where they are. But when we heard how good this sounded, we said, “Shit – we don’t need bonus tracks: this thing is as long as it needs to be. Everything we need is right here – let’s just do it.”
Wes Freed’s art has become synonymous with the Truckers via his album covers and posters he’s done for you, starting with Southern Rock Opera. Of course, he wasn’t part of the Truckers’ family when the original Alabama Ass Whuppin’ was released – but he’s definitely put his own spin on the cover art for the new version.
Oh, yeah – it was fun to get Wes to do a cover for it. I know some people love the old cover and it’s fine – I like it myself. It was perfect for what it was … but it was kind of a thrown-together hodge-podge because we were on the road and it wasn’t like we could pay anybody at the time to do it.
Our good friend Jenn Bryant ended up taking what a couple of people had started and kind of put it all together.