Patterson Hood: Alabama Ass Whuppin’, Drive-By Truckers’ Upcoming Studio Album, and Thank God For Triple-A
Jenn’s been another one of those behind-the-scenes heroes for the band over the years, hasn’t she?
You got that right. We had that cool photo that we used for the original cover – the velvet Jesus and the truck leaning against the kick drum. We didn’t have a backdrop back then; we had a velvet Jesus on one side and a velvet Elvis on the other .. but we left the Elvis off the cover of Alabama Ass Whuppin’ because we didn’t wan’t to catch shit from the Elvis estate.
Cool – you could have Jesus but you couldn’t have Elvis.
Yeah. (laughter) Anyway, the guy who took that photo has passed away and I have no idea what happened to any of his pictures. We would have had to literally reproduce it from one of the original covers if we didn’t do something different.
Wes actually went back and dug up pictures of us from 1999 and based the painting he did from that. He painted the thing on a piece of rusted tin … the rust-colored stuff on the cover is actual rust. (laughter) He scraped the rest of it and painted over it.
Another “Truckers trademark” is that ring-and-pinkie-fingers-clamped-on-the-third-fret thing you often do – holding down the first and second strings to get a drone against the chords you’re playing. You were doing it back in 1999 when this album was recorded; when did you start? And what was the inspiration for it?
Well … I always did that. When I first started playing and learned a G chord, I probably tried putting the finger that goes on the first string on the string above it. I love a good drone, you know?
I can think I can pinpoint it back to falling in love with Neil Young’s Harvest when I was a little boy – those Ben Keith pedal steel parts where he would play one note and just keep driving it? Like “Out On The Weekend” – that one note drone that just keeps going on. I think subconsciously – I didn’t think about it until some time later – I was looking for something that did that. And, like you said, I still do it … it’s just something I always did and it became a big part of the sound that I like.
And how about tuning your guitar down a whole step?
I started doing that in Adam’s House Cat, which was a band that Cooley and I had in the 80s. I had all these songs and I couldn’t get anybody else to sing them; I figured, “Fuck – I’d better figure out how to do it myself.”
I never really wanted to be a singer. (laughter) The writing was always my true love. In those days, I was just figuring out what I had to do to get the songs out there.
So by tuning down, I could hit the notes better. Ironically, my range is real different now than it was then. Now the tuning is something we do almost for effect – we like the sound of it. I think on the new record at any given time there’s one guitar in standard tuning and one tuned down – I kinda like that, too; I like the sound. I keep my main guitar tuned down a step because I just like the thuddiness of it – the muddy, Black Sabbath sound of it.
Now that we have nicer gear, I play a guitar that was built for that – I have a guitar with a neck that’s scaled longer so that I can tune down and still have the same tension on the strings that I would have tuned standard.
We were so poor then that it was all about doing whatever we needed to do to get us from Point A to Point B for many years. That’s part of the charm of this record: for years and years, I always referred to our band as a punk rock band at heart. I think we’ve gotten far enough away from that at times – particularly the last couple of Truckers records – that our fans probably thought I was talking shit with the punk rock thing. But putting this out now hopefully has them saying, “Oh, okay – I get it now … they kinda were a punk rock band at heart.”
And we still are. We’ve evolved and kept bringing other things in to it as our abilities improved … but whatever the new thing is, we still have a little bit of that punk mentality.
Some bands stick to their greatest hits when they play live; others don’t touch their older stuff because … well … it just wasn’t that good. But you might still play any of the songs on Alabama Ass Whuppin’ on any given night these days – and the newer stuff stands side-by-side with them just fine.
And I’m real proud of that … it makes me very happy, you know? That’s always been our kind of “golden rule”: whenever you approach a new song, approach it from what’s best for the song itself. There’s no room for ego or who wrote it or anything else. Cooley and I have always agreed on that.
Same with Brad: we’ve got a drummer who says “Songs are king.” How many bands have that? A drummer who actually listens to the songs himself – listens to the words and figures out what he’s going to play based on what the song calls for rather than what he wants to play as drummer. Brad’s always had that kind of approach.
At the same time, you don’t want to be afraid to take a song to a new place. Hopefully they can take it – the good songs can.
Speaking of good songs, let me ask you about a couple of the ones on the album.
Was there an Avon Lady?
Yeah … yeah. (laughs) There was. (laughter)
In my younger days, I learned the hard way that it’s probably better to change a few things … like names and things like that. But “The Avon Lady” was before I learned that, you know?
I hear you.
Yeah … (laughter)
You know, Jason Isbell learned that in a much bigger way with “Decoration Day” – which he wrote the third or fourth day he was in the Truckers. Jason wrote that song and it just didn’t occur to him that anybody would actually hear that stuff. I think he caught a lot of flack at home for that song.
I’ve generally gotten off fairly lucky, but I’ve had a few people corner me. Of course, sometimes people corner me because they think a song’s about them – and it isn’t, which is really funny. (laughter)
How about “18 Wheels Of Love” – were you there when your Mom and Chester heard it for the first time?
I think I sent it to them. I moved here to Athens in 1994; they started going out the last few months before I moved so I had met him. Shortly after I moved here, they got married and that’s why I wrote the song: I wrote it as a wedding present. I didn’t have a band at that point; I just sent them a boombox recording of me playing on an acoustic guitar.
Yeah, they got a real kick out of it. Chester passed away a few years ago, so he’s no longer with us, but I think he really liked that song. He was a trip. (laughs) And the song is true, you know? The only part that isn’t true is the line about the Porter Wagner lookalike … but that was the punchline. (laughter)