The darkened backroads of the South’s soul are best explored in an old car going way too fast, with the radio blasting Lynyrd Skynyrd way too loud. The Drive-By Truckers have been tearing up and down those roads for more than 15 years.
“We’re known for our manners and our southern hospitality,” said Patterson Hood, who assembled the band in Athens, Ga. in the mid-1990s. “But Southerners can be pretty brutal and gnarly too, you know—we can be a difficult bunch of people if pissed off.”
Throughout their career the Truckers have worked a consistent theme from numerous directions. It’s what Hood has referred to as “The Duality of the Southern Thing.”
“It is strange down here,” Hood said, explaining his Duality thesis. “There’s more churches per capita than bars and yet I know more hardcore alcoholics down here than I know in a lot of Northern towns. For all of our bad history with race issues, particularly in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there’s, in some ways, much more incorporation of black culture in our day-to-day lives down here than in a lot of other regions of the country—all those things are sort of dualities to me.”
Having just finished up a stint on the road out West, the Drive-By Truckers are now returning to their backyard for another run through the South before taking a break. After a stop in Birmingham, the band heads to Pensacola for an engagement at Vinyl Music Hall.
“Pensacola’s a cool town,” Hood said, recalling the band’s long-ago dates at a long-ago incarnation of Sluggo’s. “It’s always been kind of like a punk rock town. I always loved that band This Bike is a Pipe Bomb. I was a big fan of theirs and I actually cooked dinner for them one time. I used to work, do sound, at a club in Athens where they used to play and I had them over for dinner—I fixed vegetarian spaghetti for them.”
It’s not surprising that Hood enjoys some good punk rock. The Truckers’ own catalog is full of openly raw and unpolished numbers, with lyrics growled just as much as they’re sung. But the band is also prone to churn out songs dripping with Hank Williams sentimentality, or roaring with balls-to-the-wall, arena anthem gusto.
Regardless of the variety of styles the band incorporates into its music, there is one label they have not been able to shake: Southern rock.
“I always like to just say ‘rock-n-roll’ because that kind of incorporates all of it,” Hood said. “To me, all these different kind of subgenres, it kind of gets to be a trap … ironically, I kind of consider the Southern rock thing kind of among the least of what we do.”
But, of course, there was the band’s 2001 landmark double album: Southern Rock Opera. The work features characters like Lynyrd Skynyrd, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and University of Alabama coaching legend Bear Bryant and covers terrain ranging from 1970s race relations to the same era’s Southern rock bonanza.
“It told a specific story and it was set in that era, you know, the Southern rock heyday,” Hood said. “We used that to illustrate the story we were telling about growing up in the post-civil rights South, which was that same era.”
While the Drive-By Truckers are avid students of history—particularly southern U.S. history, Hood hasn’t lost sight of the group’s primary mission: rock ‘n’ roll.
“I’m not really sure a rock band can really educate anybody much,” he said. “The most we can do is show people a good time for a few hours and let them forget their troubles, and if more than 100 actually think over something that was said and decide to look it up and learn something, then that’s a huge victory.”
That’s the ride the Drive-By Truckers plan to bring to Pensacola. It may be their last trip to town for a while, as the band will be pulling off the road for a break following this tour.
“The band’s definitely not done, but we are taking a much deeper hiatus than we’ve ever done, by far,” Hood said. “I’m kind of excited about going out and really playing the shit out of these 10 or 12 or ever how many shows it is that we’ve got coming up in April, so that if we don’t make it back through for a while, people will remember us fondly and wanna come see us when we do.”
DRIVE-BY TRUCKERS with CENTRO-MATIC
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 10
WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall, 2 S. Palafox