TRADING IN WHEELS FOR WHEELS
By Jonathan Bernstein
Patterson Hood Goes Solo
“And my good friend Paul was eighty-three when he told me to love is to feel pain. I thought about that a lot back then. I think about that again, and again.” —Patterson Hood, “A World Of Hurt,” 2006
In the winter of 2011, the Drive-By Truckers began another year of heavy touring. Patterson Hood, the band’s warm, joyous spokesperson and front man since its inception in the late ’90s, was less than thrilled about another full year on the road. So when he set out again with the band in 2011, Hood, forty-eight, knew he wanted to have something to keep his mind busy to help cope with another year on and off the tour bus and saying hello and goodbye to his wife and two young children. As he tends to do when he’s having a hard time, Hood started to write.
He began writing a sketch of an idea for a novel, to try something different. He wanted the novel to be a fictionalized account of a very rough period of his life in the early nineties, and he knew the title would be Slam Dancing In The Pews, the name of a forgotten song he once wrote for a forgotten band called Virgil Kane. A songwriter at heart, Hood started interspersing song lyrics in between chapters of the book, but predictably, the songs quickly became more central. He decided to abandon the book altogether.
“My version of staying involves a lot of leaving,” Hood tells me over the phone from his home in Athens, Georgia, where he’s spent the last few weeks rehearsing with the Downtown Rumblers, the new band he’s recently assembled. He’s excited about the Rumblers and sounds relaxed, happy to be enjoying another few weeks at home with his family until he has to go on the road and tour behind his new solo album, Heat Lightning Rumbles in The Distance. The record chronicles, among other things, having to go on the road and tour.
“I’m leaving but I’m coming back. I’ll never leave,” he explains in the way he must have to explain to his kids every time he sets out for another tour. In “Leaving Time,” the second song on the new record, he comes up with the best explanation he can: “I ain’t ever leaving / I’m just taking us all to a whole bunch of places.”
Ever since members of the Drive-By Truckers started to have wives and kids, the band has made a point to try never to tour for more than three weeks at a time. Hood’s solo tour will be running a bit longer than that.
“Hush little baby, have no fear. Only six more tours until the end of the year.” —Patterson Hood, “Leaving Time,” 2012
George A. Johnson, Hood’s godfather and great uncle, the man who functionally raised Patterson as a young child growing up in North Alabama, the last of his generation in the Hood family, passed away on October 24, 2011, at the age of ninety-one. George A. had been on Hood’s mind for some time—he knew, when he began writing songs on tour back in the spring, that his great uncle was sick and wasn’t going to be around much longer. A few weeks before he died, Hood recorded what he was certain was going be the centerpiece of his next big project, which he knew was something altogether different from his typical work with the Truckers.
Heat Lightning Rumbles in The Distance is a graceful piece of music, something that can’t rightly be said of most of the prolific songwriter’s work. Working in the self-serious genres of rock, alt-country, and the amorphous world of Americana, where artists are expected to bare their inner souls with confessional earnest, Hood’s songwriting is a precious rarity. He is foremost a careful storyteller, interested in the sometimes courageous, sometimes tragicomic narratives of downtrodden losers and struggling drunks. He tells these stories over the often loud, often brooding minor chords that the Drive-By Truckers have perfected in a crafted halfway point between Crazy Horse and Skynyrd in their fifteen some odd years as a band. The band has gotten somewhat quieter as they’ve gotten older, embracing a natural country-soul in their latest, Go-Go Boots, but Hood’s stories have stayed the same. There’s a man who can’t help falling in love with his sister, a musician who won’t stop performing until he drops dead from A.I.D.S., and an ex-cop looking back on a life of failure. No one knows why the singer in “Used to Be a Cop” got kicked off the force, but Hood lets you take a guess.
For the first time in his career, Hood has fully committed to telling someone else’s story—his own. On the album’s title track, he is standing on the edge of his uncle’s old farm, the air’s humid and the sun’s just about set, and it’s in this scary, oddly reassuring moment of middle-aged realization where Hood sees ghosts all around him. Lines flow and sway into each other in Heat Lightning. Time collapses under Jay Gonzalez’s rolling piano riff and David Hood’s breezy bass line. If there are any discernible verses, they flow into each other, with the last line of each verse repeating again to start off the next, like an uninterrupted daydream. Hood sees the past in an oak tree on the edge of the woods. He feels his daughter’s future in the late summer breeze through his hair. He’s standing and thinking about his family that came before him or his family that will come after that at some point stood or one day will stand somewhere similar and take in this great big world of hurt. “Somewhere between anguish and acceptance,” he sings softly, again and again.
Patterson Hood’s new record is the most personal collection of songs he’s released in his twenty-plus-year career as a songwriter. There are songs that reflect the realities of his past and present, so it follows that there are songs that end up predicting the future. A few weeks after recording Heat Lightning, George A. passed away, and Hood brought his family to visit his great uncle’s old homestead where he had spent eighty-eight of his ninety-one years. George A. had been born on the homestead in 1920 and was proudly “depression era,” as Hood likes to put it.
“We were walking around there and we were all kind of sad because we just had a funeral,” he says, “and my kids, you know, they’re being kids and they’re running around and playing in that yard where I used to play when I was their age. I was sitting around watching that and at one point I turned to my wife and I was like, you know, it’s just like the record we just made.”
At the Downtown Rumblers’ recent show at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City, Hood was showing a different, quieter side of himself, one that couldn’t hide behind the Truckers’ typical attack of three electric guitars. He was exposed and bare, backed by cellos, moody synths, and female backup vocals. Amidst a shockingly higher number of couples, and women, in the audience than there are when the Truckers are in town, a drunk man shouted requests for Truckers classics but instead received fragile ballads and tender confessions.
On his latest record, Hood’s voice sounds little like his angrier sing-shouting on the Truckers’ early and most well-known records. Recording a cover of a song by the late, unheralded soul singer Eddie Hinton for Go-Go Boots forced Hood to relearn how to sing a few years ago. “There was a specific way I wanted my voice to sound on it and it was a bit of a leap to get there,” Hood admits, who is the first to be critical and self-deprecating about his vocal abilities. “But then once I got it down, I wanted to then apply what I learned to be able to sing in a choir voice. I wanted this [new] record to come off as very conversational. I didn’t want it to sound like I was shouting at people.”
Several songs on Hood’s new album deal directly with the period of his life that he was trying to write about in Slam Dancing In The Pews. On “12:01,” he takes advantage of a loophole in blue-state laws and crosses the state line for a midnight Monday morning fix. The book shows up more literally on “(untold pretties),” where Hood recites a spoken word passage from Slam Dancing over a calm groove. “You can only carry hell around so long before it gets to be a drag,” is the last line and the only line Hood chose to recite to the crowd when he performed the instrumental on stage in New York. Most ofHeat Lightning is a reaction to that classic Hood one-liner, a struggle with its impossible truth. When the album isn’t shifting between the past and present, it makes the argument that there may be more in common between these two periods than anyone—least of all Hood—would care to admit.
One of several Truckers’ songs Hood played live with the Downtown Rumblers was “Daddy Needs A Drink.” It would fit nicely on Heat Lightning, where being a happy father and husband doesn’t come without its own set of problems. The song recalls “Leaving Time,” a lament and an ode to the day before a tour starts, when the suitcases are sprawled out on the floor and everyone knows what’s coming. “Leaving Time” is a struggle toward adulthood, the fight for responsibility and devotion in a world that wants to take those things away. The outro to Heat Lightning, “Fifteen Days (Leaving Time Again),” checks in with Hood to see how he’s doing with all that leaving once he’s already left. He’s looking out the tour bus at the great big American sky, and he knows a photograph won’t do it justice. He wonders if he really is taking his family to a whole bunch of places. “Hurt’s the price for being alive,” he realizes, or remembers.
Along with “Fifteen Days,” “Leaving Time,” like most all Hood songs, is about a man trying to stay on the righteous path and about how hard that can be. “Thank god the package store sells more beer,” he confesses halfway through “Leaving Time,” just after he sings his kids to sleep.