Growing up in Alabama, Patterson Hood never mentioned that his father played bass in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section that backed R&B-soul greats like Aretha Franklin and the Staple Singers, whose “I’ll Take You There” hit No. 1 when Hood was in elementary school. He recalls a show-and-tell where one of his classmates revealed that his own dad played drums in Muscle Shoals. “Then I saw him on the playground getting the shit beat out of him and said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to talk about my dad,’ ” Hood says. “It was a very conservative place that we lived in.”
Hood doesn’t keep his mouth shut anymore, particularly about the racial divide. His band Drive-By Truckers has hit the road behind American Band—a standout album that largely mulls the country’s gun violence and disparity for people of color—with an onstage Black Lives Matter sign.
“I look, demographically, like I should be a Trump supporter,” says Hood, 52, whose band plays Royale on Feb. 9. “I’m middle-aged, white, college dropout, Alabama. There needs to be somebody who looks like that saying ‘Black lives matter.’ ”
In “What It Means,” the first song he penned for the album, Hood questions a place “on the precipice of prejudice and fear” where unarmed black men are killed. And his writing fell in sync with fellow Truckers singer/guitarist and co-founder Mike Cooley, who countered with “Ramon Casiano,” based on the story of a Mexican teen shot in 1931 by future NRA head Harlon Carter, who was never convicted of the crime.
“That Americans are so scared of this bogeyman that’s going to sneak across the border and cut us in our sleep—I don’t get that,” Hood says from his new home in Portland, Oregon. “Some things are going to happen, but you can’t live your life in fear of that. The guy who shot up that campus in Oregon, or the movie theater in Colorado, they weren’t immigrants. They grew up in our communities.”
Despite the prophetic tone of American Band, written primarily in 2015 and released in September, Hood says he never believed Trump would win, though he knew likely supporters in Alabama. “You can predict an election by who’s the biggest asshole running,” he says. “But I didn’t think the whole country would succumb to that.”
Hood and Cooley hail from neighboring communities in North Alabama but launched Drive-By Truckers 20 years ago in Athens, Georgia, after sharing a decade in other bands. “We didn’t always get along great,” Hood says of their college days. “Even with all of that, there was something undeniable in the chemistry of us playing together.”
Hood’s influences ranged from country icon Loretta Lynn to, eventually, rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd. “I was a punk-rock kid and looked at [Skynyrd] as the music of my high school parking lot that was shoved down my throat,” he says of the band that fueled a narrative for the Truckers’ 2001 landmark Southern Rock Opera.
He also credits his bassist father David’s influence, but not for playing guitars around the house. “When he’d come home from [studio] work, the last thing he wanted to do was play anything,” Hood says. “He had this incredible record collection and he was gone a lot, so I spent a lot of time playing his music.”
Often labeled an alt-country group, the Truckers also evoke the Rolling Stones and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse within the honed slash of American Band, which tapped another common inspiration. Kendrick Lamar’s politicized hip-hop epic To Pimp a Butterfly “got heavy rotation on the bus,” Hood says. As he and Cooley seamlessly swap songs they each wrote and sing, they find keyboardist/guitarist Jay Gonzalez, bassist Matt Patton and drummer Brad Morgan in simpatico support.
“You have this ideal of a band that’s a cross between a family and a gang in this most idyllic way, and I really kind of have that now—and that’s without putting down any previous lineups,” Hood says of the Truckers, which even included Jason Isbell during the 2000s. “I’ve never had one that really clicks like this.”
Drive-By Truckers play Royale on Feb. 9.