The GENUINE Article

For the last 20 years, Drive-By Truckers has served as Southern rock’s most reliable powerhouse. Every two years, you can count on a densely packed, well-written and hard-charging concept album. And every few months, you can count on this band of Alabama and Georgia gypsies rolling through town to deliver their epic three-hour jam sessions full of spontaneous set lists, deep rock history dives and unmatched stage banter among co-frontmen Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and the rest of the band. But in 2016, the Truckers took an unexpected left turn, heightening their sense of storytelling justice with American Band, perhaps the strongest album of their storied career.

Although the title sounds bland, American Band is an unapologetically fierce political statement: On the cover, the usual DBT album artwork by longtime contributor Wes Freed is replaced by an American flag flying half-staff on a three-pronged, cross-like structure. Story-songs like “Surrender Under Protest,” “Guns of Umpqua” and “What It Means” directly address their difficult subjects. It all adds up to the most in-depth examination of what Hood once called “the Southern Thing”–how white, working-class folks can both embrace their past and still contribute to a more multicultural American future.

“We were motivated to write what turned into a pretty political album by what we see around us,” Mike Cooley tells Folio Weekly. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it–in fact, I felt like I had to start writing to get it out.”

And damn if that isn’t an attitude we can all relate to right now.

Folio Weekly: A year ago you guys wrote, recorded and releasedAmerican Band. How has the impact of the songs changed, given the direction our country has gone?
Mike Cooley: We did the whole album before we got here, to this point in history, which took us by surprise as much as anybody. The songs still speak to the same issues, but for people now, anything remotely political probably cuts a little deeper these days.

Especially given Drive-By Truckers’ diehard, longtime Southern fanbase. Have you seen that fanbase evolve over the years, and has there been any push-back toAmerican Band’s strident stance?
The fanbase has started to change, and I’m glad about that–I was worried if we didn’t start drawing some younger people that we were going to outlive our audience. [Laughs.] And yeah, some fans are probably pissed off. But they probably like us because we’re not afraid to say what we want. We’ve always had that kind of fearlessness.

2014’sEnglish Oceans was the first album that featured you and Patterson Hood handling the bulk of the songwriting, a process replicated onAmerican Band. Is that process tougher now that Patterson has moved away from the South to Portland, Oregon?
Nah, it’s not a problem. We haven’t lived in the same town in over 20 years. I’m in Birmingham, he was in Athens, now he’s in Portland—it doesn’t matter.

Has Birmingham changed as much as other mid-sized cities in the South?
Dramatically. I moved back in 2001 and since then, it has changed tremendously. I think that’s part of the divide now between city dwellers and rural folks, though. In the South, cities are moving rapidly in a progressive direction, and rural communities are resistant to those kinds of changes. I think that’s got a lot to do with our polarization now–in fact, that’s probably the root of it. 

Drive-By Truckers come to Florida every year. What comes to mind when you think about our fair state?
Spring! That’s always the time we try to get down there and into some nice weather. 

You’ve got North Carolina singer/songwriter Hiss Golden Messenger opening for you on this tour. Do you see a lot of similar bands drawing inspiration from Drive-By Truckers’ modern reinterpretation of classic Southern rock?
There does seem to be some rumbling going on down here. The first time a younger band–I don’t even remember who it was–cited us as one of their primary influences, it took me aback for a second. Then I did the math and realized we’ve actually been around long enough to do that for somebody. You feel good, but it’s also a little scary to realize you’re closer to that end of the shelf life. [Laughs.]

Do you all ever talk about the potential end of Drive-By Truckers’ reign?
No. This is what we do. I like the idea of all of us being able to do other things, or maybe even do other things as a band–it’s been a while since we’ve backed another artist. But we’re always going to come back to this. What we do together as Drive-By Truckers is where our heart is, and it’s where our living is. We’re worth a little more like this. [Laughs.]