Patterson Hood: The Southern Springsteen

Jim Herrington
by Matt Hendrickson - Georgia - February/March 2014

The Drive-By Truckers front man has spent two decades giving voice to the grace and grit of life in the South

>Listen to Drive-By Truckers' "Pauline Hawkins" from their new album English Oceans

It’s an unseasonably mild early-November afternoon in Nashville, where the Drive-By Truckers tour bus is parked behind the Cannery Row complex on Eighth Avenue South. As the warm sun slowly sinks behind the buildings, a crowd gathers outside, waiting to be let in for one of those nontraditional rock-and-roll church services. The Truckers’ lead singer, Patterson Hood, watches the throng through a window in the bus’s back lounge. It’s just past 4:00 p.m. “I think I’m ready for a beer,” he says, opening a cooler to fish out an Amstel Light.

Barrel-chested and dressed in jeans and a rumpled shirt, his vintage brown Stetson, and black workman boots, Hood is blasting songs from the Truckers’ forthcoming album, English Oceans. Over the course of twenty years, Hood, who is forty-nine, has become one of the most prolific and respected songwriters in music, crafting deep character sketches in the tradition of great Southern writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy. Chock-full of sinister, flawed narrators, his lyrics chronicle racial politics and economic injustice, murder and morality, sickness and health. Think Bruce Springsteen with a flask of bourbon in his back pocket instead of a bandana. Like the Boss, Hood also has a knack for the simple, the elegant, and the celebratory. And no other modern Southern songwriter captures the dynamics of life below the Mason-Dixon Line in such intricate, vivid detail.

A new track, “Grand Canyon,” comes on, and the usually chatty Hood turns contemplative. The song is a tribute to Craig Lieske, a close friend of the band’s who died suddenly last January. Lieske was a legendary figure in Athens, Georgia, who at one point was Hood’s boss when Hood worked on the cleanup crew at the 40 Watt Club, the epicenter of the city’s music scene. When the Truckers would go on one of their lengthy tours, Lieske would join them, selling the band’s merchandise at each show.

“Grand Canyon” feels effortless, with every turn of phrase impactful and no wasted words. The title is a metaphor for life on the road and Lieske’s outsize personality. “I wrote it in about three hours,” Hood says. “Sometimes they just come pouring out of me.” The song closes with a soaring guitar before devolving into the squalor of ambient noise. Hood sighs. “I think I need another beer.”

Hood’s home in Athens, which he shares with his wife, Rebecca, and their two young children, is on a busy downtown street. The front yard is filled with wacky-looking metal sculptures, the whimsy tainted by a recently built monstrosity of a condo complex across the street. “How about that view?” Hood practically snarls as he comes to the door. But inside is a warm respite from the steel and concrete. The living room is full of vintage furniture, the colorful kitchen decorated with a number of paintings, including some by Wes Freed, who does most of the Truckers’ artwork. Off the kitchen is an office filled with records and  overflowing with books. Hood picks up a copy of The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A. Caro’s biography of President Lyndon Johnson. “I’m kind of obsessed with Johnson,” he says. “He was the first president that I remember.”

As a child growing up outside of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, Hood developed a keen interest in history and politics, even writing a school report that was a scathing takedown of Richard Nixon. His teacher was not amused. “Most of the kids thought that Watergate was about Wilson Dam, which was the big TVA dam in our town,” Hood says. “But I knew Nixon was a crook and wrote about it in no uncertain terms. That didn’t go over too well.”

Hood’s father, David, was a member of the now-legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, playing bass on tracks by Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, and the Staple Singers. His father owned hundreds of records, and as a child, Hood would pull them out, look at the covers, and decide which one to play. Curtis Mayfield’s funk/soul masterpiece Super Fly was an early favorite, and Hood was only eight when he wrote his first song, called, he thinks, “Living in a World of My Own.” It was about how all of his friends were imaginary, which wasn’t much of a stretch: North Alabama in the early seventies wasn’t exactly an artist-friendly environment for a self-described “misfit kid” who hated football and just wanted to sit in the back of class, daydream, and write songs. “Once I started writing songs, I wrote every day,” Hood says. “I mean, every day. By the time I was eleven, I could outwrite anyone.”