Drive-By Truckers tone down the Skynyrdisms on Decoration Day

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 7, 2003

By Steve Newton

Two years ago the Drive-By Truckers took the music world by surprise with Southern Rock Opera, a sprawling, two-CD concept album about ’70s rock and southern U.S. culture that focused on the legend of doomed Dixie rock act Lynyrd Skynyrd. The independent release garnered the group a four-star review in Rolling Stone and a deal with respected Americana label Lost Highway. Now that the Truckers are basking in the glow of another lauded CD, Decoration Day—which recently earned it the cover of alt-country bible No Depression—guitarist-vocalist Patterson Hood plays down the Skynyrd angle.

“It’s been a really great thing that that record became talked about and well-liked,” Hood drawls from his sweet home in Athens, Georgia, “but the downside of it is that, you know…I mean, [DBT guitarist-vocalist Mike] Cooley and I been playin’ together for like 18 years, and we’ve done a lot of different things. That just happened to be somethin’ we did 15 years into it that caught on and took on a life of its own. All of a sudden we became known for that, whereas all the other stuff we do is pretty important to us, too.”

While Decoration Day eschews the blatant Skynyrdisms of Southern Rock Opera, it still sports a triple-guitar, Southern-rock edge, tempered by the country twang heard in the Truckers’ earlier music. “It spans a little bit of everything we’ve done,” Hood asserts, “and a few things we hadn’t done before. Like, ‘Give Pretty Soon’ moved us in a little more of a power-pop direction; I always thought of that song as like our attempt at almost paying homage to the Raspberries/Big Star kinda music. Lyrically it fits right into the rest of the record pretty much like a glove, but musically I always thought it was a little different from some of the other songs, and I like that about it.”

Several of the tunes on Decoration Day might never have made it to plastic had Hood not had a stroke of good luck following a theft in the Big Apple a few years back. At the time the DBTs were touring behind their live album, Alabama Ass Whuppin’, and preparing to mix Southern Rock Opera. “It was really the only bad time I’ve ever had in New York,” he explains. “We were playing [fabled punk club] CBGBs, and we’d taken everything of value out of the van beforehand, but I had accidentally left a backpack behind, buried under all our sleeping bags. They found it and stole it, and there wasn’t anything of any value in it to anybody, but it had all my notebooks of the stuff I was workin’ on—including what became Decoration Day. And I guess when they found the notebooks they just threw them out on the sidewalk and kept goin’ with the backpack, and somebody found them and tracked down my number and how to get in touch with me and brought ’em back to me.”

Once Hood recovered his swiped songs, and the group recorded them for Decoration Day, Lost Highway didn’t seem that interested in them anymore. “I guess the new record just wasn’t the record they were thinkin’ we’d make,” he says. “I don’t know if they thought we’d make Southern Rock Opera 2 or what. They kept hemmin’ and hawin’ about what the release date would be, and we were needin’ to go ahead and be booking and planning our schedule. It just became clear that we weren’t gonna be a priority, so we asked to buy the record back and take it elsewhere. And they were nice enough to let us.”

It didn’t take long before the DBTs found a new distributor in Austin, Texas–based New West Records, home to such artists as John Hiatt and Delbert McClinton. There’s a slight possibility that the head honchos at that label were also swayed to sign the band by Hood’s pedigree; he’s the son of famed Muscle Shoals Studio bassist David Hood, whose playing has graced such memorable tunes as the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” and Aretha Franklin’s “Never Loved a Man the Way That I Love You”, not to mention Bob Seger’s best-ever song, “Beautiful Loser”.

The Hoods recently collaborated on a song for a charity Christmas album out of Birmingham, Alabama, but that was the first time they ever recorded together. Strangely enough, when Patterson was young his father tried to steer him away from the musical life. “He honestly wanted to see me do somethin’ different,” reveals Hood, who brings his beer-fuelled quintet to Richard’s on Richards on Tuesday (August 12). “He wasn’t all that encouraging, really, and at the time I didn’t think it was too cool, but we laugh about it now.”

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