Drive By Truckers

Sometime in the spring of 1977, Alabama high schooler Patterson Hood missed his last chance to see Lynyrd Skynyrd in concert when the band canceled its Huntsville show.

He landed tickets to the makeup date but, unfortunately, rock ‘n’ roll history intervened and several of the band members, including singer Ronnie VanZant, died in a plane crash that fall.

Almost two decades later, Hood, now living in Athens, Ga., and friend Earl Hicks decided to start working on a project that would tell a fictionalized version of the Skynyrd legend and would also incorporate their experience of growing up in the South. Thus was born the Drive-By Truckers.

“We had the idea of writing a screenplay about a fictitious band and using that as a way of telling some of those stories without having to get into all the hassle of getting permission to use the Lynyrd Skynyrd name or whatever,” Hood told POLLSTAR. “We spent a little bit of time working on that and then I got sidetracked with forming what became the Drive-By Truckers. One thing led to another and next thing we know, we’re working on this on the side.”

After two independent studio albums and one live CD, the Drive-By Truckers decided it was time to finish their magnum opus, which, instead of a movie, became the two-disk Southern Rock Opera.

“We raised the money to actually record it out of pocket as we went,” Hood explained. “We’d tour and scrape up every penny we could scrape up and then use that to record. We pretty much cut it and mixed it and even mastered it that way.

“But once it was mastered, I think we really thought at the time that probably a label would pick it up and release it. We ended up with a finished record and nobody really making any moves towards putting it out.”

That’s not to say there wasn’t any label interest, but most of the deals that were offered to the band involved cutting the album down to one disk or eliminating some of the story aspect.

Obviously, Hood & Co. weren’t too keen on that idea.

So, instead of packing it in or caving to label demands, the Truckers decided to raise the money to press and distribute the album themselves by seeking investments from private parties. The deal was that anybody who invested in the album would be repaid by January 2003 with 15 percent interest.

They managed to raise enough to print 5,000 CDs to promote the album on the tour, which kicked off around mid-2001.

“We were able to get the record out on time; by the first date of the tour we had CDs in our hand,” Hood said. “We got ’em the day before the first date of the tour. Like about everything else we did in the first several years of the band, we kind of pulled off what we set out to do, but barely.”

While on tour, the Truckers quickly ran into a frustrating string of good luck. The rock opera began finding its way into the hands of music critics, who invariably loved it. The problem? The band’s independent distribution system couldn’t meet the demand.

Drive By Truckers

“That really got to be a bummer, particularly when the press kind of latched onto the thing and started writing about it,” Hood said. “All of a sudden, we have a record in Rolling Stone and nobody can find it.”

Luckily, it didn’t take a terribly long time before a reputable record label came calling. Luke Lewis’ Lost Highway Records, which wasn’t even in existence when the Truckers were initially shopping the album, expressed interest around Christmas 2001. A deal was offered in the spring and finalized a couple of months later.

At around the same time, Frank Riley and High Road Touring came a-callin’ based on the strength of the rock opera and the press surrounding it. Riley caught the band’s set at South By Southwest and another at a small cafe in Austin.

“A week or two after that, we figured out a way to work together and we started representing them,” Riley said.

“What we’re doing right now is setting up the band to be known throughout America so they can go out and fully support their next release on Lost Highway, which is apparently coming in either March or April.

“They seem to be breaking out of the Southeast,” he added. “They seem to be finding homes all over the country.”

That may be an understatement, though, as the Drive-By Truckers prepare to embark on their second European tour in two years. So how does a rock opera about uniquely Southern issues and icons, like VanZant and George Wallace, translate across the pond?

“There is such a fascination with Southern culture, with American culture in general, but particularly Southern and particularly in regards to Southern music history over there,” Hood said. “There are a lot more people over there than I meet in any given city or time over here that are aware of Muscle Shoals (the famous studio where Hood’s father worked as a session bassist) and what all happened there.

“And, certainly, there are a lot of people over there who are really into country music, particularly the old-timey country music. We don’t do that, but it still lends itself to the same kind of mindset that would then appreciate a record about the South in the ’70s.”

Riley said plans for a headline tour of the West Coast are being finalized for January to capitalize on the exposure the band received from an October tour with Gov’t Mule.

The next album will be out shortly thereafter, which means the Truckers will once again be hitting the road for the long haul.