A Topical Disc From Rock ’n’ Roll’s Southern Conscience

Two shootings nearly 85 years apart drove the creation of the Drive-By Truckers’ pointed new music.

Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP
Pose for a photo before playing a show in Seattle, Wash.

Patterson Hood was inspired by Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and other police shootings to write “What it Means,” a rumination on racism. His bandmate Mike Cooley went back further for “Ramon Casiano,” a 15-year-old Mexican immigrant killed in 1931 by Harlon Carter, a teen-ager who grew up to transform the National Rifle Association from a sportsman’s group to fierce advocates for less restrictive gun laws.

The songs are the heart of a disc among the most topical, and best, in this Georgia-based rock band’s 20-year career. American Band also has songs about the Confederate flag, an Oregon school shooting, religious hucksters, culture wars and disaffected youth — and some personal takes on depression and Southern identity.

While the Truckers usually prefer elaborate artwork on their albums, this disc’s cover is a photo of the stars and stripes. Releasing it Friday, a month before the election, is no coincidence, either.

“I’d like to think that we could have taken the world by storm if we had written some sweet love songs,” Cooley said. “We might have been more successful if we had taken that route.”

Quite possibly. More easily forgotten, too.

The Truckers first attracted attention with 2001’s Southern Rock Opera, a concept album about growing up in the South. Their progressive perspective defies and challenges stereotypes. The New York Times turned to Hood for an essay on the Confederate flag, and a song about racism in law enforcement from white men with Southern accents will likely reach people who tune out “Black Lives Matter” protests.

Hood wrote “What it Means” two years ago.

“I was honestly hoping that it would be outdated, and we would just move on and not put it on (the album),” he said. “But it keeps being relevant, unfortunately.”

Their Alabama upbringings helped define their world view. Hood’s father was a musician who played on Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett records. Cooley said he was in his 30s before he heard anyone refer to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression.” A backdrop of Southern Rock Opera was the damage done to the South and its economy by the resistance some whites had to the civil rights movement.

“I feel like we’re in an era and age where we’re kind of watching this happen on a national scale right now,” Hood said. “I can’t really draw a large distinction between what (Donald) Trump is doing and what (former Alabama Gov. George) Wallace was doing and saying, except I think Wallace was a smarter person.”

Hood moved recently to Portland, Oregon, a relocation that informs “Ever South,” about how leaving one part of the country doesn’t mean it leaves you. In “Baggage,” he also writes about his own struggles with depression, a subject he was compelled to write about by public reaction to the death of comic Robin Williams.

The Drive-By Truckers have seen personnel shifts through the years, including, most famously, a stint by Americana star Jason Isbell. Hood and Cooley remain their center. They write separately, pushing each other in a friendly competition. The band is at its best when both writers are at their best, and Cooley’s emergence from a writer’s block the past few years has deepened their work.

“I’m probably his biggest fan,” Hood said. “Nothing makes me happier than getting a whole bunch more Cooley songs to play.”

Photo: Arnold Wells
Frank Erwin Center, Austin, TX

The release a few months ago of Cooley’s “Surrender Under Protest,” about the killing of nine people in Charleston, S.C., church and the subsequent fight over the Confederate flag, previewed the direction of American Band. It also attracted a strong reaction on social media, a hint they were working on something provocative.

Not that Cooley noticed. “He doesn’t look at the Internet,” his partner said.

“I’ve never used it,” Cooley said. “I went to middle school and I don’t want to go back.”