SPOTLIGHT: Drive-By Truckers’ Patterson Hood on Writing Songs in 21st Century USA
Photo by Andy Tennille
EDITOR’S NOTE: Patterson Hood’s band, Drive-By Truckers, is No Depression‘s Spotlight band for January 2020. Read our feature about the Truckers and their new album, The Unraveling, here.
The regulations state that a bus driver must take an 8-10 hour break for every 10 hours or 600 miles of driving. In our earlier days of touring on a bus, we often found ways to skirt those rules. Once we had a driver who drove from Minneapolis to Seattle stopping only to gas up and pee. Now we’re all older with families, and I’m personally glad to have a well-rested driver with our lives in his hands.
In January of 2018, my band Drive-By Truckers was touring cross-country with Lilly Hiatt, working our way across the top portion of the country. We had just played Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where it was so cold that the falls weren’t falling at all. We had a 2 a.m. bus call and drove through the night, heading west towards Missoula, Montana.
One of the things I sometimes miss about bus touring vs. touring in a van is the northern drive across the Rockies, as it’s about the most beautiful part of the planet I’ve seen and on a bus we drive all night while everyone is asleep and you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway.
On this day, our driver took his required rest stop just outside of a town called Gillette, Wyoming. We never actually saw the town of Gillette, as were stopping at an exit off of I-90 outside of town. It’s on the flatter part of the state and we were staying for 12 hours at a Holiday Inn Express. The exit had the usual assortment of bargain shops and fast food restaurants. We literally could be anywhere in the United States from what we could see.
Everyone was starving and restless, so we decided to find some lunch as soon as possible. We looked on Yelp and there it was, a three-star review Mexican restaurant at that exit. Now, you don’t exactly want three-star sushi or fine dining, but at an off ramp outside Gillette, three-star Mexican probably means that everything is smothered in cheese and the chips and salsa would mean instant gratification. SOLD!
Everyone went to their rooms to take a much needed constitutional and the plan was to meet outside in 15 minutes to walk the two to three blocks to lunch.
I’ve been writing songs by this point for almost exactly 45 years, and it’s still a mystery where they come from and how it happens. Sometimes it’s best to just embrace the magic and run with it and not ask too many questions.
I walked out of the door of the Holiday Inn Express and saw our bus across the parking lot, bathed in light from the bright early afternoon sun, reflected off of the patches of days-old snow that were scattered throughout the parking lot. It was parked directly under a giant billboard that said “Oasis Tanning Salon.” By the time we got to the three-star Mexican restaurant, the first verse had written itself. I wrote it down on a napkin while eating the chips and salsa.
The parking lot behind Oasis Tan
Down the street from the Mexican
Restaurant between the Auto Zone
and the place that’s hawking Pay Day Loans
There’s a K-Mart and a KFC
A fitness center and an Applebee’s
Wells Fargo and a Taco John’s
A good time bar to get your bad swerve on
In a town that’s named for razor blades
All American but Chinese made
Folks working hard for shrinking pay
21st Century USA
By the beginning of 2018, we had been touring for our American Band album for a year and a half, and we were starting to discuss what to do next. The band was having fun working together, the shows were going great, and with the success of American Band it was time to start thinking of a follow-up to hopefully build on this rebirth we had fostered. Everything was in place, except for the one thing I had usually always been able to count on. The songs.
The times we were living in were giving us no shortage of things to write about, but at the same time, having already been touring for several years behind an album as political as ours had been, we had no desire to repeat ourselves, yet also didn’t want to feel as if we were backing down from what we had been saying. The quandary was how to write about this shit that was happening in a way that felt like its own thing and not a continuation of American Band. How to write about the horrific news of each and every new day that anyone, including ourselves, would actually want to listen to.
What could we say that hadn’t already said better last time? We didn’t want to become a protest singing cliché.
Out I-90 we might see you pass
We got coal and methane gas
We got jobs where the work is hard
and stores to max out your credit cards
In a town that ain’t nowhere near
just like every town everywhere
Folks working hard for shrinking pay …
The meal was exactly like I expected. A sort of delicious mediocrity that old-school Americanized Mexican restaurants almost always provide. The salsa was probably pre-made but was spicy and the chips were crunchy. Everything was slathered in melted cheese. I could hear the song in my head, drowning out the canned Mexican restaurant Muzak.
They say we have to hang on a little bit longer and a savior will come our way
We’ll know him by the neon sign and the opulence he maintains
If Amazon can deliver salvation I’ll order it up on my phone
With Big Brother watching me always, why must I always feel so alone
Afterward, I ran back to the room and finished the song in about an hour or so.
Upon finishing the song, I recorded a demo on my phone. That song revealed to me what I needed to do and how I needed to approach writing the next album. It’s still political, but very very personal. And so it goes.
Men working hard for not enough, at best
Women working just as hard for less
They get together late at night at bars
Bang each other just like crashing cars
They do their best but it don’t seem enough
Calloused hearts make even love seem tough
Prescription pills to make the pain hurt less
Until your calloused heart just needs a rest
You look at your children and you hope and pray
that they can conjure up a better day
No one remembers how it got that way
21st Century USA