SPOTLIGHT: Drive-By Truckers Take On Politics, Thoughts and Prayers, and Writer’s Block
Photo by Andy Tennille
EDITOR’S NOTE: Drive-By Truckers are No Depression’s Spotlight band for January 2020. Look for more on the band and their new album, The Unraveling (out Jan. 31), all month long.
There’s an interesting juxtaposition on the cover of Drive-By Truckers’ new record. The artwork is a photo of two young kids standing on the beach, shoulder to shoulder, staring into the horizon. It conveys a sense of peace, perhaps even hope.
The bottom of the cover, though, says something different. Next to the band’s name, the LP’s title is displayed: The Unraveling.
“That’s my son and his friend on the cover,” says Truckers co-frontman and co-founder Patterson Hood. “I love the picture because it could be construed as hopeful, but it’s dark and apocalyptic, too. It’s beautiful, and I think this record is beautiful. There are a lot of emotions in what we’re doing now.”
Though Drive-By Truckers have always written socially minded and politically active songs, The Unraveling, out Jan. 31, is their heaviest, most poignant record, and there’s something about the cover —hope coupled with a reality of an unraveling world — that sets the stage for the nine new tracks.
“It may be political, but it’s very personal,” says Hood, “because all of this shit is very personal to me. I have close friends and family who are directly affected by aspects that get touched on by every single song on this record. You better believe when my kids come home from school and they’re talking about lockdown drills and shit like that, I’m destroyed. I’m trying to be hopeful as we move into this next election cycle, but I’m not getting a lot of comfort from anything I see.”
A gloomy tone settled into the record naturally, says Truckers co-founder Mike Cooley, the result of a band continuing its long tradition of making music about what’s on their minds in the moment.
“We didn’t give it any thought about how heavy it would be,” Cooley says. “We just went from one song to the next, the way we always do whenever we book studio time. We didn’t really think about the whole thing in context.”
While Hood is quick to share his excitement about getting The Unraveling out to fans, Cooley is more reserved.
“I don’t get excited about things. Excited people get on daddy’s nerves,” he says, almost lyrically. “I didn’t find this album to be personal to me. I wanted it to be, but I wasn’t there when I was writing it. It’s a good record, don’t get me wrong. But I need some reassurance that I’m not done, and I’m not finding it.”
Cooley’s worry is rooted in a bout of writer’s block both he and Hood experienced over the last few years. When The Unraveling was first announced, the news and press releases played up this fact.
“Writer’s block seems to be part of the narrative, but this time the narrative happens to be true,” Cooley says. “That’s rare in this business.”
Cooley and Hood, though open about the difficulty of writing their latest record, pay little mind to the phrase “writer’s block.”
Cooley rejects “block” altogether and points out how family needs and other demands can take time and energy away from writing. Hood finds no lack of material, but the topics can be hard to translate into words and riffs.
“The hardest thing was trying to find a way to articulate this fucked up situation we’re in, in a way that’s musically or lyrically compelling,” Hood confesses. “There was just this whole long inner debate we were all going through, how we should follow up American Band.”
When American Band came out on Sept. 30, 2016, Hood and Cooley were optimistic about a Hillary Clinton presidency. “We thought we’d tour hard for two months and then everybody would be done and we wouldn’t have to be talking about it anymore,” Hood says. “We could move on.”
Hood takes a pause as he thinks about that optimism from four years ago.
“And then all hell broke loose.”
Living inside the opposite electoral outcome, both Hood and Cooley admit that a driving force behind The Unraveling was an unwillingness to back down from speaking prophetically and boldly.
“I wouldn’t want everyone who sent us the hate tweets to think we were backing down. Fuck them,” Cooley says. “That’s not how I do things.”
Hood says he felt a sense of responsibility with the album that would follow American Band. “There came a point in time where I felt like if we don’t address this shit, we’re kind of backing down after the stand we made last time, and Cooley came to that exact same conclusion at the same time. We just knew we needed to plunge forward with this motherfucker.”
That plunge was far from easy. “Usually writing brings me a certain amount of joy,” Hood explains, “even if I’m writing something really dark, because it’s getting it out of me, and that makes me feel better. It lifts the burden and makes me less depressed. That wasn’t the case this time. I’d write a song and then just be depressed about it, and that made me question everything.”
Hood found himself constantly asking himself, “Is what I’m doing wrong? Does it suck? Is it shitty? Is my brain telling me I shouldn’t be doing it?”
What finally broke that feeling was “21st Century USA,” a song set among anonymous strip malls and suburban scenes in one American town that could extend to just about any of them. When the lyrics, about the places and circumstances that connect people even amid modern isolation, came to Hood, he began to feel better.
The song came to him while he was on tour — which is rare, he says, since he has so many things fighting for his attention in that setting. But there was something different about “21st Century USA.” The Drive-By Truckers had wrapped up a show in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and hit the road toward Missoula, Montana. On the way, they made a stop outside Gillette, Wyoming, so the driver could take a nap.
“We’re all hungry, so we checked into our rooms and then met up to find some lunch,” Hood recalls. “There was a three-star Mexican restaurant on Yelp a few blocks away, and you know exactly what you’re going to get: everything covered in cheese, unhealthy, and delicious.”
On the way to that meal, Hood was struck by something he saw in the hotel parking lot, a scene now immortalized in the opening line of the song.
“Our bus was parked under this gigantic billboard for the Oasis Tanning Salon,” he says. “But it was freezing cold. It’s January in Wyoming. We’re all wrapped in our winter clothes. I don’t know why, but it just struck me as funny. From there, the song was happening as we walked to that three-star Mexican restaurant. I could hear it in my head. I wrote the first verse down on a napkin, and as soon as we finished eating, I ran back to my room and wrote the rest of the song.”
Hood says that’s the first time in years he wrote a song like that. “Everything before that, I was fighting for every fucking line,” he says. “Then this happened and I was like, ‘Okay, I can still do this shit.’ I was able to kind of keep it going.”
Cooley says he still hasn’t experienced any such breakthrough in his writing. “I stress about it a lot,” he admits. “I feel a little sick to my stomach pretty often. I don’t deal well with it at all, and touring doesn’t help. I guess touring helps me feel more of a sense of accomplishment, but it doesn’t do anything for creating new material.”
“I’ve been here before. I freak out every time, but this is the worst it’s ever been. It’s not a good time for me.” He laughs and seems ready to move on in the conversation.
Long Shelf Life
In spite of his own struggle with writing new songs, Cooley has written for The Unraveling what will be one of the most important songs of the last 20 years, “Grievance Merchants.” Centered around the lyric, “Give a boy a target for his grievance and he might get it in his head they need to pay,” Cooley crafts a timeless indictment of American society and the country’s endless cycle of senseless shootings.
“Since I finished writing that song,” Cooley laments, “that same thing has happened again and again. I’ve lost track how many times it’s happened since I wrote that song, and I wrote it because it had already happened so many goddamned times. Seeing that same guy who fits that same profile doing the same thing the same way for the same reason, and give all the same reasons, and everybody goes, ‘Gee, why does this keep happening,’ like it’s some kind of mystery — I’m tired of it. How many of them have to spray paint their reasons on the wall over the dead bodies until you realize there really isn’t much of a mystery?”
Cooley and Hood understand the importance of the songs they’ve written for their current time, but they also realize, sadly, that these songs will have a long shelf life.
“I stopped worrying about these songs going out of style,” Cooley says. “Nope, this is not going to become irrelevant anytime soon.”
The Drive-By Truckers don’t wallow in any kind of misery, though. All of America is held accountable on The Unraveling as Hood and Cooley — and bassist Matt Patton, multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez, and drummer Brad Morgan — speak truth to power on tracks like the gut-wrenching and all-too-real “Babies in Cages” and the foretelling “Armageddon’s Back in Town.”
“What I feel like we ended up with is a more personal take of living through this shit — and what it does to your soul,” Hood says.
That personal take is front and center on “Thoughts and Prayers,” another heart-piercing reflection on the never-ending tragedy of gun violence. Hood takes on the phrase lifted up by Christians and politicians on social media — a phrase that also finds its way into Cooley’s “Grievance Merchants” — and turns it into a simple call to action: “Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers.”
“I was dragged to a fundamentalist church as a kid,” Cooley says, “and I remember fundamentalist, evangelical, conservative Christian sermons dedicated to the concept of faith without works. Pray all you want. If you’re a student and you have a test or a paper, pray that you make a good grade without studying and see how that works out for you. Get back to me on that. Thoughts and prayers? It’s utter absurdity.”
A Dark Time
Though the album cover may convey hope and darkness, the reality is that, throughout The Unraveling, the latter overpowers the former. With the next presidential election months away, it’s impossible to listen to Drive-By Truckers’ new music without acknowledging and confronting the divisiveness and vitriol that saturates the country.
“It’s uncompromisingly dark in the lyrics,” Hood says with little optimism. “All of our records are dark, but this one is darker. It’s a dark time. It’s a fucked up time for anybody who doesn’t have their head up their ass. It’s a fucking dark time. I love my country for better or worse, and I hate seeing it like this.”
Some assurance broke through the darkness, however, when the Truckers came together in the studio.
“That was a blast. It was exhausting and draining on every level: physically, mentally, every possible level,” Hood says. “But it was cathartic and really, really fun.”
It’s obvious that, given the journey he and Cooley have been on leading to the release of The Unraveling, Hood is proud of this new addition to the Drive-By Truckers catalog.
“It gave me a good feeling about how it’s going to be touring this record, because it made us all feel so much better and kind of even joyful. I’m happy about that. I feel like that was important for this record, that there would be some sense of joy in the playing of it. And there is.”
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