Back in summer 2021, when the return of concerts seemed like a possibility, the Drive-By Truckers booked a few days of studio time. The hard-touring southern rock band didn’t want to practice, per se, before getting back on the road; they just wanted to get used to performing together again. So they decided to demo songs Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the band’s two leaders, had written earlier in the pandemic. Before they hit the studio, though, the Truckers were asked to fill in last minute at Under the Big Sky, a music festival in Montana. The group didn’t even get a sound check before taking the stage for the first time in over a year in direct sunlight in the high 90s. “And it was one of the happiest hours of my life,” Hood says of the set.
The Drive-By Truckers don’t chase perfection in their live shows anyway. “Rock and roll should go off the rails,” Hood says. “If it’s never gonna go off the rails, then it’s probably not enough rock and roll, at least for my tastes.” It’s that attitude that has made the band a beloved live act and led to a 26-year career (including as a launchpad for Americana singer-songwriter Jason Isbell). It also informed the band’s 14th studio album, Welcome 2 Club XIII, out today. The record came from those three days cutting demos in 2021, not wasted after Hood and Cooley realized they’d made a full album.
Club XIII is named after one of the venues where the band came up, around Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The album is tinted with nostalgia for the early days of the Truckers, especially on lead single “Welcome 2 Club XIII,” a vignette of a night at the venue. It’s also a shift from the Truckers’ overtly political previous three records: 2016’s American Band and 2020’s The Unraveling and The New OK. Hood is still angry — about everything from the Supreme Court’s reported decision to overturn Roe v. Wade to school shootings to the 2021 Capitol insurrection — but he calls it “a relief” to pull back on Club XIII. After all, the Truckers are a rock band first. Hood and Cooley spoke to Vulture about the Drive-By Truckers’ early days, their favorite Isbell contribution, and making people mad.
Welcome 2 Club XIII song that most reminds you of the early days.
Patterson Hood: “Welcome 2 Club XIII.” It’s sort of our anti-glory-days song. ’Cause they weren’t that glorious, you know. So it’s pretty tongue in cheek; it’s humorous in a way that some of our early songs tended to maybe be, more often than the later songs. It has a rollicking, almost Replacements kind of vibe to it. The Replacements were certainly a big influence on the beginnings of Cooley and I playing together four bands ago. And it’s a fun song, and it’s good to have a fun song. So much of the last few records were so weighted. And yet at the same time, if you come see us live in concert, we’re a fun band. So there’s always been, to me, almost like a rift between how dark our records tend to be, and yet our live show is a joyous thing. So it’s good to have a song that reminds us of that.
Worst early show.
Mike Cooley: It depends on what you mean by worst. Like, the show itself or something that happened before or after. The one in the song was actually one of the better ones. That was one of the better memories.
P.H.: Our first band together, Adam’s House Cat, was not beloved. We were together six years, and by the end of it, we really had become a good band, but we were kind of landlocked in our hometown. We never really, properly got the thing on the road. We didn’t get far enough to even get there. And it was very frustrating to us because we practiced a lot, and we got really good at doing it, and yet never really got to take it out and drive it properly. And where we lived at that time, there was nowhere for us.
Favorite song written by the other.
P.H.: “Every Single Storied Flameout” is absolutely, right now, my favorite Drive-By Truckers song. First time I heard it, I just loved it, and when we recorded it, I was thrilled with what we did with it. I love playing it live, and of course live it’s got the horns, too, and that just makes it even better. I’ve always been a big “Zip City” fan. And then Cooley has a song that we never play called “Loaded Gun in the Closet” that’s the last song on Decoration Day, and I’ve always really loved that song. You know, my favorite songs tend to be other members’ songs, anyway, so I’ve always been a big fan of whatever Cooley writes. I don’t know if he’s ever really written a song that I didn’t at least really like.
M.C.: I like a lot of his stuff on the new record. “Wilder Days” is one of my favorites;I think it’s one of his best ever. I’m pretty proud of the stuff on the new record. They are fun to play; that’s always important. Being able to say what you wanna say and create something that’s fun to play live, that’s the total package. Sometimes you don’t do both. [Laughs.] Going back, I like “A World of Hurt” a lot because I was living that at the same time myself, so I know where it was coming from.
Song you most regret.
P.H.: If I had to do it over again, “Demonic Possesion” wouldn’t have been on that record. Most of our albums have at least one song that I wish we’d left off, and it’s almost always my song. I can maybe think of one exception, and that person’s not here, and I won’t say it. With Decoration Day and the new one probably being the two that I wouldn’t really have a song that I would change. Those are the two records that I felt like we really, top to bottom, got it right.
M.C.: Yeah, Brighter Than Creation’s Dark — that’s a good record, but we put too damn many songs on it. I knew it almost as soon as we put it out. And I kind of knew it when we were doing it, but I didn’t know what else we were gonna do with all that material. It was all good, I don’t regret any of the songs, but I think the record would’ve been better with about five fewer songs.
P.H.: Yeah, we were ending a record deal. We had gone in and just cut all we had. But then any songs that were left over, they would end up being another record on that deal, and we were done. So it was like, Well shit, let’s just put ’em on there. In retrospect, I guess we could’ve erased something, but …
M.C.: There would’ve been a really good outtakes record to put out out of those sessions.
P.H.: And there ended up being one, anyway, even without any of those songs!
M.C.: Yeah, I know.
P.H.: We’re still putting out records!
M.C.: Reissues! The New Coke of the music business.
Favorite song to play lead guitar on.
M.C.: Wow, I don’t know. There are two categories: There are the ones where you play the solo almost exactly the same way every time and the ones you improvise. And then there’s kind of a hybrid of both. “Lookout Mountain,” how can you fuck that up? Well, never mind, I’ve done it. But that’s always fun; that’s a little bit of a hybrid. “Righteous Path” is a fun one.
Jason Isbell song you miss playing.
M.C.: We could cover one, but most of the songs he did with us are so personal, I wouldn’t feel right covering.
P.H.: He puts on a festival in our hometown, and we played that last fall, so I asked him if he’d do a song with us. I thought, Well, he’s got a killer band — they play the shit out of those songs — but he never plays “The Day John Henry Died.” I’ve never known him to play that song with his current band. So I asked him if he would do that with us ’cause that song was always fun to play, and we didn’t even play it a whole lot toward the end of him being in the band; he moved on from it or whatever. But he did it with us and it was awesome; it was magical.
During the lockdown, I did themed shows up in my music room every couple of weeks, mainly to keep me on my toes and keep me from playing the same shit every week. One week, I did a request show, and somebody requested that I cover an Isbell song. So I covered that song, and I actually learned how to play it. It was hard for me to cover because I sing a harmony almost through that song. And I had a really hard time singing the lead part and not singing the go-to part that I always sing on it because I just wanted to naturally go there. So it was fun playing it with him because I got to do the part I like to do.
Song that most made people mad.
M.C.: Well, the first one would’ve been “Puttin’ People on the Moon,” back from Dirty South.
P.H.: It’s very true. It was the fall of 2004, and I just remember night after night, people shooting us birds and yelling shit at us when we’d play that song. Fortunately, we were really loud, so we really didn’t have to hear it much. We could see ’em doing it — you know, they always had their baseball caps on backward because they don’t know how to put ’em on correctly. They don’t know how to wear a fuckin’ baseball hat, so they probably don’t know how to fuckin’ vote. They’d rather look backward than forward. What the song means polarized a lot of people, and I was honestly shocked by that ’cause I didn’t think of it as something that would be really polarizing. To me, it’s not even so much political as, you know, being a decent person. Don’t be a fuckin’ piece of shit.
M.C.: From the time the song was new to the time it came out on the record, it became a lot more polarizing than it had been just those few short months earlier. That’s how quickly we were headed in that direction at that time.
P.H.: When I wrote the song, it seemed like by pointing the finger at Reagan, I was also pointing the finger at W. This all started with Reagan. I mean, the stuff that’s been on the news — with the Supreme Court leak and all that shit — you know, that all started with Reagan. Reagan realized that they were gonna lose the midterms in ’86 if they didn’t play a hand to really get what is now known as the Christian right before that was even that knowable a thing, getting the moral majority behind them and Jerry Falwell and all that. They drummed up this whole overturning Roe v. Wade and made this rallying cry. All of a sudden, they knew they had this percentage of the vote that would be locked in, that would vote for them even if it went against every one of their best interests, financially or in every other way, because they were gonna vote about this one issue.
M.C.: I’ve taken to referring to Reagan as the first President Trump. So he was nicer and more well mannered? Trump was a con man; Reagan was a corporate pitchman. Po-tay-to po-tah-to.
Southern music legend you most want to work with.
M.C.: That’s pretty much, Oh, let’s access the “who’s still alive” file.
P.H.: My dream passed away last year. I always wanted to make a record backing up Tom T. Hall. And the other one was Bobby Womack, and he passed away a few years back, too. Those are the two that got away that I most wanted to do something with. But working with Booker T. Jones was one of the absolute highlights of my life, and I learned more in four days than probably any five years of my life. I came out the other end a better musician and better songwriter. We had never met him; we went in totally cold that day that it started and came out four days later with Potato Hole. Then we went out on tour with him and actually got to know him, and that was a whole ’nother thing, because as cool as you think he is, when you get to know him, he’s actually even cooler than that. That was life-changing. And I’d love to do something else with him too. I’ve stayed in touch with him. The last time he was in town, I sat in with him for several songs, and it’s always superspecial.
Famed session musician (and Patterson’s dad) Dave Hood’s favorite Truckers music.
P.H.: I don’t know. He’s proud of what we’re doing, and he wasn’t easy to win over. He had to get past our punk-rock leanings and just the fact that he’s Dad, I guess, too. The first time he thought maybe I was on the right path was when Billboard — ’cause he’s a session guy; he’s old-school — reviewed Alabama Ass Whuppin’. He couldn’t believe it. But he really liked Southern Rock Opera. Even before we made it, when I told him about it, he kind of got it, which is funny because a lot of people didn’t at the time. We would tell people about it, and you’d see their eyes glaze over, like, Oh God, they’re crazy. That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. He was one person that I really thought would react that way to it, but he didn’t. He’s like, “You know, you might be onto something there.” It was kind of nuts. But you know, he’s really proud of what we do.