The songs of Patterson Hood often tell vivid stories, even if they’re not always about the brightest subjects. Over a decade and a half and nine studio albums later, the Drive-By Truckers frontman has tackled rural economic plight, cancer clusters, and killing a banker to avoid foreclosure. His modern gothic tales are usually enhanced by the Truckers’ loudly distorted three-guitar attack. It’s interesting, then, to hear the underground Southern rock icon tone down his raspy howl and get personal on his new solo album, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance.
The reflective effort came out of Hood’s attempt to write a book, a fictionalized account of a pre-Truckers dark period in his life, when he was an admittedly suicidal, recently divorced, struggling musician. When the concept better manifested in song, Hood contrasted the turbulent tales with lighter tunes about his current existence as a successful—albeit road-weary—happily married father of two. With songs in place, the Athens, Georgia-based Hood called on a stout cast of musicians to record the album. In addition to fellow Truckers members Brad Morgan (drums) and Jay Gonzalez (keys), he’s assisted by his dad, longtime Muscle Shoals session bassist David Hood, songstress Kelly Hogan and Will Johnson of Centro-matic. Hood will bring his solo band the Downtown Rumblers to the Southern on Saturday night, and C-VILLE caught up with him by phone.
C-VILLE Weekly: Your songs often contain colorful stories, so it doesn’t seem like a stretch that you were working on a book. Why, in the end, did you decide to turn the book idea into a solo record?
Patterson Hood: “I was burned out on the road and homesick but still facing a long year of touring since the Truckers had just released Go Go Boots. I decided to use that time on the bus to write the book that had been in the back of my mind. I dove in and the first few chapters were going pretty quickly. Since the main character was a songwriter, I decided to write a song to put in-between each chapter. In the end I liked the songs more than what had been finished of the book.”
Is this your most autobiographical album?
“My songs on previous albums have been autobiographical, even when it’s not always obvious. When I’m writing about other people, there’s usually a connection even if I’m not directly involved in the story. This record, though, is definitely more direct. It’s either me at 27 or me at 47. I like the way those songs juxtapose back and forth. The song “Depression Era” was written with my great uncle in mind, since he passed away last fall. Much of this record is about the idea of losing the last part of that generation in my family, but at the same time having beautiful kids running around. It’s the passing of the torch.”
This record has a soulful, sparse quality. Were you trying to deviate from the usual Truckers sound?
“I first recorded these songs as demos on GarageBand in my home office, so from the beginning they were very sparse. The songs were sung quietly and at times almost whispered, so I wanted to retain that with a full band. I didn’t include any big lead guitar. I wanted this to sound intimate and personal, like a conversation. When I went to record, it happened probably quicker than anything I’ve ever done. I finished the record during the week I planned on starting it. Every day that I would go into the studio I would come out with two more songs finished.”
What can we expect at the Southern on Saturday?
“It’s a much quieter show than the Truckers do, so we’re trying to play smaller rooms on this tour. But the band is smoking good. It’s Brad and Jay from the Truckers both playing smaller, stripped-down set-ups, and Jacob Morris playing cello and bass. The opening act, Hope for Agoldensummer, is a band of two sisters from here in Athens that do amazing harmonies. We’re going to back them up for their set, and then they’re going to be part of the Downtown Rumblers.”
After the aforementioned troubled time in your life, you wrote 500 songs in a three-year period. Can you explain that kind of productivity?
“At that point, my life was more fucked up than usual. Writing was my life raft. I was young and my old band and marriage had broken up. I can’t do that any more, and it’s probably better that I don’t. My life is fuller now, and I don’t have the time. As a husband and father of two beautiful kids, I have to carve out specific writing time, because I would rather be with my family when I’m home. I think not writing as much as I used to is the sign of a happy ending.”
September 15 at 8pm/The Southern Café and Music Hall