Last month, the Drive-By Truckers released their 8th studio album, The Big To-Do, a typically excellent collection Southern rock character sketches and story songs. The Georgia-based band — whose co-founders, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, once lived in Memphis — has often peppered their music with local and regional references, including songs about Sun Records founder Sam Phillips and the night punk provocateur G.G. Allin played the Antenna Club.
Ahead of the band's scheduled Saturday night set at the Beale Street Music Festival, I exchanged e-mails with Hood about some of the band's more recent Memphis and Mid-South connections, among other topics:
Flyer: The Big To-Do is dedicated, in part, to Jim Dickinson, and you reference your relationship with the Dickinson family in the liner notes. Can you elaborate a little on your connections to the Dickinsons and what Jim means/represents for you?
Patterson Hood: Jim was very much a hero of mine and to some extent the whole band. Not only the work he did but how he did it and the point of view he represented with it. I met him many years ago when [co-frontman Mike] Cooley and I were in Adam's House Cat. We were managed by [Memphis Grammy chapter director] Jon Hornyak and he introduced us. I really wanted him to produce that band and actually always wanted DBT to work with him too on some level. In later years, I've become good friends with [Dickinson's sons] Luther and Cody, who I also admire so. Luther and I had this idea to form a side project band with my Dad and Jim. Between the five of us, it's a pretty kick-ass band and covers the bases. Not long before Jim got sick, we all convened at [Dickinson's studio] the Zebra Ranch for a couple of days and tracked a few songs with the intention of making an album. Of course, between DBT's schedule and the many irons Luther and Cody have in the fire, getting all of us together is next to impossible so it never got finished. I still hope to finish it all at some point and maybe turn it into a tribute to Jim and what he meant to us. Jim and my father had their own history together which made it all even cooler.
Also, Big Star's 3rd [which Dickinson produced] is one of my desert island discs and "Kangaroo" is one of my all-time favorite songs. Jim told me the cowbell story and autographed my vinyl copy of 3rd.
In addition to writing about Sam Phillips on at least a couple of DBT songs and dedicating this album to Jim Dickinson, you had a chance to work with another legendary Memphis figure in Booker T. Jones, when the band backed him up on this recent album Potato Hole. He's got a reputation for being pretty reserved. Did you get a chance to talk to him much about Memphis or let him know about your history with the city?
I felt like we bonded pretty well. He's a sweetheart. One of the most truly amazing people I've ever met. We all adore him. We made the album in four days so there wasn't much talk then, but touring we got to hang out some. Especially in Australia. He told us some cool stories. I really hope we get to collaborate again, as we all kinda know each other now and although I'm extremely proud of Potato Hole, I think we could make a far better go of it next time.
On another semi-local note: I'm interested in "The Wig He Made Her Wear" since that case was big news in Memphis, obviously. You seem to approach the story from a side angle (that Tom T. Hall songwriting influence?) that's more a bemused commentary on community standards than at attempt to write something definitive about the case itself. Can you comment a little on deciding to write about that story and how you came up with that angle?
It's weird, whenever someone Southern does something sensational or violent or even crazy stupid, someone sends me the clipping and tells me I ought to write about it and of course I usually run as fast as I can away from it. Like, haven't I written "that" song enough already? But something about that story hit me very differently. Not really the murder or the event because where I come from there's always some violent or deviated story that involves a preacher and a killing, but it was the Audible Gasp in the courtroom that got me. I just happened to be watching (I've literally never seen Court TV in my life other than that morning) and when they pulled out the wig and shoes it was like an old episode of Perry Mason with the loud 'gasp' in the courtroom. It stopped me in my tracks and I knew at that moment I had to write about it. It's actually the 'gasp' that I'm writing about because I'm "from there" as they say. I grew up 35 miles from Selmer and the mores and religiousness that inspired the 'gasp' is something I felt like I knew far too well from my own upbringing and that's what I wanted to write about. The story itself was just a way of setting up the 'gasp'.
As for the Tom T. thing. He is the absolute master at that kind of writing and I'm in awe of him as a writer. Anything I can learn or steal from him makes me a better writer. On a final note about that song, we were in Norway when the murder happened and it was on BBC News over there that I first heard about it. I'm like halfway around the world and the big story is from 'home'. I kept up with the story as it progressed, but had no intention of actually writing about it until the 'gasp'.
Can you comment on Shonna Tucker's emergence over the past couple of records? It seems to me that where [departed songwriter] Jason Isbell wrote songs somewhat in the same vein (a little folkier, maybe) as you and Cooley, Tucker offers more of a tonal contrast, not just lyrically, but maybe more-so vocally and musically.
I agree with all of that. I personally welcome the contrast. I think her songs are super cool and playing the different types of songs and learning to do it effectively makes us a better band. Maybe it's a by-product of being the son of a session player, but I love the idea of a band being able to shape-shift accordingly to accommodate the different styles. To do that and still have it be unified and be one band is a good creative challenge.
"This Fucking Job" and "Get Downtown" have a rhyming quality, which isn't the first time you and Cooley have taken on similar subjects from different perspectives. Do you guys intentionally riff off each other's songs, or is it accidental?
It's usually accidental and honestly my favorite thing about this band. We're as different as we can be from each other, but as Cooley says we do spend a lot of time together so we cant help but be affected by many of the same things even if we're affected differently.
Finally, I know you're friendly with [Memphis guitarist] Steve Selvidge and you toured with the Hold Steady. What do you think about him joining that band?
Incredible. I can't wait to see them together. They're gonna be an unstoppable force. Steve is the shit!