Interview: Patterson Hood on “The New OK”, COVID and the Portland Riots

Americana UK has been lucky enough to speak to Patterson Hood of the Drive-by Truckers as their new album, ‘The New OK’, gets its digital release. Their 2016 ‘American Band’ album was the Truckers most overtly political to date and Patterson Hood explained to AUK’s Martin Johnson that their new album is the final album of a trilogy that also includes ‘The Unraveling’, released at the start of this year. The impact of COVID on the Truckers themselves and the wider music industry is also discussed. Portland, Oregon, resident Patterson Hood has first-hand experience and insight into the Portland riots and shares a more balanced view of what is actually happening in this part of America. Just as some people may be thinking he is on a major downer, Patterson Hood explains why he is ultimately positive about the future and 2021. Finally, he lets slip that there is an album he and his dad, legendary Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood, recorded with the late great producer and keyboard player Jim Dickinson and his sons, Luther and Cody of the Mississippi Allstars, in the can and is being readied for release in 2021.

I have started recent interviews with the obvious, but genuine question, about how people are coping with COVID and hoping they, their friends and family have escaped the worst of its effects. ‘The New OK’ makes the question largely redundant with yourself. How much did it help to be able to put your thoughts into song and how do you hope it will help your listeners?
It’s been a brutal year on every imaginable level. I’ve been lucky, health-wise, family, friends (mostly) but it’s been pretty horrific on many other levels. We decided to do this album the last week in July and had it in the can by 2nd week in September (even mastered and art) so it’s been a marathon of crazy work getting it all put together, but that’s honestly been the best thing to happen. It definitely pulled me back from the brink, depression wise. Giving me a sense of purpose and a creative outlet for some of my angst.

How are the other Truckers and the members of your organisation coping?
It’s been rough on everybody. The financial part has been hard, although we’ve been able to survive due to the love and support of our fans and the hard work of our management team and our badass support network.

The violence in Portland, Oregon, has taken us in the UK by surprise. You now live there, what do you think is going on in what is such a beautiful part of America?
It’s been horrific at times, although very different from how it’s been portrayed in the US media. The violence /protests have been almost all in a three-square block area of downtown surrounding the Federal Building. To hear Trump talk about it you would think it was on fire, but it’s a brutalist structure that could probably withstand an air attack. Most of the violence has centred on the white supremacists that come into town to start shit and then they blame Black Lives Matter and the protests. The actual protests have been largely peaceful and even a little uplifting. People are pissed, but it’s nothing like how it’s been portrayed. I’ve been out there in it. Trump sent in the federal troops to “protect us” which we didn’t want or need. Then the forest fires spun out of control and he didn’t do shit. It’s sad and disgusting.

What do you think the longer-term impact of the lack of touring is going to be on the music industry and how much do you think the collapse in the purchase of physical music has meant that artists and their organisations are struggling to adapt?
It’s brutal. Our band is lucky because we’re pretty established and have such a hardcore devoted fanbase, but for newer bands starting out and older artists that aren’t as supported, it’s destroying a huge segment of our industry.

Your January album ‘The Unraveling’ was full of despair but did you ever in your wildest dreams predict a year like the 2020 we are actually experiencing?
I knew it was bad and going to get worse, but I didn’t see the pandemic coming. 2020 has been a flaming shitshow.

You seem to have bagged most of the songwriting credits on ‘The New OK’ with Mike Cooley writing ‘Sarah’s Flame’ and a cover of The Ramones ‘The KKK Took My Baby Away’. How did that come about?
That wasn’t my choice. Cooley writes in spurts. Sometimes he’ll have a bunch of songs for an album, sometimes not. He may write one or two in a year or even less some years, then have a burst and write five or six. Any song of his that we haven’t used is because he decided not to. I personally love doing Cooley songs. He’s one of my favourite writers in the world. We recorded 18 songs in Memphis and nine of them became The Unraveling album. The others were mostly earmarked for a future album project and we actually still have three for that (which will be pretty different from these albums). Then with the violence and protests, I wrote The New OK and Watching The Orange Clouds.

On the final night of our Memphis sessions, as we had just finished recording for the week, Producer David Barbe asked us to do a quick take of The KKK Took My Baby Away. He said we’d be glad we did. It was one take with a live vocal. The only overdub was the gang backup vocals. Probably 10 minutes total. I’m so glad we had that as it was the perfect way to end this album, which to me completes a trilogy of American Band, The Unraveling and now The New OK.

The album though reflecting the times is more hopeful than ‘The Unraveling’. Who was responsible for this more positive narrative and why?
I think it kinda happened that way. I’m personally very happy about that. I’m basically happy about everything about this album (although I would love a few more Cooley songs).

Are you glad you included the track ‘The Unraveling’ and why didn’t it fit on its parent album?
We wanted The Unraveling album to fit on one disc of vinyl with no bonus tracks. We decided at the time to save the title cut for the next one. It worked out perfectly, although maybe not exactly as planned. It’s like Zeppelin with Houses of the Holy being on Physical Graffiti. (Big smile).

Your last album was recorded at Sam Phillips Studio in Memphis. This time I assume you were forced to use the internet to record the new songs and add overdubs to earlier tracks. How did this influence the sound and how did David Barbe cope? Is he still the extra member of The Truckers?
Barbe is definitely part of the family. He’s there for whatever we need to do and always makes it better. We almost always record live in the studio with minimum overdubs and fixing so it was a challenge, but one that the band made look easy. It’s such a tight unit now, it actually, to me sounds like we’re all there together anyway. I demoed the new songs in my house then sent them to Barbe and Brad Morgan (drummer, EZB). He recorded the master drum part then sent back to me. I went to the studio and recorded master guitars and vocals then sent to the rest of the band. They put their parts on and Barbe mixed it. Everyone played their asses off. We cut three songs that way.

You’ve said how hard the lockdown has been on you personally due to your lack of hobbies. Have you ever been tempted to turn to a literary career to help utilise your time?
I have been working on and off on a book project plus doing essays and articles for various publications. I love it, but really miss my day job. Also, I’m in a movie. A film called “The Dark Divide” that’s just now coming out (w David Cross and Debra Messing). I have a small part, but it’s a great little movie. I also filmed a small role in an indie film called “Of Rag and Bone”. I don’t know when it’s coming out, but I know they’re finishing it up now.

You worked with Jerry Joseph on his ‘Beautiful Madness’ album. I was floored by the track ‘Dead Confederate’. How do you think the South is doing at the moment?
I am as proud of Jerry’s album as anything I’ve ever worked on. It’s an amazing album. He’s one of my all-time favourite songwriters. The south is a beautiful region with some amazing people and art, music and literature. There’s also a lot of right-wing assholery that gives the other a bad name. There’s a lot of good people fighting the good fight but it’s definitely a work in progress.

Jerry Joseph’s album is only the latest in a select group of Patterson Hood productions. Are any more planned?
I’d love to do more production. Someone would obviously have to ask me and it’d have to be something that I felt like I could be a benefit to. I always wanted to make an album with Bobby Womack, but he passed away. Tom T. Hall was also on my list but he retired. There are these two incredible sisters Claire and Page Campbell who perform as Hope For Agoldensummer that I plan to produce at some point when we can work out the timing and logistics. They’re badass. If the chemistry is there, I love producing but it has to feel right.

Do you think the current COVID situation has made long term and irreversible changes to the music industry?
We’re nearing a tipping point where we lose some of our greatest venues and I don’t know what will happen after that. It’s heartbreaking and very depressing.

What are your hopes for 2021?
A new President, a cure for COVID, some peace and quiet. A lot for Rock and Roll. Maybe a slow news day every now and then.

How is your Dad? Donnie Fritts passed last year, but Dan Penn has just released a great album, ‘Living On Mercy’. I think it is amazing what those guys achieved when they were also so young. Will we ever see their like again?
No. I miss Donnie all the time. I loved him dearly. He’s irreplaceable. I made an album with my dad, Jim Dickinson (before he passed away) and Luther and Cody Dickinson. We finished tracking it last fall before the deluge. I hope to mix and release it next year at some point. We call ourselves Dickinsons + Hoods.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share the top 3 tracks on your current playlist?
Loving Lydia Loveless’ new album, Fontaines DC, the new Thurston Moore, new Flaming Lips and an artist named Bette Smith that our bass player Matt Patton produced. Her album is the shit!

Finally, is there anything you want to say to your UK fans?
Hopefully,  we’ll see you all in 2021. It’s gonna be epic once we can play out again. Wear a mask and stay safe.

The Drive-by Truckers new album, ‘The New OK’, is available now for download on ATO Records and will be available on vinyl and CD on 18th December 2020.

Author: Martin Johnson

I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.

2 thoughts on “Interview: Patterson Hood on “The New OK”, COVID and the Portland Riots”

    1. Hi Ralph, what is the old saying? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder? You are right they do represent a change over early albums and they have a clear link to the times they were recorded in..

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