Interview: Stephen Deusner on why he wrote the first Drive-By Truckers biography

An exploration of the context behind Patterson Hood’s the duality of the southern thing is an interesting subtext.

The Drive-By Truckers have been a cult band in the UK since the mid-2000s and they have seen their popularity increase in the UK over the last few years, starting with their 2016 album, ‘American Band’. The Truckers were formed in 1996, but their roots go back to the ‘80s with bands like Adams House Cat, and they were also the launchpad for Jason Isbell’s solo career. The band have been classed as a southern rock band, and they indeed did write and record a concept album based on Lynyrd Skynyrd, ‘Southern Rock Opera’. However, the band are so much more than what that simple overview implies. They banned the Confederate flag from their concerts when its extreme right-wing racist connotations were clear, and this was well before the more recent Black Lives Matter protests. Their songs have examined in detail the contradictions inherent in the American South’s culture, and they have sung about the duality of the southern thing in the song ‘Southern Thing’. The Truckers were fully aware of the absurdity at the heart of ‘Southern Rock Opera’ but they still pursued their artistic vision despite the career risk it represented. Music journalist and fan Stephen Deusner has written the first biography of The Truckers, and as an ex-pat Southerner himself, he is well able to tell the complete story of this unique band. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson met up with Stephen Deusner over Zoom at his home in Indiana to discuss ‘Where The Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling The South With The Drive-By Truckers’, which is also his first book, and to examine what the Truckers mean to him. He also shared his thoughts on why he thinks their popularity is on the increase in the UK. For anyone interested in The Truckers the book is a must-read, and more than that, it also helps give more context to the contradictions and challenges facing the American South that has given the world so much great music, and is therefore of interest to anybody who has an interest in the South.

How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of COVID.

I’ve had some family issues with some family deaths, and everything has just been compounded over the last year. ‘Where The Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling The South With The Drive-By Truckers’ coming out has been a real bright spot for once, haha.

You are an established music journalist who has had work published by Pitchfork, Uncut, Stereogum, No Depression and others, but ‘Where The Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling The South With The Drive-By Truckers’ is your first book. What made you want to write about the Truckers?

I have been working on it for about five years, I guess, but as first books go this was kind of a dream project because it is about my home where I grew up, a band that I love, a band that are all really good voices to work with. I feel pretty lucky to have come across it as a first book.

The way you have managed to weave everything into a whole is impressive. It is clearly about The Truckers but it is also about the South. I found it to be a really powerful book.

Thank you. I’m glad that has come across because it is definitely what I wanted to get across. This is a band that lets you get into all these great different issues. They are a band that lets you explore the South, in a way that I don’t think a lot of other artists let you do. I think there is just so much going on in their music, and that was one of the fun things about it just using them to see where they took me. I didn’t plan to write about Confederate monuments as much as I did, or about their war songs as much as I did. I just let the music lead me along a little bit to see what it wanted to say.

What came first, was it The Truckers or your Southern heritage, what drove you initially?

The Truckers came along right when I left the South, and right when I was getting that third-person view of the South. When you see things from a distance you see them in a different way. To find this band right after I had moved out of the South was profound. I think that’s where the kernel of what I wanted to write about came from, I just really wanted to explore that because it sounded like they were going through similar things too. I’ve moved around a lot in my life, and every place I went The Truckers came with me and helped me find out who I am in all these new places. Weirdly enough, this whole project of actually starting to write the book started in Birmingham of all places. My wife had a fellowship over there, and so we moved to England for seven or eight months.

I thought you meant Birmingham, Alabama, haha.

Haha, it was funny when I told people we were moving to Birmingham, they were like “Oh, you are coming to Alabama.”. It was weird too, because Birmingham, Alabama, plays such a big part in the book.  We lived on The University Of Birmingham campus, but to get to a good restaurant or coffee shop we had to walk a mile, or a mile and a half. I listened to a lot of music during that time, haha, walking around Birmingham, England, by myself with headphones on  listening to The Truckers. That is where I wrote the first words of the book, and i started thinking about this idea of place, in this weird student neighbourhood in Birmingham, England.

I was intrigued when I read that you had structured the book around places as well as a simple timeline, and I think it works extremely well and helps get over the complex themes of the book. How did you decide on place as a concept?

A lot of that came, as I said, from walking around Birmingham with headphones on listening to a lot of Truckers albums, and I think being in such a radically new place for me, made me realise how many of their songs have these place names in them. They were place names that I was very familiar with, and I think that is where that kernel started. Then going through and listening with that in mind, and hearing a lot about Memphis, and I mentioned to Cooley I was going to do a chapter on Memphis and he was like “That is going to be a real short one.”, haha. I mean, I couldn’t not, and it was just one of those things when the material suggested the structure. I felt I had to write about Memphis, and it also seemed that The South, or parts of The South, doesn’t get written about in rock songs. Even Muscle Shoals, as much as that looms large in rock history, I don’t think it gets talked about that much, particularly these weird avenues of the South that they are talking about. To see them talk about Selma, my home town, to hear them sing songs set there was really remarkable, because I don’t think that happens a lot. You get a lot of New York and LA in songs, but you don’t get a lot of Florence, Alabama. It was kind of fun to do that, it presented a lot of challenges but it was also kind of an interesting exercise in some ways. When I realised that could be done, it felt there was no other way to write the book.

You mentioned Cooley there, how did you get access to The Truckers themselves?

It wasn’t too bad, you know. I’ve written about them since 2004 when I reviewed ‘The Dirty South’ for Pitchfork, and I think I’ve reviewed every subsequent album for Pitchfork, and I’ve written about them for other publications as well. I think there was that connection, they knew my name, they knew my stance with the band, so when I requested access it was pretty easy. I emailed their publicist and manager and we set up interviews, and that was that. I talked to Cooley about three times, I talked to Patterson more times than I can count, he is somebody I could just text and ask “What was going on with this?” and he would just text back. He was super open and excited I think that someone was interested enough in them. It means, of course, I’ve got these artists who are going to read this book.

You had better get it right, haha.

It is just crazy, haha. I did hear from Patterson and he really liked it and appreciated it, and that was probably the most relief I have ever felt in my entire life.

‘A Southern Rock Opera’ was one of the reasons I initially ignored the Truckers even though I hadn’t at that point heard the album. What do you think of that album?

One of the interesting things about it is them knowing how ridiculous it was, how over the top it was and how strange and concept heavy it was, just ridiculous. That was what they wanted to emphasise about it though, they talked about when they were shopping around for labels to try and get somebody to help them to release this, and everybody wanted to edit it down to one disc. The whole thing will sit on one CD, but they were “No, we can’t do that. It has to be a double album.”. They wanted a gatefold sleeve for it to be a certain way. They stuck to their guns, and in the end, it was really good for their career. I feel that is something a younger band might not have understood, but I think having gone through the heartbreak of Adam’s House Cat, I think that Patterson and Cooley both understood this needs to be attention-getting as a product, as just an object, and then people can get into the music and there is a lot there. That was something I enjoyed learning on this whole thing, that they knew that this was ridiculous. Next month is the twentieth anniversary which is very frightening. I haven’t seen any hints that they are planning to do anything around it.

Where do you think the questions of Confederate Statues and The Battle Flag are now in the South?

It is funny, my wife is an art historian and she teaches a class called Monuments and Methods which is all about monuments, so she has been studying this issue for a while, and I feel I had a good sounding board as I explored all of this. Even then I feel like a lot of this is changing so fast and ideas are coming out so quickly, I feel that my ideas about it all are evolving. When I started, I was kind of thinking these are historical objects and we should preserve them in some way, and now I’m nah, just get rid of them all. It is built into the idea of monuments that they are meant to be taken down, or they are meant to be somewhat temporary. That is such a big issue though, The Truckers were aware of these issues, especially with the Confederate flag, they were on the right side of this issue long before the conversation built up this kind of national intensity that it has right now. As for me, growing up where the Confederate flag was so prevalent, even at the time, I think I realised there was something wrong about it. Seeing a lot of kids I grew up with wearing Confederate flag t-shirts to school, or something like that, was a bit unsettling even then. On a certain level, I realised it stood for the people who were kind of bullies to me, in school. It is weird, I live in Indiana and when I leave my little college town I see the Confederate flag a lot in the countryside here in Indiana. When I go to Alabama, weirdly enough, I don’t see it as much, and to me, that is such a strange contradiction. Indiana was a Border State, and it seems that people who identify as Southern are still adopting this symbol in a way that is not heritage, it is just a political or ideological culture that is very disturbing.

Any historical or heritage validity has been highjacked I think.

Yeah, and even the history is all tangled as well. This was never a Confederate flag, it was just a Confederate battle flag for one particular unit. It was adopted as a symbol by the Klu Klux Klan in the ‘20s. I was in Germany, walking down a mountain into a village where the Deutscheners came from, and my wife and I had hiked up to this village just to visit it, and on the way down entering the village the first house we come to is flying a Confederate flag, in Germany. I was like “What the hell is going on?”, and my wife explained that displaying Nazis symbols is illegal in Germany, so people just go to the Confederate flag because it means roughly the same thing. That to me is so dark, so frightening.

How brave do you think The Truckers were when they took their stand over the Confederate flag, in terms of their potential audience?

I appreciate the fact that they immediately understood that this was a symbol that as a southern rock band, not only did they not want to be associated with it, but it was a risk to distance yourself from it as emphatically as they did, even stopping a song to tell people not to fly that flag. They even struck songs from the set-list when people regularly did that. They took a song that could have been a hit single, or at least a song that had some traction to it, and they just jettisoned it altogether, and that was a risk, especially for a band that was just starting out and just starting to get traction. They had gone through all that horrible luck with their previous band, and therefore I think it was a significant statement, a defining statement for them. It said who they are, and they have been following that for the last twenty years. It was a brave statement to make, and one that I think has been absolutely crucial to who they are and what they do.

Recently The Truckers have been more overtly political with their records, and in the UK the audience seems to have picked up on this, and are viewing them in a slightly different light.

That is interesting because I do seem to remember Patterson saying that ‘American Band’ was the album that broke them over there, or at least it got a lot more people paying attention. As I see it, they have always been kind of political, they have been political in the sense they have been talking about incoming equality, they are talking about the rural-urban divide, they are talking about all these things that make up the South. They were doing it through the filter of character, place and story, and now they have taken to talking much more directly. I don’t know that every artist could survive such a dramatic change in just how you write a song, and I think The Truckers have thrived on that. Partly that is because they have spent fifteen or twenty years setting that up. It is also funny because I don’t think they discussed it. Cooley and Patterson don’t write together, ever, and they don’t really talk about what they are writing with each other until they get to the studio to record an album. It just so happened that when they got together to do ‘American Band’ they both realised they had been writing these very explicitly political songs. There is such a weird sort of tandem thing with them because I find that happens a lot in what they are writing about. Politically I think it is much more explicit, it is kind of continuing what they started with distancing themselves from the Confederate flag. They are setting out, in no uncertain terms, what they are about, what they believe in, and I also think that also plays into their fans’ stories about them, it really solidifies the community around them.

Everyone knows the challenges that are currently facing America, but compared to the ‘60s the music industry seems to have been a lot less critical, and there has been a surprising lack of protest music.

Yeah, and the protest music I think there is, is not always very well done. In the 2000s with Steve Earle and ‘The Revolution Starts Now’, it just seemed a little ham-fisted to me. I think The Truckers have found a way to do it that has nuance, that has some historical grounding, who else would write ‘Ramon Casiano’ but The Truckers, who else would go that deep into the NRA, and still make it a song you want to listen to more than twice. While I agree with the general view, I do think we are seeing more from acts like Beyonce with Black Lives Matter and the imagery surrounding that. I think protest is there in places, but a lot of rock bands aren’t doing it. I don’t know, maybe it isn’t as easy to do as it once was, or it is maybe harder to do well, it may be it is just less marketable. I’m seeing it a little bit more now, there is some stuff on the new My Morning Jacket album that is pretty political, the new Heartless Bastards is pretty political, I think people are starting to catch up and absorb some of this into their songwriting in that regard.

We keep talking about The Truckers, but it is really Patterson and Cooley, isn’t it?

Haha, yeah, I think that is fair, and that isn’t to dismiss the other amazing people who have been in the band. I think that is partly their longevity, they have been different bands at different points. When you had Jason Isbell in the band, when you had his wife Shonna Tucker in the band, when you had John Neff in the band, those people brought something. Especially Shonna, I think she gets underrated in their whole story and I really wanted to emphasize how important she is to letting them explore some of those Muscle Shoals sounds, and I think when she leaves the band that is a pretty significant loss. All of these people are bringing something, but I didn’t quite realise the degree to which Patterson and Cooley would become the central characters in the book. Jason is pretty central, but they are the two that have seen this thing through from beginning to end, and I think if anything happened  to either of them, there would be no Truckers, that would be it, the end. So, I think you are exactly right. They are the central core, they are the mam and dad.

You were born in Tennessee but live in Indiana, do you still see yourself as a Southerner?

That is a very good question. I think I do, my entire family is still down in Birmingham, Alabama not the UK, haha. I have been down there four times this year because we have had deaths in the family in the generation that is older than me, and in some ways they embodied the South when I was starting to become aware of what the South was. There is a certain effect that being down there has on me, there is a rhythm to the place that I can get into. I definitely feel like that is still a significant part of my identity, but I also think that being like a Southern ex-pat is also a big part of me, the fact I am not there anymore and the fact I can see it from a different perspective. There are some difficulties and contradictions in my relationship with it, but I think that is going to be one of those things that is always going to be part of me.

I’ve asked you a couple of difficult questions, I’m now going to ask you a pretty cheap one. What is your favourite Truckers record?

Haha, that is the hardest question you have asked, haha.

You must have one today, it might be different tomorrow, haha.

I’m just going to pick one at random, haha. I think the one I go back to the most is ‘Decoration Day’. That is the one I started with, and I think it is the one that is front to back great. It is not the only one that is front to back great, but it is the one I go back to the most, I think. It was the one that really showed me what this band was all about, what substance there was to what they were doing. It is also the one where Jason comes in, and Jason is just someone who immediately is just this very impressive songwriter. He is also somebody who is writing about being in the music business in a way that Patterson and Cooley couldn’t anymore. He is writing songs about starting out in the music business and trying to set the terms of what you want to do. To hear ‘Outfit’ next to ‘Seems Better In The Song ’and ‘(Something Has Got To)  Give Pretty Soon’, these songs that are about being beleaguered in a band. That contrast, there is just so much in there. The one I argue for most, that I think is underrated, is ‘The Big To  Do’. The record doesn’t get the credit it deserves, it is a pretty fantastic record. I hadn’t realised that a lot of fans just right it off, what is not to like about it? It is so underrated.

How are you going to publicise the book?

Right now I’m still trying to figure that out. I have a few appearances booked, one in Birmingham, Alabama, at this incredible record store called Seasick Records. I have a couple more appearances, but I don’t know whether they will stand. There is a chance that Patterson might join me for an appearance or two if things work out. I don’t want to speak too soon, but that would be unbelievable to have him there with me. Right now I am having to be a little bit resourceful in how I promote it. Originally when I was writing it, I was like I want to do a big appearance at every place I have written about, now I have had to whittle that down to anything I can drive to in a day and get back, haha. It is weird, my wife has just published a book late last year through a UK publisher, and nothing has happened for her. She got two reviews on it, the book industry is so strange now that a lot of those avenues for promotions are kind of cut off due to the pandemic. Hopefully, that will ease up and I will get the word out there.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are three of your favourite tracks or artists from your current playlist?

I have just watched this incredible 1971 documentary series that got me listening to Curtis Mayfield a lot, so I’ve been listening to his ‘Curtis’ album a lot. I’ve just picked up on The Incredible Bongo Band’s ‘Bongo Rock’ and that is just so, I don’t know. I have been playing it more or less none stop for the last couple of days. The new James McMurtry ‘The Horses And The Hounds’ is really, really good as well. ‘Canola Fields’ is one of my top songs of this year, it is just an incredible song. It is another weird thing, because he is somebody I’ve known about but he has never been that big for me, so this one just came out of the blue for me.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers, particularly those living in Birmingham?

Haha, I miss that country a lot. I miss the people and it was a very profound experience to live there, and since we came back all I have wanted to do is return. Even just the way I listen to music like getting into very early ‘80s synth pop, or ‘60s folk rock from the UK. That stuff sounded so much better when I got over there, I understood it so much more. I’m hoping to get back over sooner rather than later.

I really enjoyed your book and it answered some questions I had on The Truckers, and even answered questions I hadn’t realised I had, Also, I found it an easy read.

Thanks for that. You spend years writing a book with no feedback and you are never sure how you are doing. I’m just glad people are reading it and engaging, and getting something out of it. Like you said, answering questions you had and answering questions you didn’t know you had, that to me is the highest praise. As someone who writes for Uncut, I’m glad the book is getting the chance to have a British readership.

Stephen Deusner’s ‘Where The Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling The South With The Drive-By Truckers’ is out now published by The University Of Texas Press

About Martin Johnson 359 Articles
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.
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Great article & interview, thanks