A day after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the Drive-By Truckers played the first of three homecoming shows in Athens, Georgia, and opened with a dark, slow version of “Guns of Umpqua,” an already-dark song about a community college shooting in Oregon that left one professor and eight students dead.
The song looks back to that day and ahead to too many days since, like the afternoon in Parkland, Florida:
Waves crash against the banks where Lewis and Clark explored
We’re all standing in the shadows of our noblest intentions of something more
Than being shot in a classroom in Oregon
It’s a morning like so many others with breakfast and birthdays
The sun burned the fog away, breeze blew the mist away
My friend Jack just had him a baby
I see birds soaring through the clouds
Outside my window today
Heaven’s calling my name from the hallway outside the door
Heaven’s calling my name from the hallway outside the door
For Patterson Hood, who wrote the tune, that night in Athens provided a bit of catharsis. But only a bit.
“A song can only do so much,” he says during an afternoon call from his Portland home a week after the shootings that left 17 dead. “Somebody with some power needs to try to do something or at least make us feel like they’re trying to do something.”
Hood wrote the song not long after he moved his family to Portland a few years ago. He’d spent the weekend before the Umpqua shootings camping and hiking in the Cascade Range. The song, like several on the Truckers’ most recent album, “American Band,” is a look at the American promise and the American reality, flashing between scenes of the immortal beauty Lewis and Clark explored in the Cascades and the existential horror of moving classroom chairs to barricade the door.
As a father with children in public school, the shootings struck hard. “Don’t tell me nothing can be done. You can’t stop the problem, but you can certainly make it better,” Hood says. ‘The majority of these situations wouldn’t have happened if things were tightened up. This isn’t about taking away every redneck in Alabama’s hunting rifle or some rancher in Montana’s hunting rifle. We’re talking about machine guns that when I was growing up weren’t that easily accessible to the general public.”
“I get hit, as you can well imagine, by people who feel very differently from me. I hear, ‘I guess you want to ban box cutters.’ Well, if he’d had a box cutter, he might have gotten one or two people injured or killed before he was stopped. That would have been horrible. But this was 17 murdered and it’s just one of many already this year.”
He brings the Truckers and their fearsome live show back to The NorVa on March 25. “I love The Norva,” he says. “It’s been a couple of years. We’re overdue. It’s going to be fun.”
Throughout their long career, Hood and fellow songwriter Mike Cooley, who write separately, have addressed issues, so “American Band” wasn’t a surprise. What it means to be Southern. Racial politics. Economic justice. Murder (notably in a song about Bryan Harvey and his family, “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife”). The nuances of the “feud” between Neil Young and Ronnie Van Zant (see “Southern Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama”).
But with “American Band,” Hood and Cooley put their personal and very political stories front and center. The two have polar opposite writing styles. Hood writes, writes, writes and then sorts out what works and what doesn’t. Cooley is economical, creating only a few finished gems per year. “To me, our best records are the ones where the songs have this connection,” Hood says. “‘American Band’ is probably the best that’s ever been. Maybe the best since ‘Decoration Day.’ “
“Ramon Casiano” is Cooley’s song about a 1931 murder outside El Paso, Texas, with echoes of Trayvon Martin decades later. “Darkened Flags on the Cusp of Down” is a tune Hood wrote on the night he penned the first draft of an op-ed for the New York Times Sunday Magazine suggesting there were other things Southerners could be proud of instead of a divisive flag. (Hood grew up outside Muscle Shoals, Alabama. His father was the bassist in the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section that recorded with Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Paul Simon, Etta James and the Staple Singers although Patterson leaned towards The Clash and The Replacements and, more recently, Big Thief and The National.)
“What It Means,” the emotional heart of the album, had been sitting around for a while. The song alludes to a shooting on Ruth Street in Athens in 1995 not long after Hood moved there. A black man named Edward Wright was shot by police. Hood lived across the street from the family. He didn’t know him well. He’d see his mother working in the yard.
“In the mid-90s, everybody didn’t have a camera in their pocket,” Hood says. “It got talked about then people who didn’t live in the poorer part of town moved on. In that regard, some of this is progress. People are seeing it in their face, people who normally had the benefit of being able to pretend this didn’t exist.”
“If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks,” Hood sings on “What It Means,” “well, I guess that means you ain’t black…You don’t see too many white kids lying bleeding on the street.” He chronicles one shooting after another from Ferguson to Baltimore, from Chicago to Miami. And then he wonders why some man with a joystick can land a rocket on a comet, but we can’t stop shooting unarmed men.
“We’re living in an age where limitations are forgotten,” he sings. “The outer edges move and dazzle us, but at the core is something rotten…but don’t look to me for answers cuz I don’t know what it means.”
In the end, though, the song is about how all of us look at people, people who are different and how we filter our “truths.”
“All of those songs are personal, every one of them,” Hood says. “I feel good about what we did. I think we made a good record. The majority of people who heard it seemed to have liked it. There are definitely people who didn’t, people who say they used to be our friends, but are no longer our fans. Whatever. When we’re writing, we’re not really thinking about things like that.”
He says the band has recently returned to most of the towns they played in the first month after the album was released in 2016 and were welcomed with bigger crowds everywhere, calling it one of his favorite tours in the history of the band.
Since “American Band,” the group has released one searing single, “The Perilous Night.” Hood started the song on the evening the Electoral College elected Donald J. Trump as president, but then put it aside. Until Charlottesville. “I ended up taking another stab at the same song and rewriting it,” he says. “I felt like it was too hopeless, but in the wake of Charlottesville, I changed my mind. Sometimes you just need to vent your anger.”
I’d like to tell you there’ll be better days
But optimism’s running low today
We’re off the deep end with a lifeguard that can’t swim
The Klan and the Nazis are taking up the fight
Against their own salvation in the saviors light
We’re moving into the perilous night, Amen
“Judging from the reaction it gets live, I guess a lot of people need to vent their anger,” Hood adds.