Back in the simple days of 2009, in an effort to make up for some bad behavior, a college acquaintance burned me three mix CDs. He was dedicated. And somewhere on one of those discs between songs by Spoon and the Replacements and the Meat Puppets and Elliot Smith was my first exposure to the Drive-By Truckers, a little song called “The Southern Thing,” appropriately enough.
That song hit me like a truck. I was 20 years old and had been wrestling with my feelings about the South for a while at that point. And suddenly here was songwriter Patterson Hood writing about that quote, “duality of the Southern thing.” I quickly bought that album, “Southern Rock Opera,” as well as their album “Decoration Day.”
And their lyrics are filled with some of the smartest storytelling that you’ll find about the South anywhere.
Now, depending on who you ask, the Drive-By Truckers are either based out of the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama — that’s where Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and one-time member of the band, Jason Isbell, all grew up — or they’re based out of Athens, Georgia, which is where the band first came together and were several members of the band still reside. They’re part of this new generation of Southern rock and alternative country that directly confronts the demons of the South’s past while also celebrating the potential for a better future.
Which brings us to the Reckon Interview guest, Stephen Deusner, whose new book, “Where the Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-by Truckers” is a book about the band, but it’s also a book about the history of the South in the 1980s and 1990. When places like Memphis, Tenn., had not yet capitalized on their music legacy. And when Southern musicians were finding new sounds to experiment with.
I read a lot of books for this podcast, and I’m serious that this may be the most interesting book about the South that I’ve read this year. Not just because of how much I love this band, but because there’s so much deep research in here about how Southern culture gets shaped.
And of course, there’s also plenty of drama that you’ll find in any band, trying to keep it together just long enough to make it to the next rock show. So throw another log on the fire, boys. Because Steven Deusner’s coming to the Reckon Interview.
And sign up for The Conversation, a new weekly newsletter to dive deeper into the topics and issues raised on the Reckon Interview.
Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for length and clarity.
John Hammontree: You have a new book out, “Where the Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling the South with the Drive-By Truckers.” It’s a great book. I read a lot of books for this show. And I think this may be my favorite book about the South that I’ve read this year.
So thank you for writing it. It probably helps that I think the Drive-By Truckers are one of my favorite bands, if not my favorite band, but I will say, you know, they’re an acclaimed band. They’ve got some of the finest songwriters in America, both as their current and former members — Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, Jason Isbell, who a lot of people may know from his solo career, Shonna Tucker — but they’ve never really been a chart-topping band. Their albums haven’t won Grammys. You know, you’ve built a career as a music journalist. Why write a book about this band?
Stephen Deusner: Part of it has to do with the fact that we’ve hit an era where a lot of rock bands maybe aren’t topping the charts or that measure of success does not necessarily measure importance, or influence, or impact.
The Truckers are unusual in that they’ve had many different lives. So, they’ve been many different bands over the years. So, they’ve been a punk band. They’ve been a Southern rock band. They’ve been an alt-country band. They’ve been a band that is trying to fuse all of that together with these kind of Muscle Shoals, R&B rhythms.
You know, I think that that has allowed them a lot of freedom to do whatever they want, even if it makes them a little hard to pin down sometimes. I also think that, you know, coming from the South and not just as a Southern band, but as a band that is so steeped in a very specific South that I don’t think necessarily gets talked about when people talk about the South, I think that has been something that’s maybe stopped them from having the chart success of, say, Jason Isbell as a solo artist.
John Hammontree: The way that you’ve set this book up, you know, it’s in part a biography of the band, but it’s also kind of a history of a lot of these regions of the South that we currently associate with music but, you know, hit hard times for a while. Like when they were coming up in Muscle Shoals and Florence, it was past kind of the heyday of the Muscle Shoals Sound era.
And it was before the city really kind of embraced its music identity. Same goes for Memphis. Beale Street had kind of fallen into disrepair. What kind of struggles did they face coming through in this in-between period? You know, Patterson Hood’s father David Hood was one of the legendary Swampers who backed up, of course, bands like Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan and things like that.
But you know, it wasn’t Motown, it wasn’t Los Angeles. It was very much a blue collar music scene in these cities that they were getting started in.
Stephen Deusner: Yeah. And I think that, you know, the Motown comparison, Detroit. Motown is its own label. So people kind of know what that is. Whereas Muscle Shoals is two or three studios that the music made there is released on many different records. So it’s a little bit more… it’s a little harder to define. But I mean, I think, especially with Adam’s House Cat, which was Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley’s band before the Drive-By Truckers, they had just as much ambition as the Truckers, but they just didn’t really have a built-in audience. I think the infrastructure. And North Alabama wasn’t necessarily kind to bands that were playing originals, for one thing. I think a lot of the market there was for cover bands, uh, and not just cover bands playing songs associated with the Shoals, but cover bands just playing top 40 stuff. Like, and I think it was, uh, it was kind of a big punk move for Patterson to insist on writing his own songs rather than covering them.
And they struggled for five or six years there to try and get something going. And it never happened. And, you know, they spent their twenties doing that. So by the end of that time, you know, they didn’t have a whole lot to show for it. And, um, I think they were feeling their age a little bit. So, you know, then they decide to move to Memphis, which is a disaster.
It’s funny, when I interviewed Cooley, I opened with, “I want to ask you about Memphis. I’m writing a chapter about y’all’s time in Memphis.” And he’s like, “that’s going to be a short chapter.” Cause they spent four months there and it was a horrible four months. And you know, at that time, Memphis was, it was in a weird spot because there was a lot of business going on in regards to music. They did a lot of the producer’s showcases down on Beale Street, which is where they met Corey and Cody and Luther Dickinson —Jim Dickinson’s kids and people they still play with 30 years later. But it was still not really the best place to sort of launch a band. There weren’t a whole lot of nationally known bands coming out at that time.
So it really took moving to Athens where there was not just a music scene that was nationally known, but that was still thriving and still reinventing itself. And I think that’s really where this story takes off for them because it gives them that audience and it gives him that infrastructure and it gives them just like a new way to be a band.
John Hammontree: You know, I remember the first time that I heard a Drive-By Truckers album and it was “Southern Rock Opera,” which I think is probably a gateway album for a lot of people who wind up becoming fans of theirs. And, you know, it hit me at a time when I was wrestling with what they call the Duality of the Southern Thing.
And I was kind of deciding, do I want to be in the South? And suddenly there’s this band that just kind of captures everything for me about how I felt about the South. And you describe a similar moment for you when you were living in Delaware and you heard the Drive-By Truckers for the first time.
Stephen Deusner: Exactly.
We had just moved away, my wife and I. We’d been living in Memphis, not too far from my hometown. And we had just moved out of the South and it was a big moment for a lot of reasons. My father was sick and dying. My wife was starting grad school. I was dealing with a lot and just also a feeling of homesickness.
And so I heard this band that was talking about some of those same things and they were talking about places I knew very intimately. And it really had a profound effect on me in that regard as, as somebody who was no longer living in the South. And I’ve never lived in the South since then, but this band has kind of traveled with me and kind of helped me define myself in a lot of new spaces. And I think that’s not a unique story. I think just as you mentioned that having a similar relationship with the band, I think a lot of ex-Southerners or people who have a relationship to the South and maybe don’t live there anymore, the band really fills a role for those people. And I think they kind of speak to those people in a way that, you know, a lot of great rock bands maybe don’t speak to people that way. I think that’s unique to the band. Yeah. I mean, I think that’s, that’s incredibly important for their appeal and for their longevity and just for what they do and kind of how they approach songwriting. I mean, even just to hear proper nouns and place names in their songs. I mean, I was just listening to “The Night G.G. Allin Came to Town” and he just calls out Memphis Antenna Club, 1991. And it’s like that took, I mean, that was just such an amazing thing to hear because who else is singing about the Antenna Club in Memphis? Nobody.
John Hammontree: Well, and it’s interesting because, you know, we as fans and consumers of the music had that relationship with it. But you know, you chart a course in this book where Patterson and Mike didn’t necessarily want to be a Southern rock band when they were starting out. You know, they wanted to be a band that represented Muscle Shoals and Florence, that was important to them, but they were more interested in kind of the punk sound. And it wasn’t until they moved to Athens, I guess, where they started hearing like, oh, you know, ” we could do some of this alt-country stuff” and thinking of other ways to reinterpret the Southern sound. And over the course of their many albums, we have seen them wrestle with a lot of very serious Southern topics.
Stephen Deusner: I think part of what makes them have such an impact, at least on me, is that they’re not telling us this after they’ve realized it. They’re working through these things in real time.
So that – that confusion or that uncertainty or that determination — it hits a little harder. Because they’re asking questions and they’re talking about this stuff, even though they maybe don’t have a set answer. Um, as a music fan, I find that I gravitate toward artists and songwriters who are asking questions rather than presenting answers, or trying to express feelings.
And I think that’s what the Truckers do, is they they’re trying to figure this out and using all these different kinds of rock music as a vehicle for that kind of equation. And I do think that by the time that they got to Southern Rock Opera, they knew they wanted to be a Southern rock band and they knew they wanted to represent that. But they also knew that there were aspects of that, that they did not want to represent, that they did not want to embrace. And I think that’s what’s really powerful about that album in particular, and that the series after it, is that they’re really fighting to redefine what that means, and redefine themselves, and redefine the South.
It’s a pretty remarkable thing I think they did in that regard. It’s that they want to be a Southern rock band, but they don’t want to be a band that plays in front of the Confederate flag. You know, they don’t want to represent that kind of defiance that comes with something like that. And that’s when they are stopping shows to tell people to put the flag away.
And that’s when I, you know… I think it was not long after that they stopped performing “The Southern Thing” in general because they found that people reacted to it in a way that they did not want to be known for.
John Hammontree: Listening to you talk about that. I’m thinking about a conversation that I had last season with Regina Bradley about her book, “Chronicling Stankonia,” and she kind of describes how the Southern hip hop movement was, you know, in some ways children and the grandchildren of the civil rights era kind of responding to that legacy, reinterpreting it, remixing it, but also pushing back on it and saying like, “Hey, you know, we still have a lot of fighting left to do.” We see a similar phenomenon for white Southerners, with the Drive-By Truckers, who they are pushing back on that legacy of the flag. They’re pushing back on the legacy of Southern rock bands, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, who “Southern Rock Opera” is about and who they kind of live in the shadow and mythology of, who embraced that flag more than they were comfortable with. And they really interrogate a lot of the legacy of, of their ancestors, whether it be songs about Birmingham or songs about where you grew up, uh, McNairy County, Tennessee.
Stephen Deusner: They do. And, and I think that is very important. I mean, you know, Patterson, when he’s doing this, it’s a very immediate thing because his father is part of that movement. His father’s a bass player for the Swampers and his resume alone is incredible. To have that connection to that history and to want so bad to put Muscle Shoals back on the map with Adam’s House Cat and having basically everybody tell him no… You know, he was going to songwriting conferences, songwriting workshops, and they were telling him like, “your stuff is no good.” Like they did not like what he was doing. They did not like this kind of Southern Gothic kind of voice that he had talking about sex and death all the time. But you’re right that it does represent a sort of larger grappling with history and recent history.
And that comes down to my own. I mean, growing up in McNairy County where— I was born the year Buford Pusser died. And so that was a name that was spoken in a certain way. And what the certain reverence for a long time.
John Hammontree: Can you explain who Buford Pusser is for our audience who might not be familiar? I was not familiar before I read the book, honestly.
Stephen Deusner: So he is the sheriff of McNair County in the late 60s and again in the early 70s. And at the time, my sleepy rural county in Tennessee, West Tennessee, was a haven for the Dixie Mafia. The State Line Gang. Where they had prostitution, gambling, there were stills all through the countryside.
There was a huge, huge kind of racket going on there. And he is sort of viewed as being responsible for cleaning up crime in McNairy County. And they tried to kill him several times. Somehow, he managed to escape death every, I mean, the sort of list of injuries he sustained is mind-boggling, it’s, he’s a kind of, I call him a redneck Rasputin in the book because he was for the longest time just unstoppable.
And so there was sort of a drive-by assassination attempt that killed his wife and seriously injured him that made national headlines. And he became an icon. He became this kind of like symbol of Southern masculinity at a time when that was becoming very popular. And with music, with kind of Grindhouse cinema, there was a lot of Hicksploitation movies being made, including one that eventually became “The Dukes of Hazzard,” a movie called “Moon Runners.” So they even made a movie about Buford Pusser called “Walking Tall,” which is — I’m not gonna say it’s a great movie, but it’s an effective B movie. It’s a very bloody, brutal movie. And that was also a huge hit and it was released like right after he passed and it made him even more popular.
I mean, so much so that his home is a museum in Adamsville, Tennessee. And around him, this legend builds up. That he, I always learned for most of my life that he did all of that without ever wielding a gun, that he just had an ax handle, and he would just beat the crap out of criminals with this ax handle, which wasn’t true.
But it’s a really great story. Um, and so, you know, the, the Truckers actually wrote several songs about him. “The Boys from Alabama” talks about him, “Cottonseed” sort of talks about that sort of crime syndicate that he was trying to take down. And “The Buford Stick” is specifically about his death.
He died in a very sort of mysterious car crash that people still argue may have been murder, may have been drunk driving, may have been a legitimate accident. You know, he’s still somebody who, despite being modern, very contemporary, so to speak, there’s still a lot unknown. There’s still a lot of legend around him.
John Hammontree: I think I saw The Rock remake of “Walking Tall,” where they moved it to Washington state, I think. So I didn’t know that this was a Southern movie phenomenon until relatively recently, but you point out, you know, like this little event in McNairy County, Tennessee, you know, spawned kind of this Hollywood fascination with the South.
And in some ways they were selling a version of the South back to itself that was kind of a fun house mirror. You know, like the South wasn’t necessarily all “Dukes of Hazzard” and all of a sudden, everybody in the South wants to be the Dukes of Hazzard. And so, Hollywood working with some maybe basis in actual Southern stories and lore and mythology, was creating this version of the South that embraced the Confederate flag, which led to the South embracing the Confederate flag even more. It was just a really, really smart point that you made there.
Stephen Deusner: A lot of that was built into my own experiences. I mean, I was, I loved “The Dukes of Hazzard.” There was about a year in my childhood where I insisted on sliding across the hood of my car and jumping in through the window—not my car, my mom’s Lincoln Continental—but that was very hard to do, too, because it was a big car. And for the longest time I did look back on that show with some nostalgia because that’s what I wanted to do. That just looked like the best life. And, you know, growing up a bit and getting out of the South and kind of looking back on that… I mean, it’s not a good show. It’s very formulaic. It’s not a good representation of the South. It doesn’t even look like the South. It looks like California, you know. And yet that is, for a lot of people, a very important part of Southern culture is that show. And you know, there’s not really much Southern to it, I don’t think.
John Hammontree: And that’s another one where it was doing reruns on like TNN and Spike TV when I was a kid. And I didn’t really get into it very much. I remember seeing the Johnny Knoxville terrible movie remake of it. And so, but that culture became omnipresent to where, when some people talk about, you know, the heritage of their Confederate flag love, they’re thinking of Sonny and Bo Duke more than they might be thinking of Robert E. Lee.
Stephen Deusner: No. I mean, I think that is true to some degree is that there is a nostalgia for that show, that era that, you know, people’s childhood, you know. And I remember when there was some talk about NBC, who had it up on streaming — I can’t remember exactly the service — but there was some talk about taking that down.
And the amount of outrage was startling because, I mean, it’s kind of, you know, not a great show. It was old. Nobody was talking about it a whole lot, but as soon as you wanted to take it off a streaming service because of the Confederate flag, like that’s when people started getting bent out of shape about it and started like talking about it again. So, I don’t know, I do think that that is a very, for a generation of kids, Southern kids, Southern white male kids, that is an important touchstone.
John Hammontree: And that Buford Suite that you’re talking about on their albums, you know, that and other songs, they’re really kind of pushing back and breaking down this idea of Southern masculinity. And we’re about to have a little boy of our own, and so I’ve been thinking about like this Southern definition of manhood and how it has to be this kind of “Walking Tall” type thing, uh, that that’s been sold to us as a myth. And they offer an alternative. And you talk about your dad kind of offering an alternative.
Stephen Deusner: I think he did. And I think they do. I think my dad figures prominently in my idea of the South, because, I mean, he was my Atticus Finch. You know, he was the small town lawyer who stood up for what he thought was right. Who, when his clients could not pay him, he would accept produce. They would just like, they, you know, everybody were farmers there. So, you know, we got a lot of corn, we got a lot of watermelons. We got a lot of black-eyed peas and things like that, that people had grown and they paid him as they could. And he was proud to accept that and always taught me that the amount of money somebody has, does not reflect their worth as a human. That said he was the furthest thing you would think from… I mean, he couldn’t fix a car.
Like he was not a man’s man by any means. He did not hunt. Maybe a little bit out of place in our little town, but, but he loved that town and he loved the people in it. And to have that example of what it means to be a man as an alternative to a lot of the other examples that I’ve seen there and elsewhere, it was very powerful.
And, and, and I think even facing death, you know, he had brain cancer and the dignity and determination with which he faced down something that I can’t even begin to think about, gave me this really remarkable example and kind of standard to try and live up to for myself. And I think the band do something similar where they are questioning these ideas of what makes a good man, in particular, a good Southern man. And they’re coming up with things that maybe aren’t the things that are presented to us in the Dukes of Hazzard or in mainstream pop culture. That they’re coming up with, things that are slightly different.
That is something that they have been thinking about and writing about and singing about for a very long time. And it kind of changes. I mean, I think about the song, “Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife,” which is also about death. It’s about a fellow musician who was murdered with his family and what he does when he gets to heaven. Does he seek vengeance? Does he just be happy that he sees his family there with him. Like it’s a very, uh, moving song to me. And I think that it’s no coincidence that Patterson wrote that right after he became a father. So I think he’s, he’s thinking about it in a slightly different way now that he’s gotten new responsibilities and new people in his life.
So I think that is a touchstone song for them as well.
John Hammontree: To be clear to any of our listeners who might not be familiar with the Drive-By Truckers, I mean they do have sex, drugs, rock and roll and violence in their songs. But these are character driven songs. And, you know, I mentioned “Chronicling Stankonia”, and you write that, you know, Patterson was a fan of Southern hip hop and Atlanta hip hop.
And some of the story-based songs that he was writing were similar to those story-based songs about everyday characters who were dealing with things like drugs and death and murder in small town South.
Stephen Deusner: And he was very, very open about how much he loves hip hop and especially what was going on in Atlanta, in the late nineties when they were in Athens.
I think he really wanted to, in his own way, acknowledge that that was an influence on him. And I think that’s a lot of where the name Drive-By Truckers comes from specifically the “Drive-By” part. And I think at the time, maybe it appeared like a progressive thing to do or something that showed that they were taking in things more than just Lynyrd Skynyrd or something like that. And now they’ve even sort of suggested that it, they recognize that there are some problems with that name. But I do appreciate the fact that while recognizing that there are issues with that name, but it does point to something larger. It does point to a South that is not just white male South, that it does point to what was happening with hip hop at the time.
And what was happening in Atlanta at the time. And this, this sort of larger South that is a little bit more diverse, where the white guys aren’t the main characters necessarily. If that makes sense.
John Hammontree: Yeah, it does. And we’ve seen that tension kind of come to bear in the last few years when they have gotten more vocally outspoken about their support of things like Black Lives Matter and writing songs against the NRA and things like that, they became quote unquote, a resistance band in the last four or five years as they kind of set their scope more on a national scale than on a Southern scale.
And I’m curious what you think about that relationship with their fans, because you know, maybe better anybody else in the South, their songs, they’re Heathen songs capture that tragedy and difficulty that some rural white Southerners may face. And I’m thinking of a song “Putting People on the Moon,” that Mike Cooley wrote. And I’m thinking that there’s a lot of similarities between that and Gil Scott Heron’s “Whitey’s On the Moon,” and both are talking about this country that has been able to put people on the moon and has left so many people behind and yet, I don’t know how successfully the Drive-By Truckers have been able to get their fan base to recognize commonalities between Black Southerners and white Southerners. You know, they’ve lost some fans in the last few years as a result.
Stephen Deusner: That’s actually a really interesting connection to make. I just saw “Summer of Soul,” and there’s a whole segment on that’s all happening when Neil Armstrong lands on the moon. And so they’re interviewing people at these concerts about that, and it’s fascinating. Absolutely fascinating.
And I hadn’t really made that connection myself. And that’s true. I mean, the sentiment is very similar. Like you’re putting people on the moon while there are people suffering down here that we could maybe address that instead. And so I do think, yeah, there, there is perhaps a segment of the population that has been alienated by a lot of their songs.
What I find interesting though, is that most of them were sort of alienated by “American Band,” which was their 2016 album where they sort of stopped writing in character, and they started tackling issues a lot more directly. What I always find interesting is that when they were writing that album, Patterson and Cooley, they don’t write together. They don’t even talk to each other much while they’re writing. But when they got together to share songs, they realized they had both been writing towards the same ends and with this kind of new approach. And it’s a very explicitly political record. Very outraged. And just really amazing. I think it’s one of the best rock records of that decade.
And I think it’s one of the very few successful rock protest records. And I think that’s partly because they’ve spent the last 20 years writing about these issues. They’re kind of cloaked in character and story and place. When they do that. They’re not… you kind of see where they’re coming from. The change makes sense. And the politics makes sense coming from them.
So. I know that they lost a lot of fans for that, even though it rejuvenated their career, especially among critics. I think that’s an album that really kind of saved them in a lot of ways and kind of sent them off in this new direction with this new kind of songwriting and this new approach to what they’ve been doing.
And it kind of freshened it up a bit. So yeah, that one, I remember, I think it was Cooley telling me about playing a show in San Luis Obispo where there were a lot of people who just showed up, kind of crossed their arms and looked mad and then left as this big sort of walkout. Like this big sort of like protest.
And he’s like, “you bought the tickets. I got your money. What’s the deal?” So, but I mean, I think they take that in stride and, and haven’t backed off of those messages at all.
John Hammontree: I’m wondering, you talked about that album “American Band” and their more recent albums where they’ve expanded their scope to address American culture.
And you writing a book that “in some ways they are implicitly denying the idea of Southern exceptionalism.” And I’m curious what you meant by that.
Stephen Deusner: The idea of Southern exceptionalism to me — suggesting that the South is its own place — it is at a remove from everything else and that its culture is significantly different, and I think a lot of Southerners might argue better than the rest of the country or the rest of the world. I think there’s a lot of politics in that. There’s a lot of history in that. There’s a lot of religion in that. And I think that it’s really remarkable that a band that has identified itself as a Southern rock band wants to address that.
And more than that, wants to challenge it. And so I think “American Band,” not to keep talking about that album, but they’re expanding that, you know, the duality of the Southern thing that had defined a lot of their early Southern records, suddenly becomes the duality of the American thing. And sort of that sense of pride and shame. That’s what I read the duality as, that sense of coming from a place that you love but has this ugly history. Suddenly you can kind of apply that to the nation at large. And I think that expansion of that duality of the American thing is really a remarkable thing to pull off by a band that isn’t topping the charts.
It’s weird. I don’t want to say that like regional distinctions are necessarily breaking down or that the rest of the country is becoming more like the South. A lot of the issues that define the South and have long defined the South, also define the rest of the country and have long defined the rest of the country.
They’re not the only ones pointing this out. I’m certainly not the only one pointing this out. It is definitely there. And it’s useful to think about it in those terms, especially right now, when I’m having a lot of the same issues with my country as I used to have with my South. And I think listening to this band has helped me maybe figure that out in a way that it helped me figure my Southernness out.
John Hammontree: Yeah. I went back and listened to “Southern Rock Opera” after reading your book, because it had become one of those albums that, you know, I would listen to a few songs that I liked and wouldn’t necessarily listen to it all the way through. For those of you who are listening, who haven’t listened to it before, it is just this ambitious, audacious project that really kind of put them on the map.
It is an opera, not a literal opera, but it is a rock opera about Lynyrd Skynyrd and about growing up in the Shoals and about Birmingham and George Wallace. The defining song and one that you mentioned that they don’t necessarily play as often anymore, but has certainly sparked plenty of research papers and people’s tattoos and Twitter bios and things like that is “The Southern Thing.”
And this idea of the duality of the Southern thing, which as you said, has become the American thing. And it’s interesting listening to it now. Cause I caught onto that “proud of the glory, stare down the shame” line, but he spends most of the song defining the Southern thing by what it’s not, and never actually says what it is.
Stephen Deusner: I appreciate that just as a songwriting exercise. I’m going to write something where I’m going to say what it is. Growing up, I recognized it from bumper stickers and yearbook quotes. “It’s a Southern thing, you wouldn’t understand,” which is itself very vague and even at the time, like when I was in middle school and high school, I would see that quote, and I would think, “what? What is that? What does that mean?” Like, I think I was way overthinking it even then. I don’t know. I love that, that it is so hard to pin down that you can almost only say what it isn’t. But then at the same time, I’m not sure I square with that last line about his ancestor fighting to keep Union troops off of his farm. I don’t know, that’s something I’m still sort of digging into. And I don’t know that it maybe doesn’t sit as well with me as the rest of the song. That’s such an evocative phrase to the duality of the Southern thing. Cause at one time duality is like this kind of dry academic term almost. And the Southern thing is like, I don’t know, it’s just such a perfect phrasing.
John Hammontree: Yeah, I think it captures a lot of what people think about the South is a beautiful place, but it is also a place where terrible things have happened. But because it is a place where terrible things have happened, it is a place where wonderful people have pushed back and changed those terrible things. It’s all caught up in that.
But yeah, you’re right. They were an evolving band and they were writing that, about what 20 years ago? And so it is less evolved than some of their thinking than they are maybe now. And I think it’s interesting because, you know, you point out that they didn’t really strike it big until they were in their mid-thirties.
And so they’re a very different type of band, a more cerebral band than maybe somebody would have been if they had made it big at 19 and 20.
Stephen Deusner: I think it gives them a very different, much more mature perspective, a much more measured perspective in a lot of ways. I think it was Cooley who said he was grateful, in the end, that he wasn’t being interviewed by Rolling Stone when he was 20 or he would’ve just, you know, he’d probably be, he said he’d probably be dead by now.
That’s such a unique aspect to them too, because they were at least 10 years older than the people they were going on tour with. And the people that — they were crashing on people’s couches, and those people were 10 years younger than they were. And yet they’re still, they’re sort of unbowed, they’re still determined to try and see this through.
John Hammontree: Their relationship with Jason Isbell is very different, because he did a strike it big immediately. He joined the band much younger than they were. And, you know, he had to wrestle with those demons of becoming a rock star very publicly. And he’s managed to get sober and turn it into a beautiful art.
And they will be performing together in Florence, Alabama at Shoals Fest this fall. And they seem to have made amends, but that was a messy chapter in Drive-By Truckers history that nearly derailed the band. Can you talk about that relationship between those three and Shonna Tucker for that matter?
Stephen Deusner: A messy chapter is an understatement. It really nearly broke up the band. You know, right when they release “Southern Rock Opera,” they put on this big show for Spin Magazine that’s going to be some of their first national press. And their guitar player doesn’t show up. And they’re playing the show and there’s an empty chair up there and they think they look like fools in front of this guy from Spin. Patterson sees Jason out in the crowd.
Jason’s this kid who’s kind of a hanger-on. He’s super talented, but he’s super young and super green. And I don’t know, I always think of it, it’s almost like a movie scene where he’s like, “Hey, you, c’mon up and play with us.” And like, as soon as he got on the stage, he never left the band. I mean, he was immediately in the band and what followed was, in some ways, an apprenticeship for him, where he was learning from these guys.
And he’s also writing songs that he wants them to like. And so he’s trying to write like them as well, in a lot of ways. And I think that produced the song “Decoration Day,” which is about sort of Hatfields and McCoys in North Alabama, that is just amazing. It was one of those first like, come to Jesus moments I had with the band when I was like, oh wow, there’s a lot going on in this one song. That’s actually one of the reasons why I love “Decoration Day” so much is because you can see these different perspectives coming through. His perspective where he’s just starting out. And he writes a song about just starting out called “Outfit,” about his father’s advice to him going on the road.
Whereas Patterson and Cooley are writing these songs that are just like, “the road has almost killed us. It’s almost like wrecked our marriages.” Like, they’re on the other end of it. They’re jaded by that. And they’re writing these songs that are just grappling with these serious adult issues. And I think that just shows just the difference in them as musicians at that point and the very different perspectives they had at the time where, you know, Jason was just thrown into this thing that was already ready made. He went from being like a guy sitting in the crowd to a guy having thousands of people yell at him every night. Like that would throw anybody off their path right there, you know, that kind of change.
So he was not quite prepared, and they were not quite prepared to deal with what he was going through. He was doing a lot of drugs and drinking very heavily. Right after he joined the band, his wife joined the band — Shonna Tucker, amazing bass player and I think kind of an unsung hero in the band. I think she really allowed them to do some amazing things. But when he was at his worst that pulled everybody else down, including her. And so they were fighting between themselves as a married couple. He was fighting with everybody else as bandmates and it just kind of came to a head and they asked him to leave the band. And, you know, I’ve listened to some bootlegs from right after he left and you can kind of tell, like they’re a band that’s not quite sure where to go, or what to do with themselves. Like they’re trying to figure something out. And they did. I mean, they made “Brighter Than Creation’s Dark” right after he left, which is — that’s better than most people’s best albums. And it’s only their fourth best, you know? But I mean, he got sober and he cleaned himself up and has this amazing solo career, and it’s been really remarkable to watch him run this year, this summer. And touring where he’s insisting on these COVID protocols that not everybody wants to make. These concessions that not everybody wants to honor. And he’s sticking by it and canceling shows and taking those hits because he wants to… he wants to stand up for that.
And I deeply, deeply respect that. And I also see maybe where that kind of came from his time with the Truckers, where you do stand up for stuff like that. You do stand up for what you believe in. Regardless of the hits you take.
John Hammontree: You know, in some ways Patterson did what he set out to do. He helped put Muscle Shoals back on the map. He didn’t do it from that part of the state, but he… would you say that they’re an Athens band or are they a North Alabama band?
Stephen Deusner: It’s so weird. Cause I don’t even know that I consider them a Southern band anymore. Maybe that bit of marketing worked on me. I don’t know. I mean, they’ve got their headquarters in Athens, and so technically they’re in an Athens band. Brad Morgan, who’s the drummer, and Jay Gonzalez, who’s the keyboardist, a sort of Garth Hudson figure in the band, they both live in Athens. And so I guess that’s no other city has two residents, and none of them live in North Alabama anymore. So I guess maybe, but I don’t know. I guess I see them more like myself as a formerly Southerner.
John Hammontree: Okay, they’re just an American band. That’s it. You know, to wrap up if there are people who are listening, who, you know, somehow have made it all the way through this episode and have not ever listened to any Drive-By Truckers songs, what are the five that you would recommend to them? I won’t ask you who your favorite songwriter is, but I might guess who it is based off of the songs you pick.
Stephen Deusner: Well, throw that out the window. Cause I’m going to pick one song from each person. So for Patterson, I think “The Living Bubba” is one of my all-time favorites.
I think the writing on that, I think of a lot of pop music in terms of magic tricks. It’s like, how did they know to do that? How did they do that? They just pulled some sleight of hand on me. Like how did they know to do that? And that’s how I think of that song. It’s like, how did he know to write that song?
I feel like I’m watching something magical happen every time he sings it, you know, and especially for such grim subject matter. I mean, it’s about a musician dying of AIDs and trying to always play that one last show and always have one next show lined up after that. There’s just so much heart. That’s one of those rare songs that has also moved me to tears at times. So I’m going to just say that one for Patterson.
For Cooley, I’m going to say, definitely got to go with “Zip City,” which is probably the most horrifying and realistic portrait of a 17-year-old male mind that I’ve ever come across in any form.
I mean, I recognize a lot of that from my own experience. I recognize a lot of that from people I knew. But to take something that’s kind of that horrifying, but also give it so much humanity and warmth and humor too. You know, honestly, he’s one of those guys he writes so seldom, that he doesn’t really have a bad song.
So for Jason, I would say, uh, “Danko/Manuel,” which is about The Band, obviously.
John Hammontree: The Band, as in the band called The Band, not about their band, the capital B Band.
Stephen Deusner: Capital b Band. And I think it’s also about him and just kind of holding himself up to his heroes. I always think that that one casts a very interesting spell, especially on “The Dirty South,” which is just also a phenomenal album.
And for Shonna, I think it’s going to be, “I Told You So,” which is, I believe from Brighter Than Creations Dark. I always thought it sounded like this kind of old school Muscle Shoals song that somebody could have written in the 60s or something. And she’s just throwing it out there like it’s nothing and that’s such a new sound for them.
So I’m just going to go with those for you. Everybody gets one.
John Hammontree: Yeah. Everybody gets one. Okay. Very diplomatic, Stephen, thanks so much for doing this.
Stephen Deusner: Oh, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
John Hammontree: And that’s our show folks. Thank you to Steve Deusner. You can pick up his book “Where the Devil Don’t Stay” directly from the University of Texas Press or wherever else you get your books.