Ahead of Saxapahaw show, Patterson Hood recalls early trips to NC for Drive-By Truckers
When Patterson Hood and his southern rock band — the Drive-By Truckers — first started playing shows in North Carolina's Triangle, they were lucky if the number of fans in the audience reached the double-digits.
There were consistently seven or eight fans in the crowd. The band wasn't struggling everywhere though; it would sell out venues in its hometown of Athens, Georgia, and even in New York City. But it was tough to gain any traction playing out of venues in Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
"It's just funny how some places work like that. We would play Local 506 in Chapel Hill, and in Carrboro, and they were super, super, super nice to us, and good to us," Hood said. "But no one would come."
Things have changed.
In 2022, the band release its 14th studio album "Welcome to Club XIII." It's a nod to the Muscle Shoals, Alabama honky-tonk that the band got its start in, and a step away from the last three albums, which have all been very internally political.
Hood spoke with WUNC about the transformation of the South, the political meaning behind some of the band's songs, and the changes his band has gone through.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
I know y'all have played in North Carolina a ton. I was wondering if you if you had a favorite memory, or most distinct memory about playing in the state, or in the Triangle.
"I mean, God, we've been playing the Triangle since just the beginning. I mean, the very beginning.
"You know, it got to a point to where we would be touring up and down the East Coast, and we'd be selling out shows in New York and Baltimore and D.C., and Richmond even, and then we'd hit 506 on a Friday night for eight people. But we kept being persistent, kept coming back and coming back and... It eventually paid off.
"And then in Raleigh, the band, Patty Hurst Shifter, you know, was actually first formed as a way of trying to lure people to come see us. They were all guys and bands that kind of had followings, and so they put together this show, and with them opening for us, as a way of getting the people who knew them and liked them all to come out and see us. They were all fans of ours, but there was hardly anybody else coming to see us. And, and it worked. And they kept playing for years and made records and, you know, were a great band.
"But I think the reason it was so hard to break in as an out-of-town band was because there's so many great bands that are based there. And Athens is the same way. We're based in Athens, Georgia, and it's hard for bands that are well known, that aren't local to break in there, because there's such a wealth of local bands there that are really good."
What was going through your mind when you play a sold-out show — even if the sell out meant 1,000 people — and then you head to Chapel Hill, and you can count (the fans) on both hands.
"Yeah, I mean, it was funny to me. I mean, I got it... But it took a long time. Most of the people who would come see us tended to be people from other bands. Which I think that was kind of a constant for us early on too is a lot of the people who liked our band tended to be musicians or songwriters or things like that. We were kind of a musician's musician band or something."
Your favorite band's favorite band? That kind of thing?
"Kind of that kind of thing happened. The Southern Culture on the Skids folks were always super kind to us... And, you know, we did a good number of shows in various places opening for them, and they were always super supportive. And whenever we play 506, if they weren't out playing themselves, they would be at our show. We made a lot of friends in the area, and you know, I love the area. And (band co-founder and member Mike) Cooley lived in Durham at one point."
I saw that. Was it his wife at the time, who was in residency?
"Yes, when she first finished college. He moved up there in like, 1997, I believe, and lived there for about two years. That was the really early days of us touring. So, often touring would mean picking him up in Durham and then heading north. And then... We would play a Chapel Hill or Raleigh show on the way back down. And so, you know, we're persistent. You don't stay together as long as we have if you're not pretty damn persistent, because we've been together a long time now."
You're living in Portland now. As someone who is a product of the South, and someone who spent much of their adult life here, I mean, the South is changing quickly. And that's not a new thing. But, does it surprise you how certain cities change and certain regions have changed, especially when you're probably only going to these places once a year, once every two years?
"It is interesting to me. You know, some places change and some places don't, you know? Both of those things are interesting and trying to figure out the what and why of that, that can be interesting... Now Durham's happening, you know? There are tons of bands there and a cool art scene, and a cool restaurant scene. You know, a lot, a lot is happening in Durham.
"20 years ago, when (Cooley) was in Durham, it was not like that at all. There weren’t many bands living in Durham then. All the music scene was completely based in either you know, Chapel Hill, Carrboro, or Raleigh. I did a big solo tour in December and my favorite show with the whole tour was my Durham show. It was fantastic."
My last question, and I'm going to preface it just with a little story. But in 2020 right after George Floyd was killed, maybe a week or two later, I played, “What It Means for (some friends)... And one friend assumed that the song was written recently in 2020. (The song was on the Drive-by Trucker’s 2016 album ‘American Band).’
You want these songs to become obsolete and unfortunately... They're still as relevant as ever. How present is that to you, when you're up on stage, singing any of these songs that have deep political meaning?
When we made American Band — which is the album that has “What It Means” on it, you know, I didn't plan on making two more records like that immediately after. But right after we put out American Band then Trump became the president. And then all of a sudden, it was like the daily shit show. So, we ended up making The Unraveling, largely based on conversations I was having nightly with my kids about about things like babies in cages and, you know, lockdown drills and school shootings and all this shit that was just, you know, was ever present on their minds.
"When the lockdown ended, and we went back out, we wanted to be in more of a celebratory mood than we had been in. So, for a while, weren't really even playing a lot of the songs off the last three albums we had made at that time, because we just — we wanted just to go out and play and have fun with each other because we didn't know if we'd ever be back."