Southern rock's flag flies again

Drive-By Truckers tip their caps to '70s band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

For Patterson Hood, the arrival of trucker chic in pop culture is anything but serendipitous. It's scary. From pop star Avril Lavigne sporting a leather chain wallet to Ashton Kutcher donning a John Deere cap, Hood wants no part of the suddenly ubiquitous salutes to the Stuckey's crowd.

"It's pretty funny," says Hood, one of the founding members of the band Drive-By Truckers. "Of course, we're steering away from it. I don't want to be in fashion, because that means next year we'll be out of fashion. I tend to run the other way."

Hood, who writes and sings many of the eclectic Southern rock band's songs, isn't getting carried away with concern. He won't, for example, stop wearing mesh caps like the one Kutcher has been sporting. "I still wear my hats, but I don't get my picture taken in them," Hood says.

Such concerns aren't part of "Decoration Day," the band's newest album. Named for a Southern ritual, still observed in Alabama, when mourners bring flowers to the graves of loved ones, the album conjures up a blend of dead-end characters and bizarre incidents worthy of William Faulkner and Barry Hannah.

Suicide, drunken stupidity, and a failed family farm are some of the themes explored in the 15 gritty songs.

"People give me Faulkner books now on the road," Hood says. "I sure appreciate [it] because I love reading them. Faulkner is about as good as it gets."

Southern-fried version of Neil Young

The Truckers lineup is based on a triple-guitar assault - Hood, Jason Isbell, and Mike Cooley - which often evokes comparison with '70s Southern rock rabble-rousers Lynyrd Skynyrd. The guitarists take turns on lead vocals and write most of the songs.

Bassist Earl Hicks and drummer Brad Morgan, a South Carolinian, round out the band. The band's current home is Athens, Ga., best known for spawning alternative rockers R.E.M.

The Truckers combine the Clash, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Willie Nelson, among others, in their sound. Hood's scruffy vocals resemble a Southern-fried version of Neil Young, but with less polish. Hood and Cooley formed their first band together in 1985. Thirteen years later, the Drive-By Truckers hit the road and began releasing independent albums with silly anthems.

In between barnstorming tours, they honed a self-styled rock opera based on the volatile career of Skynyrd, the cliché-addled kings of Southern rock. The resulting album, aptly titled Southern Rock Opera, won critical praise, including a four-star review in Rolling Stone. That led to a major record-label contract with Universal's Lost Highway Records, home to Lucinda Williams, among others.

The band hit the road for 14 months, blitzing through 250 shows. By the time they got home, their personal lives were in tatters and in-fighting threatened their existence. Lacking widespread fame, the Truckers couldn't use the material for an episode of "Behind the Music." Instead, it went into the songs that would become Decoration Day.

"I'm not willing to make some of the personal sacrifices we made then with being on the road all the time," Hood says. "I know it's a cliché, but really, the shows are lots of fun and the rest of it becomes miserable. We're trying to strike a balance." By the time recording for Decoration Day began, the Truckers had emerged from their traumas and reestablished their commitment to the band. Recording went so smoothly, Hood says, that everyone was surprised when the album was finished with minimal discussion. "We didn't need to discuss much, we just all were on the same page. It felt right."

Which left just one problem: Lost Highway didn't like the album, which proved far more diverse than Southern Rock Opera.

Tales abound of young bands struggling to win a major recording contract, only to become disillusioned and slink off into obscurity. Hood says he feared a similar path awaited the Truckers.

Lost Highway, rather than blocking them, released the Truckers from their contract, freeing the band to sign with indie label New West Records.

"I am very grateful to them for letting us go," Hood says. "We appreciate what they did for us with Southern Rock Opera, but we were heading in different directions after that. Everybody went home happy in the end."

In October, the band begins an American tour expected to last through February, if not longer. The road is where the Truckers built their reputation, winning over bar crowds a few hundred fans at a time.

Complexities of life in Dixie

Other than critical praise, the Truckers have survived on touring. MTV and VH1 aren't interested; commercial radio stations have paid them no mind. The music networks and radio powers are missing out on a unique slice of Southern rock.

Hood and Cooley, in particular, recognize the complexities of life in Dixie: the poverty, the economic malaise, the longstanding racial woes, and, in the case of white Southerners, guilt associated with previous generations' atrocities.

The band's newest member, guitarist and singer Jason Isbell, turns in a sterling performance on Decoration Day. His Father's Day song, "Outfit," eloquently pays tribute to an uneducated dad who, despite living in a trailer and painting houses for a living, dispenses love and hard-learned advice. "Don't call what your (sic) wearing an outfit, don't ever say your car is broke," Isbell sings. "Don't worry about losing your accent; a Southern man tells better jokes."

Hood knows something about fatherly advice. His father, David Hood, is a longtime session bassist in Muscle Shoals, Ala. The elder Hood has played on recordings by Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, and Wilson Pickett. Although his father discouraged a music career, Patterson made up his mind at age 14. He formed his first band and began writing songs.

Now, Hood is planning to get married next spring while preparing for a new tour and mulling another album. "I don't like that rock and roll cliché of chaos," he says. "I'd just as soon not do another record about our messed-up home lives. I'd rather try to keep them from getting messed up. We're all happy and trying to take things at a more rational pace."

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