When Drive-By Truckers (DBT) went into the studio at the end of July 2021, it was coming off releasing an unintentional trilogy of albums rife with socially conscious messages: 2016’s “American Band” and both 2020’s “The Unraveling” and “The New OK.”
All three albums were overflowing with trenchant musical observations about gun violence, the Trump immigration family separation policy and Black Lives Matter. Suffice it to say, founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley were ready to get more personal with their songwriting.
The duo’s pre-DBT days playing in Adam’s House Cat proved to be a source of inspiration for the nine songs that make up “Welcome 2 Club XIII,” released last month.
“We were a band from ’85 to ’91 and we made a record right before we broke up that never came out at the time,” Hood recalled.
They located misplaced tapes, released in 2018 as “Town Burned Down.”
“Working on that was sort of the impetus for some of the writing on this current record,” Hood added.
A three-day exploratory recording session birthed the Athens, GA, quintet’s fourteenth album. They tapped into inspirational memories, such as the venue referenced in the title track where the band actually cut its teeth while coming up through the music scene in the Muscle Shoals area.
“It was about the only place to play and it would have outlived me had I not gotten out of there,” Hood said.
And there’s the titular person — a nicknamed friend — referenced in “Billy Ringo In the Dark,” “directly inspired by someone who had been in that band who had long since passed away.”
The distinctive nature of it all ended up providing a wellspring of creativity and proved to be a way to pivot from the existential themes that had been dominating so much DBT material over the past six years.
The stories on the album that are character-driven, Hood said, represent the band members or family and close friends.
“Part of it is a reflection on our younger days, but not in a ‘Glory Days’ sentimental way — more of taking stock of that time,” he added. “You know, when you’re young and having a good time, it’s great. I’m all about young and having a good time and hopefully come out on the other end and find a way to make it work in your later life. There gets to be a point where there gets to be an accounting.”
Some of the highlights include the Crazy Horse-flavored rager “Maria’s Awful Disclosures,” the fuzz guitar-soaked title track, and the horn-kissed “Every Single Storied Flameout,” a Hood favorite.
“That might be my all-time favorite Drive-By Truckers song,” he said. “I’m really extra-proud of it. I think Cooley’s songwriting on that is so next-level and phenomenal — the words and the whole thing plays out — and the horns. I fucking love the horns on that.”
Adding to the fun are contributions by country music talent Margo Price and hubby Jeremy Ivey on harmonica. The musicians met at the Newport Folk Festival.
“We’re talking, one thing led to another, and we asked if she wanted to sing on something and she said she’d love to,” Hood said.
Longtime friend Mike Mills of R.E.M. also checks in to provide background vocals. Hood has been a fan of since the late ‘80s, driving his truck around just to listen to “Fables of the Reconstruction” and singing along to Mills’ contributions.
“He’s one of my favorite harmony singers in the world,” Hood praised. “It’s an honor to have his voice on our record because I love him because he’s just so great.”
While the recording process proved to be quite a breeze (“I don’t think we’ve ever had an easier time making a record”), getting to the other side of the pandemic was a bigger challenge. They were on the road when the world shut down, Hood admitting he was among many who thought it would be short-lived.
“Maybe we were going to lose a month of work at most,” he said.
Once the long haul of it registered, he said the brutality of it — both financially, mentally and on a personal level — was stifling.
“I kind of shut down,” he said. “I wasn’t really able to write or do near all the creative things I wanted to do. Generally, when I’ve had dark times in my life, writing has been my sort of self-therapy that I’ve used to get through it on the other side. It kind of threw me.”
Hood said this bout of writer’s block wasn’t like anything he had experienced. “Anything I wrote made me feel worse,” he said. It wasn’t until December 2020, after the election — “or when it was supposed to be over” — and the vaccine rollout he returned to work.
“We had survived and hadn’t lost our house, which was a big deal,” he said. “After that, the floodgates opened.”
DBT spent much of last year on the road making up rescheduled dates from 2020 and early 2021. The current dates are allowing them to visit markets the band hadn’t hit during those early tour legs.
Hood said, while the smarter business decision might have been to sit on the new record for a year before putting it out, gut instinct drove the band to get it to the fans, even if at a financial cost.
“We were excited about this record,” he said. “Now, we’re kind of dealing with the other end of that. They let us do what we wanted to do. If they told us no, we would have probably been sore about it, but they might have been right. We’ve got some cool stuff planned in the fall, but not a lot. I suspect we’re going to be hitting it real heavy early next year, maybe around March.”
The Drive-By Truckers will perform at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Sunday, July 31. Tickets are $30.
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