The Drive-By Truckers pull into the Newport Folk Festival Saturday with some great music and a pointed message. The band, originally from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, arrives in Newport with songs that are raw, political, and often about folks living on the margins.
Political and Personal
The Drive-By Truckers formed in the mid-90’s as a bar band, slowly building their fanbase over the years. Led by the songwriting pair of Mike Cooley and Paterson Hood, their breakout came in 2001 with the release of Southern Rock Opera. Hailed by critics as a classic, the album memorialized Lynyrd Skynyrd, while telling tales of teen angst amidst growing up in the South.
It’s the first time at the Festival for the Truckers, known for their blistering guitar attacks. Some might still be surprised to see a noisy rock band at a folk festival, but co-founder Paterson Hood knows better.
“One of the earliest influences on me as a songwriter was Woody Guthrie, he’s certainly one of the people who personifies folk music. All the definitions are pretty fluid these days – I mean the definition of rock and roll is pretty fluid, it needs to be fluid, and I actually prefer it to be. There’s definitely an aspect of what we do that aligns with folk music historically,” explained Hood.
What it Means
Although they share a musical bond, the band’s politics are pretty much opposite those of Skynyrd. With a “Black Lives Matter” placard on stage, their often-critical view of the South has become a critical assessment of the nation as a whole. As such, their repertoire expanded on the 2016 album American Band. Festival Producer Jay Sweet noted in an NPR interview that the band was at the top of the invite list for the festival, and a big part of that is because of “protest” songs like “What it Means.” Hood explains:
“What it Means” is sort of a folk song. It certainly has its roots in folk and in country. There’s a Tom T. Hall song that influenced it. He had so many ‘story songs’ including one that dealt with the McGovern-Nixon campaign in ‘72 and then another called “Watergate Blues.” He took a pro-McGovern slant on the story which in itself is kind of a big deal for a mainstream country artist as country music has always had pretty deep conservative roots. To do a pro-McGovern song in the 70’s was a pretty ballsy cool big deal.”
Hood recalled that he didn’t set out to write a protest song.
“I’m not even sure I thought about it that way until after the fact, after people started reacting to it like it was one. It was a personal thing for me, to somehow put into words my own feelings. The song doesn’t really offer any answers unfortunately, it just asks a lot of questions. We’ll never find answers unless we start asking the questions… I kind of wrote it for me, but when I did play it for the band, they kinds of jumped all over it and embraced it and made it their own. That along with “Ramon Casiano,” a Mike Cooley penned tune about a 15 year old Mexican American boy killed by the former President of the NRA, are a couple of modern protest songs as good as anything from the 1960’s.
When it comes to politics, Patterson Hood doesn’t mince words.
“We are living in an incredibly crazy, fucked up time … there used to be this thing called a slow news day, now it’s like you need a slow news day just to give your brain a rest. The day to day barrage of it is pretty exhausting. For the moment, the people that feel the way that I do, there’s just not a lot of good news. I don’t take any joy in watching the Trump administration go up in flames before my eyes I don’t think it’s a good thing for our country for the President to be acting like a ridiculous moron all the time.”
Great American Songwriter
Tunes like “The Living Bubba,” about a musician dying from HIV, are a clinic in songwriting, performing and arrangement:
“I wake up tired and I wake up pissed/Wonder how I ended up like this
I wonder why things happen like they do/But I don’t wonder long ’cause I got another show to do”
Another favorite, “Used to be a Cop” identifies with a defeated former police officer.
“Used to be a cop, but I got to be too jumpy. /I used to like to party till I coughed up half a lung.
Sometimes late at night I hear the beat a-bumping/I reach for my holster and I wake up all alone.”
Although the band generally doesn’t follow a pre-arranged set list, Hood will be conscious of the location.
“I would certainly take into account a reverence for the history of the Newport Folk Festival in deciding that first song and where our heads will be at when we go out there and play it. We don’t do a set list because we like to play off the energy we feel. That’s always been kind of the way we roll. I think we’ve got something to offer to the Festival. I’m hoping maybe we walk away with some new fans.”
See what it’s all about when Drive-By Truckers play the Quad stage Saturday at 5:40. Meanwhile, check out “What it Means” below.