Drive-By Truckers navigate the darkest days of the pandemic

Patterson Hood talks about coping with depression, overcoming writer’s block and emerging with a batch of intensely personal new songs

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Drive-By Truckers

As the Drive-By Truckers geared up to play a concert in Indianapolis on March 12, 2020, the mood surrounding the tour was particularly bleak.

“Most of that leg had already been canceled except for Indianapolis, Chicago and St. Paul [Minnesota], so we were just going to try and get through that weekend, and we were already booking flights back home from St. Paul,” singer, songwriter and guitarist Patterson Hood said by phone from Indianapolis in early October on the afternoon the band was preparing to play a show in the same city where the world came crashing down around it just 19 months prior. “And by the time we got to soundcheck in Indianapolis, St. Paul and Chicago had been canceled. Then we got two songs into soundcheck and they pulled the plug for what turned out to be 17 or 18 months.”

Amid the extended live music shutdown, Hood returned home to Portland, Oregon, where he’s lived since he relocated from Athens, Georgia, in 2015. Initially, the musician intended to embrace the downtime from the road to write. Maybe he’d finally start on the book he’d long been threatening, or at least get a jump on songs for another Drive-By Truckers record. “And then it all went to shit and I couldn’t write a goddamn thing,” said Hood, who will join his bandmates in concert at the Newport on Thursday, Oct. 14

Instead, for much of the pandemic, Hood worked to simply keep his head above water, playing a series of livestreams where he unearthed deep cuts and auditioned unexpected covers. But these weekly shows did little to stem the overwhelming feeling of depression that constantly threatened to overwhelm. “I spent a lot of 2020 in a really, really, really dark place, and I’m fortunate I was able to keep it together enough to not do something really horrific and tragic,” Hood said. “But it wasn’t for a lack of dark depression. Literally every day I would have to force myself to get out of bed.”

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Gradually, Hood said he managed to claw his way forward by immersing himself in the small moments, spending time with his children and developing a fondness for cooking, which he gravitated toward in part because restaurants were closed for dine-in, meaning he could dedicate a chunk of his day to “planning dinner, cooking dinner and then eating dinner,” a routine that offered at least some sense of stability and comfort. The musician also made a conscious decision to avoid escaping into the bottle, “which certainly, in the short term, would have made me a lot happier, because I’m generally a sweet drunk,” Hood said.

Even so, the writer’s block remained firmly in place, with Hood managing just a pair of songs in the early stretch of the pandemic — “The New OK” and “Watching the Orange Clouds” — both of which appeared on the Drive-By Truckers' most recent long-player The New OK, released in October 2020 and composed largely of unused tracks recorded amid sessions for The Unraveling, from January 2020.

Hood wrote New OK track “Watching the Orange Clouds” the weekend after Minneapolis police murdered George Floyd, during a time when his Portland home had erupted into sometimes-violent clashes between police and protesters. “Go ahead and holler for help/No one’s going to save you,” Hood sings on the tune. “The voices that were hired to protect/Only betray you.”

As the track progresses, Hood begins to question the value of exploring these issues in his music (“I struggle on how or if I should share these stories”), as well as his own abilities with the pen (“I’m starting to doubt my own facility”). Both of these are natural emotions coming off of a politically charged trilogy that started with American Band in 2016 and ended with the release of The New OK, a four-year run in which the Drive-By Truckers addressed a wide range of social and political ills as the country entered into what started to feel to Hood like a death spiral.

“Our plan was, ‘We’re going to put out [American Band], and then we’re going to play the hell out of it this fall, and then [Hillary] Clinton will be president and we’ll move on and figure out what we’re gonna do in 2017,’” said Hood, who was driven to address these ills by his fears of where the country might be headed, as well as what that direction could mean for his children. “And then things worked out differently. And so we ended up making another record, and then another record, too."

“I also thought it was important that someone with an accent like ours, who comes from where we come from — I mean, demographically we’re Trump voters: a bunch of old, white men from Alabama — speak out about this shit,” continued Hood. “It felt very much like what we needed to be doing at the time.”

It certainly helped that Hood relocated from Georgia to Oregon right as Portland became the epicenter of an ongoing clash between liberal activists and white nationalist hate groups, including the Proud Boys, once again landing the musician in a place where he was presented a front-row seat into the country’s long racial divide.

“I didn’t realize when I moved to liberal 'Portlandia' that it was a hotbed for white supremacy; they didn’t put that in the show,” Hood said, and laughed. “But as a touring musician, you learn pretty quickly it’s not a North-South divide anymore. Really, it does come down to an urban-rural divide in some really painful ways. If you’re in lovely Portland and drive out 10 minutes in any direction, you can very easily be in Alabama socio-politically.”

Hood addresses this gulf on the title track to The New OK, positioning the protests in Portland as “a battle for the very soul of the USA,” with rogue police and violent fascists on one side and moms, war vets and Black lives matter protesters standing up for a shared humanity on the other. “Will we rise up from where we're planted/With our fists up to the sun,” Hood sings. “Or will we settle for tear-gassed eyes/Staring down the gun.”

Drive-By Truckers have long chosen the former path, fearlessly recording songs and albums that wrestle with everything from their Southern roots and the rot of white supremacy to the damage done to the working class by capitalist forces. 

For Hood, though, following almost five years where he invested himself almost wholly in the country's bleak social and political landscapes, the writing didn’t return until he started to finally feel some sense of hope setting in near the end of 2020, with knowledge that a COVID vaccine was on its way in just as the Trump administration was on its way out.

“And then it's like the floodgates opened, and I wrote most of the songs for a new record in like a two-and-a-half-month period starting in December of last year,” said Hood, who noted that these newer tunes took a more personal turn that he credited in part to the focus on smaller moments that he adopted through the pandemic, which revealed itself in new songs centered on things like fatherhood and aging.

As all of this unfolded, the band members also celebrated the 20th anniversary of their breakout third album, Southern Rock Opera, released on Sept. 11, 2001. At that time, Hood said he and his bandmates were motivated by little more than the desire to create something great, along with a degree of audacity, neither of which has really changed over the two-decades-plus since the group formed.

“We still approach things because we want to do them, and we still have a burning fire about it, which is wonderful,” Hood said. “Twenty years ago, when we were out playing dive bars 200-plus nights a year … every show, we played it as if we might never get to play again. And we still approach it that way, even though I feel pretty secure now, unless the pandemic takes it away again, that we have a future doing this.”