It began pretty much the way any Drive-By Truckers album did. Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley – the Georgia-born band’s frontmen, singers, guitarists and writers – composed a set of songs independently of each other, then discovered ahead of recording sessions how like minded their work was.
“I think ‘Southern Rock Opera’ (the troupe’s 2001 double disc opus that defined a rock ‘n’ roll vision almost defiantly removed from what had been considered Southern rock) was the only one that we actually had conversations about as far as what that album was going to be beforehand,” Cooley remarked. “Every time since then, I’m writing some stuff, Patterson is writing some stuff and we come together and wind up pretty much on the same wavelength without actually having had a conversation about it.
The Truckers’ forthcoming “American Band” album (due out Sept. 30) was no different in that sense. But what separated it from 10 preceding studio recordings was how pointedly it viewed the world outside of the South. If the band had ever created what could be called a topical record, “American Band” would claim the title.
“So much of what we have seen, not just in recent years, but over the last 20 or 30 years, the whole time we’ve been playing together, are these things that just keep happening and keep happening and nobody seems to be able to get a grip on just why or what a solution looks like. So we couldn’t help but comment on it and examine it from our own perspective and maybe try to carve out some vision of what a solution looks like, of what ‘better’ actually looks like. I don’t know if we found it or not. But it was more about trying to learn for ourselves than it was saying anything to anybody else.”
Hood’s song “What It Means” has already made selected rounds online with an easygoing musical stride but a volatile storyline torn from headlines of police killings across the country and the racial divisiveness uprooted in their wake. “We’re living in an age where limitations are forgotten,” he sings. “The outer edges move and dazzle us, but the core is something rotten.”
Cooley’s songs are not no less confrontational. On “Ramon Casiano,” the national view moves to immigration-fueled paranoia and militia groups that subsist on it. Unlike “What It Means,” the music on “Ramon Casiano” is all rocking, Neil Young-like guitar grit.
“I was examining what seemed to be a whole phenomenon with these right wing militia type guys,” Cooley said. “They seem to be obsessed with the Mexican border, and that’s not just a new thing. One Saturday morning, I turned on the TV and they’re doing a story on these guys who go down to the border and take all their guns and basically pretend to be patrolling the border because the government isn’t doing it.
“It seems every time you turn around, what everybody is afraid of is coming across the Mexican border – Ebola, ISIS, you name it. I found out about this militia group in Southern California in the early 1960s that claimed to have knowledge of Chinese troops amassing on the Mexican border. So there is a long, long history of people with that mentality.”
Hood and Cooley have never been shy when speaking their minds in song, just as the Truckers have long embraced a wide-open Southern view that differs altogether from the more conservative stance adopted by many country and rock artists of the region. It’s just that on “American Band,” the songs have stated the Truckers’ attitude in a succinct and often blunt manner.
“We always do this,” Cooley said. “This is not really new territory for us, but it’s the first time that it’s been this obvious. It’s the first time it’s been on the surface. But I could go back and almost go song by song and point out what some of the same political undercurrents were in all this music from our past. It just wasn’t right out there in plain view.
But what do the Truckers’ Southern fans (and, more exactly, non-fans) think of such a stance?
“Right now the only gauge you have to go on is what people are doing on social media,” Cooley replied. “I don’t do that. I’ve never even used Twitter or Facebook. I just stay away from it. Mainly, I don’t trust myself to not be overcome in a moment of passion with a little tequila behind it and make a fool out of myself.”
Drive-By Truckers perform at 8:40 p.m. Aug. 27 as part of the Moontower Music Festival at Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Road. Tickets: $49, Call 859-230-5365 or go to moontowermusicfestival.com.