The latest album from the Drive-by Truckers is actually a blast from the past – a full-bore, string-thrashing, drum-pounding, floor-thumping, wall-shaking blast from the past, known as Alabama Ass Whuppin’. Originally released by the band in 2000, AAW is a time capsule chock full of CBGB-meets-Vee-Eff-Dubya-hall chickaboom punkness that captures the Truckers’ live lineup of that period (Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley on vocals and guitar; Rob Malone on bass and vocals; Brad Morgan on drums) playing like their lives depended on it. Which they did, in a manner of speaking.
Patterson Hood was kind enough to give us the backstory of Alabama Ass Whuppin’ – not only the wild-ass road madness that it captures from the Truckers’ early days, but the amazing set of circumstances that led to the supposedly lost album’s recent resurrection.
Along with tales of Alabama Ass Whuppin’, Patterson talked about the Truckers’ upcoming studio album, featuring the current lineup of himself, Cooley, Morgan, multi-instrumentalist Jay Gonzalez, and bassist Matt Patton. With longtime studio compadre David Barbe at the helm, the Truckers have laid down what sounds to be some raw and spontaneous tracks for an early 2014 release.
Note: there are some specific songs – and, more importantly, people in those songs – mentioned in the interview. Truckers fans already know who’s who and what’s what; for the newcomers, here’s a quick crash course:
A 6-year-old Patterson nearly starved to death from spending all his lunch money with “The Avon Lady”; “18 Wheels Of Love” chronicles the romance between Patterson’s mom and his stepfather Chester; and “The Living Bubba” is a tribute to the late (and legendary) Gregory Dean Smalley, the acknowledged founding father of Georgia’s “Redneck Underground” movement.
You want to know more? Listen to Patterson Hood’s songs on Alabama Ass Whuppin’ – living proof that he’s been telling great stories for years.
BR: Hey there, Patterson.
PH: Hey – how you doing?
Well, all right … except I’m still getting over opening up the cover for Alabama Ass Whuppin’ and thinking that was a picture of a young Johnny Cash on stage.
(Laughs) I believe that would be would be Cooley. Well, you know … he probably looks more like Johnny than the guy who played him in the movie. (laughter) And Cooley probably could play him better, too. (laughter)
We all look so young in those pictures, but we really weren’t. I mean, Brad was a little younger than the rest of us, but we were all in our mid-30s by that time … now I look at it and think, “God – we look like babies!”
Well … maybe not babies. (laughter) But we look young.
So let’s set the stage. Tell us a little bit about what was going on in Trucker world back in 1999 when Alabama Ass Whuppin’ was recorded.
That was about the point when we all quit our regular jobs; not because we were making enough money to do it – we were just at a tough crossroads.
We’d put out our second record – Pizza Deliverance – and just as we were finishing that, we parted ways with Matt Lane, who had played drums on our first two records. The thing was, Matt had his own band: he’d been playing with us, but he’d also been playing in another band with his brother since junior high school – literally.
We were basically wanting to hit the road like crazy; like, “Okay – we’re all in; we’re gonna quit our jobs; we’re gonna starve; we’re gonna live one town to the next and do it.” And Matt wasn’t going to be able to do that; he would’ve had to quit the band he was in with his brother.
So we got Brad, who was already playing shows with us whenever there was a scheduling conflict, anyway. I think he’d been playing with us off and on for a year before he joined full.
And you hit the road.
Yeah – we just got in the van and went. We were mostly booking ourselves, although we did get somebody who kind of pseudo-managed and did a little of everything – whatever was needed – from a home base.
We started the tour and just kept on adding to it; we basically didn’t come home for two years. We all ended up getting divorced – except for Cooley …. it was rough! (laughter) I mean, we put everybody through hell, but we knew we had to.
You felt that was the make-it-or-break-it point?
Exactly – we didn’t have the luxury of being in our early 20s and just dropping out of college or not really having anything to quit. We already had lives going but they weren’t going anywhere.
If we couldn’t make it, we didn’t have a backup plan … we just went out and played.
What kind of a schedule are we talking?
We played maybe 250 shows a year those two years. Whenever we came back home to Athens, we’d book a show to play – basically so we could afford to eat at home for a few days (laughs) and probably a little bit to show off how tight it was making us.
We sounded like a band that was playing 250 days a year. We got shit tight.
It seems to me that Earl Hicks was kind of the hero of Alabama Ass Whuppin’ as far as getting the shows onto tape.
Totally – totally. Our buddy Earl – who recorded, engineered and produced Pizza Deliverance – was using his mobile gear to record us whenever we came home to do a show. And, yeah – those are the recordings that became Alabama Ass Whuppin’.
Earl later ended up touring with us and was in the band for two albums – Southern Rock Opera and Decoration Day – as our bass player. But in the early days, he wasn’t really even that active as a musician. He was working at a sound company doing installations in churches and stuff. Now and then when I’d come home, I’d work for him freelance – but by the later point of 1999, there was no doing anything when I came home – I’d sleep for about three days and then we’d pack up and do it again. We were just non-stop.
You had two studio albums out at that point. What was the thinking behind releasing a live record?
The idea was that Pizza Deliverance and Gangstabilly had almost all acoustic instrumentation – more of a country kind of feel. When we hit the road with the stripped-down band, we weren’t playing the kind of rooms where you could do that. If we went in there with an upright bass and an acoustic guitar we’d be drowned out by the noise of the bar: “Fuck that – they’re not gonna be louder than us!” (laughter)
So I plugged my Ibanez Les Paul copy – that I bought when I was in 8th grade – into a Twin Reverb and turned it up as loud as I could stand it. (laughter) Cooley had … I think it was a 50-watt Marshall, but I’m not sure. At one point, he had a Sound City that was 100 watts and was louder than shit. That might be the amp on a lot of this album. And whatever bass rig Rob was playing through – he’d never really been a bass player.
Yeah – we needed a bass player so Rob switched to bass to kind of get us over the hump and ended up doing it for two years. He became a guitar player in the band again when Earl joined up for Southern Rock Opera.
So we just went out there and pounded it. We figured all these songs had been released with almost a country flavor; “Let’s put out a version of what we’ve been doing on the road.” So we took the best tapes of the year’s worth of Athens shows and it kind of sequenced itself.
We figured we could use the live album to kind of fund Southern Rock Opera – all that time, we were writing it – we were working on it. We weren’t recording songs yet, but we were learning how to play it and working on it kind of secretly. Every now and then we might play a song off it; “Let There Be Rock” in particular got played live now and then. But for the most part, we were still in the writing stages and that’s what we did on all those long drives: have these all-day brainstorm sessions – riding to wherever in the Midwest – about this crazy rock opera we were going to do … “Betamax Guillotine”. (laughter)
We figured, “Why don’t we do this live record? We’ve already got it recorded – maybe we can find someone who’ll give us enough money to put it out and then we can funnel that money into recording Southern Rock Opera.” That’s basically what we did: we licensed it to a small start-up label in Atlanta and they gave us a few thousand dollars for it. We took all of that and funneled it into recording SRO, which we thought would get it done … but it didn’t. We ran out of money pretty quick. (laughter)
We were maniacs, man. I look back on it and I can’t even believe some of the things we did back in those days are true. We were crazier than shit.
So just the four of you – no crew?
No. We did everything ourselves.
And what did you have for wheels?
We had a 1988 Ford Econoline van. It had about 80,000 miles on it when we got it. I think some grandpa had it to take his grandkids camping or something – it was a conversion van. And we bought a used trailer we towed behind the Econoline and we just went.
One time we broke down in Huntsville, TX on the way to Houston. Cooley had wisely gotten a Triple-A membership (laughter) and we were two miles inside the perimeter line of how far they could tow you. They literally towed us – two of us in the van on top of the tow truck and the other two inside the cab with the driver – to the venue.
The driver dropped us and the trailer off there and towed the van to the shop. It was about five minutes before soundcheck; everybody there was laughing their asses off at us. (laughter)
Didn’t matter though: you made it.
That’s right: we never missed a show or cancelled a show in those two years; we did it just flat-out. We were like the Post Office: rain, sleet, snow, whatever – we made it.
We made sure we were the loudest band on the bill; the most energetic band on the bill; the hardest working band on the bill – and the meanest band on the bill. I mean, we were nice to everybody, but we had the meanness, you know what I mean? Like in the Rocky movies – the “eye of the tiger” thing he talked about … we had that.
We were so driven and obsessed with what we were doing that we’d walk in the room and just take it over. That’s what we had to do – we weren’t getting any younger. I was 34, 35 by then, you know?
So Alabama Ass Whuppin’ is basically the sound of four guys jumping off a cliff together.
Exactly! That’s exactly what it was.
And that’s why I like that record so much. I’ve always had an affection for Alabama Ass Whuppin’ – with an asterisk: it always sounded like shit. That’s why it’s stayed out of print for so long – and why this has been sort of a revelation for all of us. The tapes had been missing for years and years and we just assumed they were gone forever. For us to re-release it would have basically meant taking one of the original CDs and just duping off copies. Maybe we could have had someone run it through some kind of EQ and try to clean it up a little, but there really wasn’t much we could do.
And all these years later it turned out that Rob had the tapes?
Yeah – and I’m not even sure he knew he had them. He was going through the process of moving and he found this big box up in the attic.
Yeah. (laughter) He texted me: “You might want this.” (laughter)
So it wasn’t like they were exactly in laboratory conditions. (laughter)
We didn’t know what kind of shape they’d be in when we opened the box up. David Barbe and I went to the studio back in December to check out what we had and we were both kind of holding our breath. But they were fine. They’d maybe been a little warm, but they’d been kept dry.
The thing was, when Rob first told us he had some tapes, we didn’t know what they were. Barbe couldn’t remember if he’d mixed down to half-inch or quarter-inch tape … but as it turned out, looking back at his notes, it was the first record he’d ever mixed to half-inch on the machine he’d just gotten. Before that, all they had was a quarter-inch two-track to mix to.
We couldn’t believe how good they sounded. I mean, I’m still singing off-key and all … (laughs) We got Greg Calbi to remaster the thing just straight from the mix tapes and it sounds like a 1999 version of the band playing here in the living room – really fucking loud. (laughter) We’re really happy with it.
We thought if it was the unmixed stuff, there might be bonus tracks, but those tapes are still gone – we really don’t know where they are. But when we heard how good this sounded, we said, “Shit – we don’t need bonus tracks: this thing is as long as it needs to be. Everything we need is right here – let’s just do it.”Wes Freed’s art has become synonymous with the Truckers via his album covers and posters he’s done for you, starting with Southern Rock Opera. Of course, he wasn’t part of the Truckers’ family when the original Alabama Ass Whuppin’ was released – but he’s definitely put his own spin on the cover art for the new version.
Oh, yeah – it was fun to get Wes to do a cover for it. I know some people love the old cover and it’s fine – I like it myself. It was perfect for what it was … but it was kind of a thrown-together hodge-podge because we were on the road and it wasn’t like we could pay anybody at the time to do it.
Our good friend Jenn Bryant ended up taking what a couple of people had started and kind of put it all together.
Jenn’s been another one of those behind-the-scenes heroes for the band over the years, hasn’t she?
You got that right. We had that cool photo that we used for the original cover – the velvet Jesus and the truck leaning against the kick drum. We didn’t have a backdrop back then; we had a velvet Jesus on one side and a velvet Elvis on the other .. but we left the Elvis off the cover of Alabama Ass Whuppin’ because we didn’t wan’t to catch shit from the Elvis estate.
Cool – you could have Jesus but you couldn’t have Elvis.
Yeah. (laughter) Anyway, the guy who took that photo has passed away and I have no idea what happened to any of his pictures. We would have had to literally reproduce it from one of the original covers if we didn’t do something different.
Wes actually went back and dug up pictures of us from 1999 and based the painting he did from that. He painted the thing on a piece of rusted tin … the rust-colored stuff on the cover is actual rust. (laughter) He scraped the rest of it and painted over it.
Another “Truckers trademark” is that ring-and-pinkie-fingers-clamped-on-the-third-fret thing you often do – holding down the first and second strings to get a drone against the chords you’re playing. You were doing it back in 1999 when this album was recorded; when did you start? And what was the inspiration for it?
Well … I always did that. When I first started playing and learned a G chord, I probably tried putting the finger that goes on the first string on the string above it. I love a good drone, you know?
I can think I can pinpoint it back to falling in love with Neil Young’s Harvest when I was a little boy – those Ben Keith pedal steel parts where he would play one note and just keep driving it? Like “Out On The Weekend” – that one note drone that just keeps going on. I think subconsciously – I didn’t think about it until some time later – I was looking for something that did that. And, like you said, I still do it … it’s just something I always did and it became a big part of the sound that I like.
And how about tuning your guitar down a whole step?
I started doing that in Adam’s House Cat, which was a band that Cooley and I had in the 80s. I had all these songs and I couldn’t get anybody else to sing them; I figured, “Fuck – I’d better figure out how to do it myself.”
I never really wanted to be a singer. (laughter) The writing was always my true love. In those days, I was just figuring out what I had to do to get the songs out there.
So by tuning down, I could hit the notes better. Ironically, my range is real different now than it was then. Now the tuning is something we do almost for effect – we like the sound of it. I think on the new record at any given time there’s one guitar in standard tuning and one tuned down – I kinda like that, too; I like the sound. I keep my main guitar tuned down a step because I just like the thuddiness of it – the muddy, Black Sabbath sound of it.
Now that we have nicer gear, I play a guitar that was built for that – I have a guitar with a neck that’s scaled longer so that I can tune down and still have the same tension on the strings that I would have tuned standard.
We were so poor then that it was all about doing whatever we needed to do to get us from Point A to Point B for many years. That’s part of the charm of this record: for years and years, I always referred to our band as a punk rock band at heart. I think we’ve gotten far enough away from that at times – particularly the last couple of Truckers records – that our fans probably thought I was talking shit with the punk rock thing. But putting this out now hopefully has them saying, “Oh, okay – I get it now … they kinda were a punk rock band at heart.”
And we still are. We’ve evolved and kept bringing other things in to it as our abilities improved … but whatever the new thing is, we still have a little bit of that punk mentality.
Some bands stick to their greatest hits when they play live; others don’t touch their older stuff because … well … it just wasn’t that good. But you might still play any of the songs on Alabama Ass Whuppin’ on any given night these days – and the newer stuff stands side-by-side with them just fine.
And I’m real proud of that … it makes me very happy, you know? That’s always been our kind of “golden rule”: whenever you approach a new song, approach it from what’s best for the song itself. There’s no room for ego or who wrote it or anything else. Cooley and I have always agreed on that.
Same with Brad: we’ve got a drummer who says “Songs are king.” How many bands have that? A drummer who actually listens to the songs himself – listens to the words and figures out what he’s going to play based on what the song calls for rather than what he wants to play as drummer. Brad’s always had that kind of approach.
At the same time, you don’t want to be afraid to take a song to a new place. Hopefully they can take it – the good songs can.
Speaking of good songs, let me ask you about a couple of the ones on the album.
Was there an Avon Lady?
Yeah … yeah. (laughs) There was. (laughter)
In my younger days, I learned the hard way that it’s probably better to change a few things … like names and things like that. But “The Avon Lady” was before I learned that, you know?
I hear you.
Yeah … (laughter)
You know, Jason Isbell learned that in a much bigger way with “Decoration Day” – which he wrote the third or fourth day he was in the Truckers. Jason wrote that song and it just didn’t occur to him that anybody would actually hear that stuff. I think he caught a lot of flack at home for that song.
I’ve generally gotten off fairly lucky, but I’ve had a few people corner me. Of course, sometimes people corner me because they think a song’s about them – and it isn’t, which is really funny. (laughter)
How about “18 Wheels Of Love” – were you there when your Mom and Chester heard it for the first time?
I think I sent it to them. I moved here to Athens in 1994; they started going out the last few months before I moved so I had met him. Shortly after I moved here, they got married and that’s why I wrote the song: I wrote it as a wedding present. I didn’t have a band at that point; I just sent them a boombox recording of me playing on an acoustic guitar.
Yeah, they got a real kick out of it. Chester passed away a few years ago, so he’s no longer with us, but I think he really liked that song. He was a trip. (laughs) And the song is true, you know? The only part that isn’t true is the line about the Porter Wagner lookalike … but that was the punchline. (laughter)
“The Living Bubba” keeps Gregory Dean Smalley’s memory alive; but it’s become something broader as far as putting your head down and keeping going in the face of adversity. Gregory was facing the end – which not everyone is, of course – but it’s that feeling of not giving up whatever the obstacles are. I can imagine you playing that for as long as you want to keep playing … and people will still be feeling something from it.
Well, thank you – thank you for saying that. If I had to whittle it all down to one song – and I’ve probably written about 3500 or so by now – that would be it. If they said, “You can only play one song and that’s it,” that would be the song.
I mean, I’m as proud of the songs on our next record as I am about anything I’ve ever written – I think we’ve got some great songs. And I’m proud of most of the songs that I liked enough to put on a record in the first place. But that one’s special – that one’s my favorite. I knew when I wrote it that I’d done something on a different level than anything else I’d written up to that point.
You’re lucky if you can get one of those kind of songs in a lifetime of writing. And you’re right: it means different things to me now than it did in March of 1996 when I wrote it. It just keeps gathering more meaning, you know?
If we’re touring and, say, we’re all sick – we play that song … that kind of reminds us why we’re there.
I’m really grateful that I had the antenna up that day – I feel like that song was floating out there somewhere and I was the one with the antenna pointed in the right direction to get it. If I hadn’t written it somebody else would have.
For me, when it’s clicking it just feels like you’re taking dictation.
Definitely – definitely. I wrote that song in about the time it takes to play it. And I don’t think I realized the magnitude of what I was writing until after I was done and sat down with a guitar and started playing it back to myself.
And when you wrote “The Living Bubba,” Gregory was still alive?
Yeah – he passed away about a week later. I wrote it as a thank you to him. He booked the Star Bar in Atlanta – and probably one of the last things he did before going into the hospital was invite us to play the Star Bar for the very first time. I called him to thank him and his wife answered and told me he was in the hospital and this was probably it. I went and walked my dog – and the song hit me while I was out in the field with my dog. I ran home and wrote it down as quick as I could … and that was it.
Don’t go running off! Click right HERE to read the conclusion of my interview with Patterson Hood on Jambands.com