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Drive-By Truckers: 'We have redneck in us. No one tells us what to do' | Music


Mike Cooley has a gift for aphorism. “Paranoia’s like pulled pork,” he says, in his deep Alabama baritone. “It’s on menus all over the world, but in the American south it’s special.” That one is the final line of a riff on guns and why southerners like weapons, one of the subjects that crops up on Drive-By Truckers’ 12th album, The Unraveling.

Cooley and Patterson Hood, his fellow guitarist-singer-songwriter in the Truckers, are eating lamb meatballs on a chilly afternoon in New York, on the day The Unraveling is released. The title seems apt. A few hundred miles south, in Washington DC, Donald Trump’s impeachment trial is stalling in the Senate; across the Atlantic, as we speak, the UK is leaving the EU. “Unfortunately, we kinda saw it coming,” Hood says of the release date. “Things are so crazy right now, you never know what’s gonna happen next. You just know it’s gonna be ridiculous and shitty.”

The Unraveling is an album for such times. Musically, it’s business as usual: euphoric classic rock with layered guitars, interspersed with country-tinged ballads. It’s a blend that has seen country star Jason Isbell pass through their ranks, and brought Grammy nominations as well as big venues. But, lyrically, the album is filled with rage: about school shootings (Thoughts and Prayers), immigrant children (Babies in Cages), the opioid epidemic (Heroin Again), the manufacturing of anger for political ends (Grievance Merchants), and “working hard for not enough” (21st Century USA) .

It’s the second explicitly political Truckers album in a row, following 2016’s American Band, which has caused a certain amount of outrage from fans who are used to the band as sympathetic chroniclers of lives fraying at the seams, rather than furious campaigners. However, as both Hood and Cooley note, anyone who’s been following their career should have known where they were coming from. The politics this time weren’t simply the result of anger, but of family life – often, says Hood, drawn from “conversations I had with my kids about some bullshit that was going on. When my son comes home scared saying, ‘Daddy, is someone going to take me away from you and Mommy and put me in a cage?’ ‘No, son, they’re not going to do that.’ ‘Well, why not?’ Well, because you’re a white kid and they’re not putting white kids in cages.’”

The lead single from The Unraveling was Thoughts and Prayers, a bitter tirade about the inadequacy of politicians sending their well wishes after yet more kids have been gunned down in schools. “My daughter was in a lockdown drill at her school last week,” Hood says. “She was locked in a closet with 27 other kids for over 20 minutes, not knowing if it was a drill or not. It’s to prepare for if someone comes and starts shooting up their school.” I can’t conceal my astonishment. Cooley notices. “We’re starting to ask questions now, ‘Are we inflicting trauma on these kids, on the off chance this could happen?’”

Watch the video for Thoughts and Prayers

They may be from Alabama, where it is legal to carry a gun into a bar, but neither has a great deal of admiration for the second amendment, granting Americans the right “to keep and bear arms” in order to form a “well-regulated militia”. Says Cooley: “If things get to a point where I have a need to be armed when I’m out and about, whether it’s legal is going to be the least of my worries. Law and order is gone at that point.

“There probably should be a legal way for a person to be able to defend themselves with a weapon. But the second amendment was in no way intended for every Tom, Dick and Yahoo to be as heavily armed as he damn well pleases anywhere he wants. The second amendment – and the electoral college – became irrelevant almost as soon as the ink dried on the paper they were written on. And they’re the two biggest pains in our ass. Nobody can go back in time and go, ‘Don’t do this!’”

Hood interjects: “As far as the argument that we’re arming ourselves to keep the government in line – you know what, if the government decides to take your redneck ass out, they’ll have a drone up your butthole before you can count to 10. Good luck with that, redneck buddy.”





Drive-By Truckers on stage at the Fillmore, San Francisco.



‘People should have known where we were coming from’ … Drive-By Truckers on stage at the Fillmore, San Francisco.

One of the themes of Drive-By Truckers’ music has been what Hood has called “the duality of the southern thing” – the notion that liberalism and racism can both be present in the same people and institutions; that the south is not a caricature but a place, for all its problems, that is steeped in humanity. But what’s important now, they say, is not any divide between north and south, but the yawning chasm between urban and rural.

“Cooley lives in Birmingham, Alabama,” says Hood, explaining that it’s a blue city (meaning Democrat) in a red state (Republican). “Alabama’s considered one of the reddest states of all – they voted for Trump by 60%. But Birmingham didn’t. I live in Portland, Oregon, which is considered one of the most liberal cities in America. We’re the population centre for Oregon, therefore Oregon’s a blue state. But you see as many Trump signs, maybe more, in rural Oregon as in rural Alabama. Oregon’s rightwingers are extra pissed because they know they’re in the minority and they feel like their votes don’t count. So they’re angry and they’re militant.”

What the south does have, though, is the lightning rod of symbolism: the statues and memorials to civil war leaders and the Confederate dead, around which the far right can rally. Cooley mentions the notorious 2017 demonstrations in Charlottesville, “allegedly protesting the removal of a Robert E Lee statue. But they were there to threaten. For that matter, there were a couple of Confederate statues up the road in Baltimore that were also scheduled to be removed. They didn’t want to go to Baltimore, but they’d go to a little white-bread-assed college town in Virginia.”

“And run down a young girl,” Hood adds.

These are the attitudes that have caused horror among some of their fanbase. After American Band, Cooley wondered if they should try something different. “But I was like, ‘I don’t want these people to think I’m walking away because they said mean things about me.’”

“We do have some redneck in us,” Hood adds. “We don’t necessarily let anyone tell us what to do.”

“Fuck you,” Cooley says to those who want a return to character songs about good ol’ boys, drawing the “you” out into a sigh of disdain. “You know what? I’m gonna do it again, just because you bitched about it. I’m leaving that toilet seat up.”





‘He had Trump voter written all over him’ … Drive-By Truckers.



‘He had Trump voter written all over him’ … Drive-By Truckers.

Hood and Cooley have known each other for 35 years, having met as roommates at the University of Alabama. Any relationship lasting that long has its ups and downs, but there’s a deep understanding between them – they finish each other’s sentences and laugh delightedly when the other says something that tickles. They recognise that together, they are more than the sum of their parts. “Have you ever seen two ugly people have a good-looking baby?” Cooley says. “It happens.”

And as twilight falls on the unravelling world, Cooley remembers one thing that gives him hope: the time he lost his bank card and it was returned to him. The man who found it “had Trump voter written all over him. He was a working guy, still wearing a reflective vest, like a guy who worked road construction. Older white dude. Been working all day. Probably just wanted to take a shower, get something to eat. He found that card, tracked me down and gave it back to me. He didn’t know who had lost the card. He didn’t know the colour of the guy’s skin from the name on that card. I stored that away. I remembered that.”

The Unraveling is out now on ATO.

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