By Colin Woodward
Patterson and I go back a ways. Well, not really, but I feel like I know him by now. It started as a Richmond thing. I first heard of the Drive-By Truckers about ten years ago. Like most great things, I learned by word of mouth. It took me a while, though, to buy one of the band’s albums. The first one was Southern Rock Opera.
It was hard to listen to at first. Raw. Angry. Unpleasant, even. Patterson sounded like a punk hillbilly with a real mean streak. Hearing about a car crash in which a young woman is partially embedded in the dash board, while her dead boyfriend lies nearby? The tires spinning as Skynyrd still places on the radio? It seemed like a sick joke. But I hung in there.
The Cooley songs were like comic relief on that first listen. But then I settled in with the Patterson songs. I quickly realized there was an intelligence to it all, a poetry, and appreciation of history. A love of the South. A hatred of the South. A need to understand and explain it.
I’m not from Alabama. I’m not even from the South. But I’ve lived in Dixie for about twenty years, most of my adult life: Baton Rouge, Richmond, Little Rock, Colonial Beach, Richmond again. I’ve seen the Civil War battlefields, the monuments to Lee and Forrest and Jeff Davis. And now, I’ve seen killer Nazis parade through the streets of a city, 70 minutes from my house.
I’ve studied the South. I’ve written a lot about it. I’ve loved it. I’ve hated it. And I understand where Patterson is coming from. The duality of the southern thing. The haters, the counter-protestors. People from Tennessee coming to Richmond to wave their Rebel flags, only to have their tires slashed. MLK and Wallace making a name for themselves in the same fucked up place: Alabama.
Players have come and gone from the Truckers. Jason Isbell. Shonna Tucker. John Neff and some other folks. The Truckers wouldn’t be the alt-country Beatles without the interplay between Cooley and Patterson. But, at heart, it’s Patterson’s band.
Patterson is one of those guys who you want to hang out with. Talk to. You don’t want him to get too big, even though he deserves it. I mean, he’s in his 50s now and has kids and all. He seems to be doing alright. He has an accessibility about him. Maybe it’s just about staying rooted. Johnny Cash had that quality. Patterson has it, too.
Years ago, when I listened for the first time to Southern Rock Opera, it sounded like something I hadn’t quite heard before. It was as if rap and rock and country had been smashed together. Even if the Truckers called it a rock opera, it wasn’t like Tommy. It was louder, rougher, soaked in whiskey and frustration. Frustrated lovers and horndogs. People frustrated over how things change, or never seem to. But most of all, it was the story about a band paying it’s dues and there being no happy ending at the end of it. Instead, there was a plane crash.
Patterson and the Truckers, I quickly learned, were tackling the big stuff. Death, money, working, relationships. All great bands address those kinds of things. The Truckers, maybe, were being more straight-forward about it. And they showed, years before Outlaw Country came onto Sirius XM, you could sell records with zero big radio play.
The day I met Patterson in Richmond I bought a vinyl copy of The Dirty South. Patterson signed it with a quick loop of a name. Patterson had given a concert in an alley behind Deep Groove records in the Fan.
Deep Groove is owned by Jay Leavitt, who knows Patterson from his Alabama days. Jay knew Sam Phillips, also from Alabama. Paterson’s dad is David Hood, who played bass in the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.
Alabama is popular again. The Truckers. Isbell and the 400 Unit. The Secret Sisters. Jamey Johnson. Richmond is a good town for Patterson and the Truckers. Patterson has lots of good fans here. The Truckers’ past talk of racism in the South is relevant to what’s going on to Richmond and the rest of the country. And an album like Southern Rock Opera, even though it could have had no idea Trump would be president or that Nazis would kill someone over a Robert E. Lee statue, is timely, even prescient. It’s also reassuring: times will be bad, but they always have been. Politicians will always kinda suck. Some bands don’t last long enough. You’ll inevitably have neighbors that are assholes. “I’ve seen good times come and go, I’ve seen bad times drag on,” sings Cooley on SRO‘s “Guitar Man Upstairs.” People may be dicks, but we can try to empathize.
Patterson had extended “family” in town for the Broadberry show. Not just Jay from Deep Groove (and who had picked up Patterson at the airport), but also Wes Freed, the cowboy hat wearing artist and musician who fits in well in Richmond, being an art and music guy who loves the Fan.
At the Broadberry you got, well, a Patterson show. Just him and a guitar.His favorite guitar, I believe, that was stolen a few years ago. Patterson was pissed about it, as he should be, but he got the guitar back somehow.
With that guitar, he played a lot of songs. Truckers songs. Tunes form his solo albums. A song about Walt Disney. Early stuff like “Sinkhole” and “Heathens.” He also played “What It Means” from the band’s highly praised, most recent album American Band. He played my person favorite, “The Righteous Path,” though I didn’t recognize it at first because it sounded so different being plucked on his acoustic guitar.
The songs were good. The crowd was good. As the night went on, Patterson told more stories. Maybe it was a coincidence, but as he told more, I got closer to the stage. I started to feel like I was in Patterson’s living room and I wanted to be nearer the guitar and the stool. Southerners like to tell stories, and Patterson is one of the best at doing it.
He talked about the early days of the band. About getting sick in the back of a small car as it traveled over icy roads in the snowy mid-West. On the joys of putting out a vinyl record even when your last gig involved playing before 30 people. And I might have heard him wrong, but Patterson said something about having kids. I didn’t know he had any.
At one point, Patterson was talking about a long drive through Ohio when some drunk guy in the back (obviously from Ohio) started yelling. “Woooo!!!” Patterson acknowledged the interruption. It didn’t rattle him much, but it was obvious he didn’t like it. A few minutes later, another “wooo!!!” from the back. This time, Patterson said, “Shut up, motherfucker, I’m talking.” Classic Patterson. Don’t mess with an Alabama boy.
The show went on, and I got the feeling that even after two hours, Patterson seemed like he had a lot more to say, that he didn’t want to leave the stage. I wanted to stick around and say “hi” to him again, but it was getting late and I needed to go home.
See Patterson and the Truckers enough and you’ll start to feel like you’re part of a family. Fans talk about DBT as if they were an uncle who fought in World War II or a great, great grandfather who got shot at Shiloh. They’re tough and well traveled. They don’t take any shit off of anyone. Maybe it’s a southern thing at heart. You’re not at a show, you’re in somebody’s kitchen, having a glass of Scotch and it’s a good time and place to just listen to somebody talk for a while.
I looked around the Broadberry. There was Wes. There was Jay. And there I was, again. All part of Patterson’s family.