By Brian Ives
“All roads led to Lee Atwater.” George H.W. Bush’s campaign manager isn’t someone who many rock bands name drop, but as it turns out, he was top of mind for Drive-By Truckers singer/songwriters — Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley — when they were writing songs for their new album, English Oceans.
Hood and Cooley recently played an acoustic show on the eve of the album’s release, and the latter introduced a song by asking the audience, “You remember that nasty-ass rumor about Rod Stewart from a few years ago?” before playindg “Made Up English Oceans.” The following day, he told Radio.com that he was thinking about lies that become truths when repeated often in the media.
“When I started getting interested in that, all roads led to Lee Atwater. Once he did a television interview, and he said some stuff that was completely untrue. And a colleague said, ‘Man, none of that was true and you know it.’ he said, ‘It is now, I just said it on TV.'”
Meanwhile, Hood also was thinking of Atwater as well, when he was writing “The Part of Him.”
“He did what he had to do to get Southern boys to vote for you/ to grease the wheels to get you in the door,” he sings, but notes that many others have followed in Atwater’s footsteps since his death in 1991. “I was thinking of a more current crop… [Atwater] died, so Karl Rove began playing that part.”
The album isn’t just about politics: the closing track is album highlight “Grand Canyon,” about the band’s late merchandise manager Craig Lieske, who died last year of a heart attack. More than just a band employee, he was their conduit with the audience, knowing many of them by name. “Right after Craig passed away, we had to go on a tour. it was brutal, getting on the bus with the empty bunk. At the same time, it’s what you do, you gotta go, you gotta play. he wouldn’t want us not doing our job.”
One DBT song that is a highlight of many of their live shows is “Let There Be Rock,” named after the AC/DC song of the same name. In it, Hood sings about some of his early experiences at rock concerts, lamenting that he never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd with their late frontman Ronnie Van Zant. “And I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw AC/DC, With Bon Scott singing, ‘Let There Be Rock!'”
“That was great,” he recalls. “That was my first really great rock show as a youth. AC/DC had just come to America with Let There Be Rock, the opening act was a band called UFO, they were kind of co-headlining, and UFO was amazing. [Metal guitar hero] Michael Schenker was [still] in the band, it was fantastic. I think my ticket was three dollars! It was mind-blowing! that was kind of one of those moments: ‘That’s what I want to do!'”
Elsewhere in the song, he sings, “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd but I sure saw Ozzy Osbourne/ with Randy Rhoads in ’82 right before that plane crash,” referring to the plane accident which killed the young guitar god.
“That was in Birmingham [Alabama], that was my senior year in high school and that was a few days before the plane crash. And ironically, the opening act on that show was UFO! I really, at the time, wasn’t a big Ozzy fan, but I was a huge UFO from having seen them years earlier with AC/DC. I bought my ticket in order to see them. But unfortunately, it was past their prime, they did not play well that night. But Ozzy was great! And Randy Rhoads… He had a smokin’ band that year, Tommy Aldridge, Rudy Sarzo and Randy Rhoads, it was a who’s who of ’80s hard rock. I’m not even into that kind of guitar playing normally, that’s not my thing, it wasn’t even my thing then. But he transcended all that. It was amazing, I think everybody was kind of gawking at it, it was so good.”
While Hood waxes old metal, his partner waxes old-school hip-hop. Although the Truckers have long cited Outkast as an influence, Cooley goes back way before the days of Andre 3000 and Big Boi. “It’s one of the defining moments of my life, hearing ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash on the radio, when I was a kid,” he says. “A white kid in rural north Alabama. I’d never been to a city of any size, but I knew that song was important.”
“Me too,” Hood interjects.
“I loved it,” Cooley continues, “It blew me away. It was the first time I knew that you can do something with this that really mattered and made people think.” Like “The Message,” the Drive-By Truckers’ music has a palpable sense of place, and tells their story as only southerners can tell it.
English Oceans is available now, and the Drive-By Truckers are currently on tour. Check their website for all the dates.