What kind of a*****e would name his band Drive-By Truckers? A valid question, if you ask me. I'm the person responsible for it.
Last week, it was announced that the country trio Lady Antebellum would be changing its name. I don't really know that band, nor its members. I'm sure they are nice and well-meaning folks, and wish them well. Good deeds, good intentions, all good things. I'm always rooting for those who try to do the right thing, since it's always easier said than done. They announced that the new name would be, simply, Lady A. But about an hour later, the singular Lady A, a well-established blues singer from Seattle who has been playing under that name for 20 years, took issue with a move that the more mainstream Lady A meant as a healing gesture. (It was later announced that the two Lady As had reached an agreement, though that is reportedly not quite the case.)
I try to be a good person, but must admit, I snickered about it all.
Then, a question smacked me right in the face: What kind of a*****e would name his band Drive-By Truckers?
I was 31, broke and working two jobs. I had been living in Athens, Ga. for a little over a year at that point, and was immersed in its wonderful local music scene, which had first drawn me from my home state of Alabama to the otherwise sleepy college town.
As a teenager, I had fallen in love with punk rock, spending my lunch money (and, later, money from my job at a record store) on albums by The Clash, Richard Hell and The Voidoids, and The Jim Carroll Band. When I first heard "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, that love of punk grew to include, and at some times be eclipsed by, a devotion to hip-hop. By the mid-90's, living in Athens amidst an exploding music community, I had become aware of the amazing Dirty South scene that was about to explode out of neighboring Atlanta, through groups like Goodie Mob and OutKast. I loved punk for its energy and its emphasis on passion over chops. I loved hip-hop for its storytelling. I love both for their political relevance and humor.
Around that same time, a DJ friend turned me onto the sounds of old-timey country. Loretta, George and Tammy, Ferlin Husky and Lefty Frizzel. All the Hanks (Snow, Williams and Jr.) and the Reds (Sovine and Foley). At least two Merles. From there, I was soon into Tom T. Hall and Townes Van Zandt. And on and on.**
I came out of a writer's block — I'd been writing songs for a long time by then — at a feverish pace, liberated by these old but new-to-me sounds, fleshing them out with themes that would be more at home on punk, or even hip-hop, records. I wanted to tackle some dark subjects, but with tongue firmly in cheek. I liked the idea of a dark comedic sensibility being applied to heftier themes. Serious but fun.
Drive-By Truckers was officially formed on Monday, June 10, 1996. I lured the musicians I was wanting to play with into the studio for a day of recording. I had just enough money saved up for the studio time, a couple of cases of cheap beer and some pizza. We recorded five songs that day, two of which we released the following spring.
The band name was intended as a tribute to two forms of music that I loved and revered. Hip-hop in the mid-'90s was filled with crime sagas, not necessarily far removed from the content of old Johnny Cash songs — which, of course, I also loved — and a direct descendant of the narcocorrido. I would not (and regardless, could not) rap, but I could approach my subject matter in a lyrical way, set to this old music that was a new passion of mine. From the start, the band was fun and rowdy and loud as hell. Our name had an irreverence that befit our style and sense of humor. It was such an absurd band name that I didn't have to worry about a blues performer in Seattle having the same. I had the privilege of being blissfully unaware.
I'm not going to, and can't, claim that those were simpler times. They weren't. Rodney King was still a very fresh memory, and the forming of my band roughly coincided with the O.J. Simpson trial and all of the racial turmoil that accompanied it. The murders of Tupac and Biggie Smalls were just on the horizon. Everyone in the Atlanta metro area, of which Athens is certainly a part (like it or not) was gearing up for the world's stage as the Olympics, and with it the juggernaut of short-term jobs and gentrification that accompany such a huge event.
All of this brings me back to my band's name, and the environment that led me to somehow think it was alright. To not really think about it at all. No one is blissfully unaware of much any more; this can be painful and brain-numbing but it can also, hopefully, lead us to somewhere better.
I've never really given much of a s*** about the band name. We have spent most of the last two-and-a-half decades on the road, playing over 2,500 shows on three continents. We recently released our twelfth studio record. We've had numerous personnel changes (although none in the last eight years) and our sound and songs have morphed and changed as we've all grown older and, hopefully, wiser.
We've seen the world and met and lived among all kinds of different people. Our message has matured and our world view has deepened. Our fans seldom refer to us by the original name anymore. They call us The Truckers or often DBT or even The DBTs, which I think I like most. Our fans call themselves "Heathens," after a song I wrote in 2000. (That would have made a good band name for us, but was already taken.)
All of which leads me to intent, and how that might not be enough.
Gone With the Wind was a crappy movie in its time and it has aged horrendously. It was everyone's grandmother's favorite movie (mine included), who seemed to think it depicted some simpler time as it whitewashed, even glamorized, buying and selling humans as if there was some kind of nobility to it all. It perpetuated a mythology of lies and glorified a version of Southern history. I think it is a large part of why so many people have some romanticized notion of the "antebellum" period in the first place. HBO Max recently announced that it won't be showing Gone With the Wind (at least for now). Good riddance! To those who cry foul and say it's censorship, I'd argue that anyone who wants to sit through four excruciating hours of nausea-inducing crap can probably find it on VHS in their grandmother's attic.
I'll take Lady Antebellum's word for it that they didn't mean any harm when they named their band that now admittedly awful name. In a discussion about the change, I was being snarky and recommended them calling themselves Lady Liamgallagher — if you're going to take someone's personal name, a surly English rock star would, at least, be in a more level position to fight a famous pop-country band for it. A friend of mine responded to that post by saying that they'd better not call themselves Lady DBT, which got me to thinking — maybe that would be a better name for us than the one we've had since 1996.
Context and intent mean a lot, but perhaps not as much as I've always thought and hoped.
I was raised in Muscle Shoals, Alabama in the '60s and '70s. My father, David Hood, is a musician too, and for decades was the bass player in the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section. He made his living by playing on classic soul records. You're most likely not familiar with his name, but you've heard him on hit songs by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Bobby Womack and The Staple Singers, to name just a few.
Due to how I was raised, I grew up with a far different view of our country's history of racism than most of my white classmates. I also grew up in a home filled with soul music. My music education was pilfering through my dad's record collection with hundreds of records from the likes of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Mille Jackson and Parliament. They informed my world view long before I got to see the world and were always a driving force in my songwriting and playing.
It also probably allowed me to pat myself on the back, and even think I was one of the good guys.
In Athens, one of the biggest news stories of 1995 was the police shooting of a man named Edward Wright. He was mentally challenged, and lived with his mother across the street from where I had lived upon first moving there. Deeply religious, he had felt a calling to cast off all worldly things and go spread the word of Jesus. He interpreted that as taking off his clothes and heading towards downtown to talk about the Lord. He was shot five times, as a crowd looked on. It shook our liberal oasis of a town to its progressive core — especially when the investigation cleared the officers involved of any wrongdoing.
In 2014, I was awakened by the back-to-back killings of Eric Garner and Michael Brown and the ongoing rage over the killing of Trayvon Martin two years earlier. Remembering back to Edward Wright's death, I was suddenly forced to face up to just how little we had progressed as a people in the past two decades. Like so many white Americans, I had drunk the Kool-Aid following Obama's election, thinking it somehow signified that we had entered a "post-racial" state of being. My way of trying to figure it all out was to sit down and attempt to write a song about it.
"What It Means" was intentionally written from the point of view of a white southern man (with my very distinct accent turned up to ten). Although I have often been heavily influenced by various black musicians, I wanted that song to be a white man's reckoning of the American nightmare so many of us had tried not to notice. It spoke of black men and women being murdered on the streets by people of authority. There was no shortage of great songs by black artists about racial disparity and oppression. I felt like it needed to be said and needed to be expressed by the very same demographic that had pretended it wasn't happening.
I also wanted the song to be a line in the sand, not only for the band but also our fans. We felt it was important then for our white, middle-aged, southern rock and roll band to say "Black Lives Matter." We knew going into it that it had the potential to be polarizing, but we wanted everyone, from our fans to our families, to know which side of that line we stood on and what we stood for. It was way past time for people who looked like us to stand up and be counted against the systematic racism that has been tearing our country apart since the beginning.
Everything in our world is in disarray and it's tumultuous and painful, as we rip scabs off of old, festering wounds. It's messy and sometimes ugly.
I'm older and trying to navigate it all while watching my kids trying to figure it out and what it all means. Symbols are important — but those damned statues were put up for a very distinct purpose, and not necessarily the one regularly advertised. A vast majority of them went up during the early days of the Civil Rights struggle to symbolize white superiority and to romanticize bygone days when it went unquestioned. Tearing them down unequivocally says: Those days are over. It's way overdue.
It has always been my intent to be a good person, and to try to be a better person. It's always a work in progress. Many of our band's songs have attempted to examine our country's fatal flaw of racism, from its origins in slavery and religion to our current systematic failure to advance beyond this quagmire of hate and mis-opportunity. It's an ongoing conversation that can be at times painful, but necessary. Our name was a drunken joke that was never intended to be in rotation and reckoned with two-and-a-half decades later, and I sincerely apologize for its stupidity and any negative stereotypes it has propagated. I'm not sure changing it now serves any higher purpose, but I'm certainly open to suggestions. In the meantime, you're welcome to just call us Lady DBT.
Patterson Hood is a writer and musician, currently quarantined and living in Portland. His band's latest album is The Unraveling, released through ATO Records.
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