Patterson Hood on fiction, writing in the dark and the genius of Jay Gonzalez

by Ryan Snyder

If it feels like misfortune dogs all of the characters in Patterson Hood’s third solo album Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, it’s not because Hood is developing his own set of theories on tragedy a la Arthur Miller. These songs are themselves semiautobiographical, sprung free from the darkest recesses of his past while immersed in a now-shelved fiction novel. The characters are richly framed, leaving room for the listeners to create their own backstories. The music is some of the quietest the Drive-By Truckers leader has ever scripted, and yet he never intended for this album to exist. Now, he’s set to embark on a tour that has Hood as excited as he’s ever been about one. The tour kicks off at the Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival this weekend in Pinnacle, and YES! Weekly caught up with the southern rock poet a few days before the album was released.

Y!W: Your last time through the area, you went and played the Rumblers show in Winston and then a few days later you’re doing Truckers shows again. At this point is shifting gears like that intuitive for you?

PH: It’s hard, but I’ve gotten better at it and now that I’ve got the songs down more, I haven’t had to think about that. This is very, very different for me as far as what I do compared to what I do in the Truckers’ shows. We’ve been doing a lot of those, but the one’s we’re doing now we are to keep the lights on and the insurance paid. There’s a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on that. At the same time, some of those have been some of my favorites in a long time.

Y!W: There’s an efficiency to the Downtown Rumblers’ shows that doesn’t occur in the Truckers’ shows.

PH: It’s the nature of the songs. There’s not as much happening, they’re written to be more intimate and they’re much more focused. It’s a lot harder to play that way than it is the big, loud rock show because you get so much momentum going, if something goes wrong, most people never know it. You just get carried by that momentum. Playing the quieter shows, you have to create your own momentum.

Y!W: This is your first album in a while where no one gets killed.

PH: Maybe not, maybe not. Maybe it’s just a little more subtle. I’m not sure if things turn out too great for Billy Ringo. It’s the kind of situation where a lot of the drama happens off of the camera. The point was to make it interesting without revealing too much of the characters’ motivations. It’s a special piece of work for me. I’m very attached to it.

The way it happened, I wasn’t even planning on finding something to tour behind at the time. This was supposed to be a year off for me to spend more time with my family and less time on the road. As it’s turning out, I’m having the busiest fall I’ve had since I first started having kids. I feel so intensely about the record that I just had to do it. Fortunately, my wife feels the same way. She feels so strongly that she pushed me to do it, which is pretty telling because she was excited to have me at home. She said, “This record is special. You gotta do what you gotta do. You have to go out there and play this record for people.” I appreciate that I have a wife like that.

Y!W: That Billy Ringo, he’s a bit of a silverscreen cowboy type, isn’t he?

PH: He likes to think of himself that way.

He might have suffered from some delusions of grandeur, but he’d still be a pretty good guy to hang out with from time to time. He’s a combination of people from my past. I had started working on a book during my down time, and he was a main character in that. I decided to put the idea away for now, but a lot of these songs came out of that.

Y!W: A lot of these characters are tragic of their own designs, a lot like Bukowski would script them. Do you read him?

PH: I read a little bit, it’s been a long time.

In that era in my life where that song takes place I read some Bukowski, maybe early ’90s before he died. I remember that movie on his life, Barfly with Mickey Rourke. Me and a bunch of friends sat up one night and got really f*cked up and watched it. That was probably the last good performance from Faye Dunaway. Probably from Mickey Rourke, for that matter.

Y!W: Until The Wrestler. PH: Right, until The Wrestler. I also read a  lot of Harry Crews and I know that they got compared to each other a lot, but I probably like his stuff better. In my more pensive stuff, I tend to lean toward that kind of minimalism. I say what has to be said to set up the scene, deliver the punch line and go onto the next scene.

Y!W: The book you were writing, was it fiction?

PH: It was fiction, but it was probably closer to being based on some truths in my life that I probably don’t want to get into at this point. Maybe when I’m older, but I just decided that I didn’t want to spend the amount of time in that period of my life as it would take to fully flesh it all out. I can spend enough time there to get a song or two about it out, but as far as getting a 250to 300-page book, that was going to involve more time in a dark space than I want to spend right now.

Y!W: There’s a lot of Jay Gonzalez on this record, and I never really realized what a power pop savant he is until I heard Mess of Happiness.

PH: It’s amazing, isn’t it? The funny thing is, keyboards aren’t his first instrument, it’s not his second instrument, it might be his third and it may even be his fourth. When I first met him, he was a bass player and I came to find out he was a real proficient guitar player. Somewhere along the way, he ended up joining my favorite band in town, the Possibilities. I was in a Bruce Springsteen cover band for a charity benefit one night years later and I asked him to be my keyboard player. I gave him the song list and he showed up to practice having memorized all of the parts. I remember he just completely nailed Side One and the last song on Side Two of Darkness on the Edge of Town. That’s when I knew he should join the Truckers.

A lot of these songs in my head were keyboard based, and I’m not a keyboard player.

I could play enough to explain to him what I wanted and he came back with exactly what I wanted. That’s kinda how we made a lot of this record. A lot of it was just to show him off. He’s standing behind three loud guitar players in the Truckers, so this was a chance for him to shine and show people how badass he really is.

Y!W: The very first show on this tour is the Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival, but you seem to really prefer the small rooms over the open air spaces. Is that a function of how the music sounds?

PH: Oh, for sure. I talked to Matt who does our booking, I laid out for him that we wanted to do the best-sounding rooms we can get, even if they’re less people and less money or not as good a deal financially. I wanted rooms that encourage the audience to be quieter because the material works better that way. I wanted to make that work and we’ve got some beauties.

Y!W: At the Jomeokee Festival, you’re doing a picking and songwriting session with Larry Keel and Del McCoury. Have you been coordinating that in advance with them?

PH: I think we’re going to wing it. I don’t really know what’s going to happen. I agreed to do it not really knowing what’s going on. I don’t know where I fit in there, but hopefully somewhere.

The Jomeokee Music and Arts Festival runs from Sept. 14-16.