When Drive-By Truckers went into the studio at the end of July 2021, it was coming off releasing an unintentional trilogy of albums rife with socially conscious messages—2016’s American Band, 2020’s The Unraveling and The New OK.
The band plays The Jones Assembly March 21.
All three albums were overflowing with trenchant musical observations about gun violence, the Trump immigration family separation policy and Black Lives Matter. Suffice it to say, founding members Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley were ready to get more personal with their songwriting, a shift that’s readily apparent on Welcome 2 Club XIII, the Georgia quintet’s fourteenth album. The duo’s pre-DBT days playing in the late ‘80s outfit Adam’s House Cat proved to be a source of inspiration for the nine songs that make up the new release.
“We were a band from ’85 to ’91 and we made a record right before we broke up that never came out at the time,” Hood said. “We were able to locate the missing tapes, mix it and we put it out in 2018 [as Town Burned Down]. Working on that was sort of the impetus for some of the writing on this current record.”
Cooley’s oldest child turning 19 and Hood’s senior child just marking his 17th birthday, along with retrospection from those Adam’s House Cat days, proved to be all the inspiration needed for what wound up being an exploratory three-day recording session that birthed the newest album.
Among the memories were the venue referenced in the title track that was actually where the band cut its teeth while coming up through the music scene in the Muscle Shoals area. (“It was about the only place to play and it would have outlived me had I not gotten out of there.”) Or there’s the titular person referenced in “Billy Ringo In the Dark” (“That song was directly inspired by someone who had been in that band who had long since passed away. It obviously wasn’t his real name—it was kind of a nickname.”)
Looking back on the Adam’s House Cat period proved to be a meaningful way to pivot away from the topical themes that had dominated much Drive-By Truckers material for the past six years.
“As far as the character-driven stories [on this album], these characters tend to be us, or family or really close friends, that in some cases, (we) lost,” Hood said. “Part of it is a reflection on our younger days, but not in a ‘glory days’ sentimental way — more of taking stock of that time. You know when you’re young and having a good time, it’s great. I’m all about (being) young and having a good time and hopefully (you) come out on the other end and find a way to make it work in your later life. There gets to be a point where there gets to be an accounting.”
Some of the highlights include the Crazy Horse-flavored rager “Maria’s Awful Disclosures,” the fuzz guitar-soaked title track shuffle and the horn-kissed “Every Single Storied Flameout,” a Hood favorite.
“That’s my favorite song on the record and that might be my all-time favorite Drive-By Truckers song,” he said. “I really love that song. I’m really extra-proud of it. I think Cooley’s songwriting on that is so next-level and phenomenal—the words and the whole thing plays out—and the horns. I fucking love the horns on that.”
Adding to the fun are contributions by country music talent Margo Price and her husband Jeremy Ivey on harmonica. (“We ended up sharing a dressing room with Margo and her husband Jeremy at the Newport Folk Festival,” Hood said. “We’re talking and one thing led to another and we asked if she wanted to sing on something and she said she’d love to.”)
Longtime friend Mike Mills of R.E.M. also checks in, providing background vocals, a talent that had impressed Hood since the latter would drive around his truck listening to R.E.M.’s Fables of the Reconstruction and singing along to Mills’ contributions to that record. (“He’s one of my favorite harmony singers in the world. It’s an honor to have his voice on our record because I love him because he’s just so great.”)
And while the recording process proved to be quite a breeze, getting to the other side of the pandemic proved to be the biggest challenge for Hood and the band.
“When I first got sent home, we were on tour when everything shut down and we had to fly home,” Hood said. “I thought it was an inconvenience and that maybe we were going to lose a month of work at most. But then the reality started setting in that this wasn’t ending any time soon. We may go bankrupt. It was brutal financially and on a mental and personal level. I kind of shut down. I wasn’t really able to write or do near all the creative things I wanted to do. Generally, when I’ve had dark times in my life, writing has been my sort of self-therapy that I’ve used to get through it on the other side. It kind of threw me. It wasn’t like a writer’s block necessarily, but more along the lines of anything I wrote made me feel worse. So I just didn’t do it much. I didn’t really write a lot until around December 2020, when the election was over — or when we thought it was. Or when it was supposed to be over. They had a vaccine coming and I started thinking that I’d start to be able to go back to work and be able to pick up the pieces. We had survived and hadn’t lost our house, which was a big deal. After that, the floodgates opened.”
Once the Drive-By Truckers were able to return to touring, they spent most of 2021 making up for rescheduled dates from 2020 and early 2021 before starting to hit markets that didn’t lose shows to the pandemic. And while business concerns might have dictated holding off on releasing Welcome 2 Club XIII until after the band had played the make-up dates — essentially continuing The New OK tour — gut instinct drove Hood and his compatriots to get the new music to the fans, even at a financial cost.
“Waiting on releasing the new album would have probably been the smarter business move to make,” Hood said. “In retrospect, maybe we should have [waited]. But it’s not what we felt like doing. We were excited about this record and this is what we wanted to be doing. Now we’re kind of dealing with the other end of that. They let us do what we wanted to do. If they told us no, we would have probably been sore about it, but they might have been right.”