It may have ended up a lyrically rich and musically rugged bit of Americana but, in its earliest stages, Patterson Hood’s second solo album, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance, was meant to be a book. On the epic tour Drive-By Truckers undertook to support their back-to-back albums The Big To-Do (2010) and Go-Go Boots (2011), the singer found himself reflecting on his late 20s, a period in which his life might have gone off the rails had his dream of being in a successful rock band not come true.
“Writing songs on the bus is hard because of the music and noise,” Hood explains. “So I thought I’d write a book. It was loosely based around this dark, fucked-up period when I was around 28 years old, and my idea was that every chapter would include a song about that period. Eventually, I found myself liking the songs better than the book.”
Despite the gloomy subject matter, Hood describes the recording of Heat Lightningâ€¦ as “A lot of fun – one of my favorite experiences.” His backing band included various combinations of most of Drive-By Truckers, two members of the Texas group Centro-Matic, Kelly Hogan – on “Come Back Little Star,” a gorgeous elegy for the late Vic Chesnutt – and Hood’s father David, the legendary Muscle Shoals bassist.
The songs feel something like a conversation between Hood and his younger self – which is to say between two men who do a lot of the same stuff, though one of them has got better at it. They reflect on touring (“Leaving Time,” “Fifteen Days”), drinking (“Better Than The Truth,” “Betty Ford”) and relationship dysfunction (“12:01,” “Better Off Without,” “After The Damage”), an eternally bountiful source of inspiration for the songwriter.
The key line on “Heat Lightningâ€¦” may be one from the title track, where Hood describes himself as somewhere “Between anguish and acceptance.” eMusic’s Andrew Mueller talked with Hood about his troubled 20s, and what he has learnt since then.
Lesson #1: Two beers will do
I don’t think I’ve ever had a real problem with drinking, but if a healthcare professional was to analyze my behavior, I’m sure they’d worry. When I was younger, I was unhappy sober, therefore I drank. It didn’t make me happy, but it made me happier. I actually think drinking was part of what kept me alive.
But I’ve never been a destructive, blackout drinker – or when I was, it wasn’t because of drinking, but because of my own self-destructive tendencies. I’m pretty damn self-aware. I keep a close rein on what I do and how much of it I do, mostly for fear of having to give everything up.
I’m more of a buzz drinker now. I like my two beers a night. I don’t get really drunk anymore. I’m too old, and I don’t have time. I can’t afford to be hungover for two days.
Lesson #2: Don’t stay away too long
I still love playing shows. I love the Drive-By Truckers rock show, and I love the solo show, though it’s very different. It’s much quieter and more intimate. But now that I’ve got kids, I try to tour in shorter bursts. The irony being between this album and trying to keep Drive-By Truckers together, I’m about to tour for longer than usual. So I’ve made a record about being homesick, and now I have to leave.
I take a bit of time to adjust when I come home from tour. The last thing I want to do is get up the next morning at 7 a.m. to get kids off to school. I mean, I love being with my family, but it’s hard to shift from tour mode to daddy mode quickly. It takes a while. And I’m not a morning person.
Lesson 3#: Not everyone survives heartbreak
In my late 20s, I had a relationship that broke my heart, but I got past it. But the Billy Ringo character who appears in two songs is somebody real from my past who didn’t quite make it. He left behind a kid who is now a teenager, and I never quite figured out how to approach that in the book. I live in a small town, and I didn’t want to cause any more grief for that family. That was a big part of me putting the book down.
I’m married now, and I have a stable, loving relationship. Though if Rebecca split tomorrow, I’d have a lot of heartbreak, so I hope that’s not gonna happen. And she better not leave me – we’ve got these damn kids.
Lesson #4: Be honest about yourself
I only pull back from confessing stuff in a song when I’m afraid of it being hurtful to people around me. But I feel like I’m fair game. I’m comfortable with my life to the extent that I don’t mind writing about the bad stuff – cheating on my first wife, our divorce, how miserable all it was, how I drank too much and drugged too much. Even the suicidal tendencies part. I devote a lot of time to Nuci’s Space here in Athens, Georgia [a resource centre for musicians, providing counseling for suicide prevention], so I feel like being candid is something I need to be able to do.
Lesson #5: Weird kids make interesting adults
“Disappear” and “Betty Ford” are songs about my childhood. As a little kid, I was often pretty unhappy. I was a misfit, I hated school, I got bullied a lot, and there was a lot of strife and anguish at home. But then I’d go to my great uncle’s farm on weekends, and have this incredible, idyllic life from Friday to Sunday – that’s where all the photos on the album cover come from. So I had that mix of wonderful weekends and terrible weeks for a decade of growing up. At school, I convinced myself I could become invisible. If kids were making fun of me, I’d disappear and hear the songs in my head. Which made me seem weirder and made me more unpopular. At home, I’d raid Dad’s records, put on a headset, disappear again. As an adult – as a husband and a father – I have to remind myself not to do that.