SELF STARTER "If I made it a Trucker record, these songs would be out there competing with big rock songs in a great big room with people who came to hear big rock songs," says Patterson Hood.
Rock and roll once saved Patterson Hood's life. Now it's his biggest thrill — and also the day job that keeps him away from his family for months at a time. Hood, known these days as a founding member of the Drive-by Truckers, has come a long way from those early, desperate times, and the contrast plays out in his third solo album, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance (ATO). Having time on the road to write last year, Hood began a novel that would alternate between narrative chapters and song lyrics written by the lead character, loosely based on Hood's younger, troubled self. At that point, in the early '90s, Hood's band and his marriage broke up, he was estranged from his family, and he'd moved to Memphis, far from his native Alabama. He says he was nearly a member of the infamous 27 Club.
"It's such a cliché, but being suicidal at 27 is just a great rock-and-roll cliché," he says, speaking by phone. "That was one of the things in the book, that it was kind of a cliché. I didn't sit there with a gun in my mouth or anything, but I was well aware of where it was, and I probably spent more time acknowledging that to myself than was healthy. It was probably more like me to off myself by living extremely dangerously." Then he started writing songs. And kept writing. He puts the count at 500 songs or so from 1991 to 1993. "My songwriting was kind of the thing that kept me going. I didn't have anything else really working properly in my life. But I was writing pretty good stuff at that time. I wrote extremely prolifically. And by living through it, making it through it, I came out the other side a much better writer."
Not long after that, Hood and Mike Cooley would form the Drive-By Truckers and stake their claim as one of the best bands in America. His life got hectic, and better. "All hell broke loose, and I've been busy as hell," Patterson says. "I've been happier. I've been pretty productive. We've been probably prolific to a fault at times."
Hood abandoned the book after a couple of months, but new songs and new themes came quickly. He finished the album around the time he had scheduled to start it, with the help of most of his fellow Truckers: his bass-playing dad David Hood, alt-country chanteuse Kelly Hogan, and Centro-matic's Will Johnson and Scott Danbom. "I went in to demo a couple of things, and I ended up with several finished songs," he says. "Next thing I know, I had the whole thing cut."
Releasing Lightning means touring and being away from his family again, quashing his desire to take some time off and concentrate on being a dad. That's the crux of songs like "Leaving Time," balancing his fatherly duties with his job. The reward is getting onstage; the job is the constant travel. "It's not a very rock notion, I guess," he says, "singing about your kids freaking out at your suitcase being at the door, but it's real and it happens and it weighs heavy."