“If it’s all you can remember, then it’s been that way forever.” The line from Drive-By Truckers’ song “Surrender Under Protest” off of “American Band”—released in October 2016—pops to mind as I talk to one of the band’s founding members, Mike Cooley. It reminds me of a recent Facebook debate I was having with a former high-school classmate. The federal budget plan came out with cuts to PBS and Meals on Wheels, among other social and arts programs. I thought, surely, most all would agree they were egregious. My former schoolmate didn’t. It was soon clear why, too, as his argument defending the cuts never went beyond his own backyard.
“I’ve never even seen or heard of Meals on Wheels,” he wrote. “I’ve never seen a starving person in America, but yet we act like it’s Africa and throw out all these logical numbers to create info to back claims. . . . Its presence isn’t what y’all are putting on.”
Political tensions are so heightened these days, such exchanges make it seem next-to-impossible to find common ground. If folks can’t believe what isn’t literally in front of them, it will be that way forever.
“It’s very much the same thing,” Cooley agrees over the phone. “What I see in the little corner of the world is all the proof I need to make judgements about the rest of it. . . . People tend to get it in their heads that how they’ve always remembered it being is the way that it’s always been—and that’s not the case with anything.”
Cooley (guitar, vocals, banjo, harmonica) founded Drive-By Truckers with Patterson Hood (guitar, vocals, mandolin) back in ‘96. Wilmingtonians know the band from their multiple stopovers throughout the last few decades. Cooley, accompanied by Hood, Brad Morgan (drums), Jay Gonzalez (keys, guitar, accordion) and Matt Patton (bass guitar), is preparing for a return to Greenfield Lake Amphitheater in a week.
Cooley’s never dabbled in the art of social media, but he knows it’s where most critics pose their distaste and disdain for “American Band.” DBT’s unapologetic tunes target everything from the NRA and racially motivated police shootings, to the Confederate flag and hypocritical Bible-thumpers.
“I don’t think they would mind me singing about politics if I was singing about their politics,” he observes of detractors. “Nobody ever told Ted Nugent to keep the politics out of [his music], and half of his show is a right-wing political rant.”
The outfit has never been ambiguous about their beliefs. They took a deep exploration of the “duality of the Southern thing” in 2001’s “Southern Rock Opera” and thereafter on a dozen albums. Yet, it’s never been as clear and present as it is right now. They offer blatant critique of our nation as we know it, right down to the cover, a photo of a US flag flying backward. (It’s the first cover in almost two decades to not feature artwork by Wes Freed.) Despite their track record of politically charged lyrics, Cooley suspected “American Band” would send a shockwave down the fanbase.
“And it did that,” he affirms.
Despite suggestions like the disingenuous “shut-up-and-sing,” “American Band” has energized as much as divided many listeners.
“There’s kind of an extra sense of intensity in the shows I’ve noticed—from the crowd and us,” Cooley continues. “It’s mostly good. I think everybody’s emotional cocktail has a few different ingredients, but they’re all feeling what they’re feeling together.”
“American Band” was written pre-2016 election results, while much of the nation was under the impression it wouldn’t turn out the way it did. In true DBT fashion, the new tracks revisit Southern history that’s often forgotten—if not skewed, at best. This time it’s more connected to current events. “What It Means” explores the shootings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin; though, Patterson Hood told Rolling Stone last September its origins began back in 1995, after his unarmed neighbor in Athens, GA, was shot and killed by police.
Several more songs target gun violence, including Cooley’s “Ramon Casiano” about 15-year-old Ramón Casiano who was shot and killed by 17-year-old Harlon Carter in 1931 Texas. Though Carter was convicted of the equivalent to today’s second-degree murder, he successfully appealed his conviction. Carter lived to lead the US Border Patrol in “Operation Wetback,” a plan in the 1950s to use military to find and deport undocumented Mexicans, but it was turned down by President Eisenhower. Carter also infamously took control of the NRA in an organizational “coup” in 1977.
Cooley had several folks in mind when he wrote “Kinky Hypocrite,” an upbeat Southern-rock boot-scoot critique of greedy CEOs and politicians “who party harder than they’d like to admit.” He focused mainly on Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. Moore was recently suspended without pay for ethics violations in efforts to push Alabama laws banning same-sex marriage—despite federal rulings. Moore also was removed from office in 2003 after he refused federal orders to remove a Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.
“[Moore’s] never been in a sex scandal himself,” Cooley clarifies, “but he’s one of those culture-war profiteers and that’s what [‘Kinky Hypocrite’] is about: how it always seems like the most homophobic, self-righteous, family-values crusaders are always the ones gettin’ caught smoking crack in hotel rooms with gay male prostitutes.”
Indicative of his Southern drawl, Cooley has lived in Alabama most of his life. He admits he’s not been a boots-on-the-ground political activist, per se. He votes but has never called or written a member of Congress in his life. Somehow, in 2017, that will change, he says, “in spite of the fact that I live in Alabama. If you care about anything, people who share your views have to win some of these elections. And then win again.”
Cooley grew up near Muscle Shoals but spent the last 20 or so years on the road. While he credits much of his current worldview to national and global exposure, his upbringing laid a critical foundation and understanding of respect and common decency. Cooley didn’t grow up with progressive card-holding liberals by any stretch, but he was discouraged from joining some stereotypical ranks of Southern culture, which are now branded in modern country music and reality shows as positive attributes.
“Where I was growing up ‘redneck’ was the trap a young, working-class kid in the country could fall into,” he explains. “These are the people who wallow in their ignorance; these are the people who blame others for their failures; these are the people who drag others down with them; and you can be one of them if you don’t learn a thing or two. . . . I wasn’t taught to think I was better. I wasn’t taught to look down on people, but [‘redneck’] was something to rise above not aspire to.”
“Surrender Under Protest” was first inspired by a Christmastime shopping trip. Cooley was waiting to check out when he noticed a teenage girl in front of him, wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag on the back. “If this offends you, you need a history lesson,” it displayed.
“Then I realize when I look to my left and behind me, there was a black man,” he continues. “He was closer to my age, maybe a little younger, and [the shirt] was right in front of him, too. And I’m just sittin’ here, wondering, I bet he would love to hear this history lesson. In fact, I would too.”
While the phrase “alternative facts” hadn’t been introduced to the world when “Surrender Under Protest” was made, a need to construct reality to suit one’s own views or agenda most certainly is apparent. It’s something folks have long subscribed to and spreads well beyond Southern borders and backyards.
“To invent your own facts to avoid a painful truth [and] to see yourself as the victim—we’re surrounded by that now,” Cooley says. “There’s a large swath of the population willing to believe without evidence and disbelieve in spite of it.”
Though universal truths seem fewer and far between in public discussions and discourse, they will remain steady onstage with Cooley and the Drive-By Truckers at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater come Wed., April 19. Tickets still available.