In 2004, Drive-By Truckers were six years and five albums into their life as a band. According to the odd interview I’ve read with members of the band, it was make or break time. The practical decision would have been to try to tailor their sound to make it a little more main stream and accessible. Instead, they embarked on a double record concept album about Lynard Skynard, the chequered history of America’s south, and the duality of the southern man.
It was a huge gamble that paid off. Southern Rock Opera was the double record concept album that broke the band and took them to the level that meant they could headline their own tours and keep going completely on their own terms. That’s a huge deal, a huge risk and huge part of the band’s history. Which makes it even more mind blowing that at the same time, Drive-By Trucker’s Patterson Hood decided to also make his own first solo album, Killers and Stars.
I’ve talked about solo Hood albums before, and how I appreciate they’re stripped back feel. Not just in instrumentation, but in attitude. Truckers songs tend to rock, with their three guitar attack loading on plenty of blood, guts and sweat. Not that the band is averse to quieter moments, but solo Hood albums seem to be his release for more of those quieter moments.
The opening trifecta of Uncle Disney, Rising Sun and The Assassin are Patterson Hood at his yarn spinning best. In three minutes, he can build an entire world and populate it with character so fully realised, you feel like you’re in the middle of some epic, sprawling American gothic masterpiece.
With Pay No Attention to Alice, he makes another addition to his ever growing cast of alcoholics who are fully aware of their addiction, fully aware of the pain they cause everyone around them, and fully aware that there a no big changes coming any time soon. If you’re not familiar with Hood’s music, that probably sounds really depressing. But again, it’s his knack for story telling that makes these characters impossible to ignore. Patterson Hood songs are somehow so engrossing, that it’s impossible to not be drawn into even the darkest moments.
About half way through Belinda Carslile Diet, I realised that this album is nothing but Hood’s voice and guitar. No additional instruments or musicians, or even multi tracks of his own guitar. It’s also Hood getting a little showy with the guitar in a way that he rarely does. Having Mike Cooley in the Drive-By Truckers means having an amazing guitarist on hand at all times. So Hood never needs to worry about that side of things. And even though I’ve seen him cut loose with the six strings a few times on Youtube videos, realising that the guitar work on Killers and Stars is pure Hood is one of my favourite things about this album.
Hood’s later solo efforts would share a lot of this stripped back sound, but hearing it here, with the context of know that Southern Rock Opera was happening around the same time, gives songs like Miss Me Gone, Phil’s Transplant and Frances Farmer an extra level. After the epic undertaking that was the huge narrative, the mountains of instrumentation and the overall massive nature of Southern Rock Opera, I’m sure the simplicity of Killers and Stars would have been pure relief and a much needed release for Hood. All of that is straight up speculation on my part, but the thought does give me an extra appreciation for the sound and feel of this record.