This year’s Savannah Music Festival will feature a rare live duo performance by Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the main creative forces behind acclaimed alternative-country band Drive-By Truckers.
The Athens, Ga. group formed in 1996 and garnered widespread critical raves and a modicum of mainstream notoriety with their third CD “Southern Rock Opera,” an abstracted, medium-concept, double-LP-length rumination on the complicated nature of being raised in the deep South and the folkloric legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s disastrous 1977 plane crash.
They went on to become perhaps the closest thing the Neo-Southern rock genre has to elder statesmen.
Now, with a combined total of 15 studio and live albums under the DBT’s belt—Hood also has three under his own name and Cooley one—this pair of wizened singing guitarists have no shortage of material to draw upon for this somewhat unorthodox, impromptu-by-design concert tour.
Both were born and raised in and around the very small town of Muscle Shoals, Ala., famed as the unexpected location where countless classic soul, rock and country records were recorded from the 60s through the 80s.
Included in the massive list is the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” Aretha Franklin’s “Do Right Woman,” Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” Jerry Reed’s “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft),” Wilson Picket’s “Mustang Sally” and Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody.”
Hood and Cooley grew up surrounded by a mélange of musical and lyrical influences that would later come to epitomize what is now termed Americana.
In fact, Hood’s father David is a key session bassist and producer that helped create and hone the trademark “Muscle Shoals Sound.”
We caught up with Patterson at his Washington State home for a candid chat, just a few days before these two old friends and longtime collaborators would meet up to start their brief, 18-gig run.
Their April 11 Savannah date at the Ships of the Sea Museum’s covered outdoor venue space is opening night of the tour, and also marks the SMF debut of charismatic opening act and Savannah Stopover Music Festival alum T. Hardy Morris, who some readers may know as the frontman of the respected but now-defunct Southern indie-rock band Dead Confederate.
Do: How often have you and Mike toured as a duo under the Dimmer Twins moniker, and whose idea was it to try this stripped-down format?
Patterson Hood: "This is our first ever actual tour as The Dimmer Twins. Cooley and I have been playing together since August of 1985 ̶ it will 34 years this summer ̶ in various bands, including 23 years in Drive-By Truckers. We kinda came up the nickname Dimmer Twins about a decade ago in honor of Mick (Jagger) and Keith (Richards) being (known as) the Glimmer Twins. It seemed funny and keeping with our sense of humor. We’ve been doing Dimmer Twins shows for the better part of a decade, but usually as one-offs or weekenders.
“We’ve never actually done a tour that way before so this should be fun. It does offer a different view of what we do. There’s a ton of chemistry between us and the banter is often pretty great. The full band is such a big, loud-sounding, kinda epic thing that’s it’s cool and fun to do something more stripped down. And as I said: The Banter.”
This seems to be an increasingly popular touring model for key songwriters in established bands (i.e., Cracker). Logistically, it’s clearly easier than taking a full group on the road. How much do the inherent economic benefits of a duo tour assist working musicians such as yourselves in today's difficult music-biz economy?
“We’re really lucky that our band still does really great business after all these years. In fact, it's better than it’s ever been. I think one reason we haven’t done this type of tour before is that it’s a bit of a financial hardship taking that much time out on the road without it being a Drive-By Trucker tour. It’s a rare and beautiful beast. Maybe not beautiful… Rare and bountiful perhaps.”
This setup seems custom-made for intimate shows in tiny venues, and perhaps even house concerts. Have the Dimmer Twins ever done any private or invite-only house shows like that?
“Our first ever Dimmer Twins’ show was for a wedding. It was when they first legalized ̶ or officially recognized ̶ gay marriage in Washington, D.C. and we had a couple of fans who asked us to play their wedding. It was a blast and we decided that the Marriage Equality Tour should continue. There has perhaps been a private party or two since and some benefit shows. The rest have been in clubs and small theaters.”
With such a large repertoire of original material, both on the Drive By Trucker’s records and through each of your solo efforts, how long did it take to come up with a setlist for these shows?
“We never use a set list in Drive By Truckers or the Dimmer Twins. We decide on a first song and where it goes from there happens spontaneously. It’s better that way.”
Can you speak a bit about what specific attributes of your and Mike's songs seem to work best in a duo setting (as opposed to songs which might only work well with full instrumentation)?
“I think a good song can hold up in a lot of different ways. I kinda don’t want to record a full band song that wouldn’t also hold up if stripped down. We’re blessed with a very large catalog. It has to be pushing 200 songs by this time. We have favorites that get played more than others, but it’s always fun to pull out rarities and chestnuts.”
When I have seen other artists perform in similar settings, it seems to free them up a bit to offer material the audiences many not be especially familiar with. When performing as the Dimmer Twins, do you feel more free to take artistic risks you might be wary of attempting in front of a DBT crowd?
“We’re all about musical risk-taking. We could have just as easily been the Knievel Twins. Hell, we might change our name next time. Let's see if we can jump these chairs over the beer cooler…”
You and Mike have been creative partners for a very long time. Has that partnership ever come close to splintering or breaking (as with the Glimmer Twins)? If so, what's the closest you two ever came to simply going your own separate ways?
“Oh yeah. For sure. We used to be more like the Davies Brothers [Ray and Dave, from the Kinks] than Dimmer Twins. We fought all through the ‘80s. Broke up for a couple of years around ‘93 to ‘94 then formed Drive-By Truckers in 1996. We haven’t really fought so much since then. We used to bicker somewhat pre-9/11 but like The Captain and Tennille, love has kept us together.
“Of course, they got divorced in later years, but he did die in her arms... In all seriousness, we actually get along pretty incredibly nowadays. I think we got closer after we both had kids, and all of the struggles that the band went through made us tighter as the years passed.”
I imagine you are both so familiar with the material at hand and each other's abilities that it might be tempting to simply show up and wing each show. How much rehearsal goes into these duo gigs, if any at all?
"Rehearsal? We practiced so much in the 80s that we really haven’t rehearsed since."
I know you had moved to Portland awhile back. Is that still where you are based?
“I moved to Portland with my family in the summer of 2015. They named a mountain after me, so I felt obligated. At least they told me that’s where they got that name.”
For someone whose ethos and artistic output is so enmeshed with Southeastern culture, does it feel odd at all to return to this area to perform, after spending so much time in a completely different environment?
“It’s funny. I moved to Portland from Athens, Ga. You wouldn’t believe how similar they are in so many ways. I love living in a bigger city and I really love the climate and seeing my mountain on a clear day.
“My allergies are way better out here. Culturally, it was a much bigger change moving from Alabama to Athens in 1994. That was some culture shock, It took me a year or so to figure out that when people were being nice to me they really meant it and weren't trying to get my guard down to stab me.
"Both Athens and Portland are politically liberal by about the same margins—70 percent or so for most elections. Now, rural Oregon is at least as right wing as Georgia, if not more. The difference is that Portland is the population center of Oregon, whereas Athens is a blue dot in an ocean of red.”
What’s the one aspect of the Southeast that you wish the Northwest would immediately adopt?
“Portland is obsessed with Southern food and have some of the best fried chicken I’ve ever had ̶ although they charge too much for it. But they don’t have the cornbread right. I make cornbread at home when we have company and it’s become quite the attraction. But even mine doesn’t taste right out there. I can’t find White Lily Cornmeal anywhere.
“I’m going to import some and make a fortune. My dad and sister have to send me Dale’s Sauce for my steaks. When I turn them on to sweet tea out there, I’m going to make a million bucks.”
What can folks expect from this Savannah Music Festival show?
“A great f**king time. At least we’ll have a great f**king time. That’s the rule. If you don’t that’s on you.”
When is the last time you performed on the same bill as T. Hardy Morris? How would you describe him to folks who unfamiliar with his work?
“T. Hardy Morris is the sh*t. One of my favorite artists anywhere. A great songwriter with a beautiful voice and a killer band. I love him.”
What’s the single biggest misconception you feel people have about Patterson Hood?
“That I'm some kind of southern rock dude. I love all kinds of music, including that type. I have well over 4,000 albums on vinyl and maybe 30 of them are that genre. I’m way more into punk rock, power-pop, soul, country, blaxploitation movie soundtracks, jazz, experimental, blues, Texas Swing, New Jack Swing, prog-rock, Kung-Fu music, and fart-based glockenspiel polkas than anything else. There’s good music and bad music. I’d like to think my band is versatile enough to play both well.”
Anything else you think is important about this tour that we haven’t touched on already?
“You’ll come for the songs, but it’s the banter and beer that set it apart.”