To understand the Drive-By Truckers as the band heads into its 25th year, you might want to begin with Jennifer Lopez.
Wait, hold up. That J. Lo?
In what loopy Venn diagram does Jenny from the Block — the pop diva, one-woman conglomerate, and A-Rod consort — enjoy the slightest bit of overlap with the Drive-By Truckers, a working-class, stubbornly unslick band of hooligans from the deep South?
Well, for starters, they’re both opposed to babies in cages.
As the halftime performance headliner at the Super Bowl in early February, Lopez offered a sly critique of the current administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy: When a group of young girls appeared onstage to kick off “Let’s Get Loud,” they emerged from neon cages.
“That didn’t get as much attention as it probably deserved, but they did it, and it was beautiful,” says Patterson Hood, the Truckers’ frontman. “It was disturbing and awful in the way that great art can sometimes be.”
And when J. Lo unfurled a feathered cape designed like the flag of Puerto Rico, Hood says, “that was badass. It’s the first time I’ve enjoyed the Super Bowl show since probably Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.”
Like J. Lo, Hood and his band were appalled by the recent images of children being detained in migrant shelters, separated from their parents. So appalled, in fact, that he wrote a song about it. It’s called “Babies in Cages.”
How could we let this happen? the song asks. “And are we so divided/ That we can’t at least agree/This ain’t the country that/Our granddads fought for us to be?”
Like a lot of performing artists, the Drive-By Truckers have felt compelled to speak out against cruelty and corruption since the last presidential election cycle. The group’s 2016 album, “American Band,” featured songs about the origins of the National Rifle Association, the victims of the police violence that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement, and the absurd fact that John Lennon’s “Imagine” appeared on a list of songs banned from the radio after 9/11. The album was, as Hood says ahead of a sold-out show Saturday at the Somerville Theatre, probably the band’s most successful to date.
For their latest, “The Unraveling,” their 12th studio album, Hood and lifelong friend Mike Cooley weren’t sure they wanted to tackle more topical material. Ultimately, however, they say the country’s current crises gave them no choice.
One of Hood’s first demos for the album was “Thoughts and Prayers,” a song inspired by the difficult conversations he’d been having with his young son and daughter about lockdown drills at school. Furious about the government’s refusal to enact stricter gun control laws, he told stonewalling politicians in graphic terms where they could file away their “useless thoughts and prayers.”
When he first played the song for Cooley, Hood was anxious.
“Nobody wants the wrath of Cooley,” he says with a laugh. One eye-roll from his old friend is usually enough for him to scrap an earnest sentiment.
But Cooley was enthusiastic.
“Wait ‘til you hear this,” he said. He played Hood his own new song, “Grievance Merchants,” a condemnation of the white men behind the red MAGA hats. It contained a bitter line referencing those same empty “thoughts and prayers.”
The Drive-By Truckers are Exhibit A in the challenge to the assumption that the American South is a lost cause for progressives. The band’s collective voice is an unmistakable drawl; they play a proudly unfussy brand of country-soaked alternative rock. Their early double album “Southern Rock Opera” explored the legacy of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they followed that up a few years later with “The Dirty South,” another concept album.
Yet Hood and Cooley are no good old boys. They’ve always been socially conscious dissenters. They recently released a batch of “lost” recordings by Adam’s House Cat, their pre-Truckers band, which includes a song about two-faced politicians called “Kiss My Baby.” Hood says they had another song at the time that was inspired by Garry Trudeau’s unflattering depiction of George H. W. Bush in his “Doonesbury” comic strip.
Hood grew up in Alabama, where his father, David Hood, was the longtime bassist for the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, working with Aretha Franklin, J.J. Cale, Levon Helm, and many others. The younger Hood lived for many years in Athens, Ga., where he worked at the storied 40 Watt Club while launching his own career as a musician.
About five years ago he and his wife packed up their kids and moved to Portland, Ore.
“It was like a less-destructive version of a midlife crisis,” he explains. “It wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t at least as gung-ho as me. We thought maybe it was time for us to have a new adventure. Neither one of us had ever lived outside a two-state area.”
The move, he says, has had a surprising effect: It has made him appreciate anew the fact that he is from the South.
“I can enjoy the food, all the things about it that are enjoyable, without being so caught up in the stuff that was making me crazy,” he says.
The band’s recent commitment to protest has cost them some portion of their core audience, Hood says. At the same time, they’ve gained newer fans. “For all the belly-aching online about both of these records, there hasn’t been a lot of in-person fallout,” he reports.
That initial instinct to make the new album less political than “American Band” soon gave way to the relentless gloom of the daily news dump, Hood says.
“It felt somehow cowardly and dishonest with all that was going on,” Hood says. “Cooley and I separately came to the same conclusion about the same time.”
Hood still loves the Clash, the righteous proletarian punk band that “blew his mind” as a teenager. Asked if he considers himself a good man, he pauses.
“I hope so,” he says. “I try to be. No one’s perfect. I mean, I have my faults, but I like to think I weigh out on the good side. . . . I’m still trying to improve. Hopefully I’m getting smarter as I get older, or at least wiser.”
The cover image on “The Unraveling” is a photo of Hood’s young son and his best friend, apparently wearing cowboy gear, standing in wet sand at the edge of the ocean, gazing at the sunset.
“I stumbled onto that picture, and it spoke to me,” Hood says. “It’s hopeful and beautiful, but also kind of haunting, and a little dark, too.
“Any optimism I have right now tends to be more generational.” With any luck, he says, his kids and their classmates will be smart enough to fix the mess we’ve made of our democracy, “after us old [geezers] die off.”
James Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.