Patterson Hood is an aspiring novelist, destined to someday become the next William Faulkner. Well, maybe; his day job often gets in the way of that. As a frontman of The Drive-By Truckers, Hood makes his living writing short stories set to melody (i.e., songs). That hadn’t kept him from writing his Great American Novel, a somewhat autobiographical tale of a musician whose life was a mess a couple of decades ago but he’s since straightened it all out.
The plan, he confides, was to intersperse song lyrics between the chapters, tying together his “day” job with his “night” job. But finishing that book proved to be harder than starting it, while the songs kept pouring out. Thusly, the book is shelved for now, but a new, solo Patterson Hood album, his third, springs forth from this project.
[SOMETHING ELSE! SNEAK PEEK: "Come Back Little Star" gets an early release and sizing up. Check out our take and a link to the stream.]
Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance accomplishes with song what the novel set out to do, drawing upon personal experiences to sketch out a first-person narrative of a character who was lost from the vantage point of the same character who is older, wiser and more mature. That in itself isn’t a terribly compelling storyline, but Hood has a commanding ability to draw you in with the little, plainspoken details with which he patiently builds a vivid montage. Imagery expressed in short stanzas, like “you’re sprawled out on the concrete/in what you wore to the party,” “he’d never hit a lady but he just might kill a man” and “don’t forget to give a damn about us/when it comes to leaving time” tell the tales of the anguish, hurt, and hope without having to get into “all the bitter sad details.”
With a fragile drawl that betrays an anxiety lurking just underneath a reserved posture, he inhabits the soul of a Southern Man. It’s a natural for him, because he IS a Southern Man. We’ve seen this talent grace so many DBT records and his prior two solo albums (and most of DBTs even play on this album), but the more personal nature of Heat makes his gift for storytelling all the more crucial for the success of this album.
Like the quieter, more serious moments on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, Hood puts minimal melodic turns and instrumentation between him and his audience, pulling in modest elements of country, rock and folk that are employed not as an ends but a means to deliver his stories without any static. Those stories alternate between the checkered past, full of damaged relationships and damaged psyches (“12:01″, “Disappear,” “Better Than The Truth”) and the stable present (“Leaving Time,” “Fifteen Days”). When you see a song titled “Betty Ford” you know he’s not singing about the former First Lady, it’s about reluctantly putting a loved one into rehab.
“Leaving Time” (live)
Legendary Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood — that’s Patterson’s dad — plies his trade on “Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance,” the song, and with his first-rate counter-melody lines, it’s easy to draw a parallel between this and his career-defining work from the 70s with Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon and that memorable turn on the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.”
Though he hadn’t yet fulfilled his plan to insert songs in his book, Hood did insert a passage from the unfinished book into his album: “untold pretties” a spoken monologue set to a simple melody, which needn’t be elaborate anyway, as the recollections about last kisses and driving out to the “funeral to bury my Grandaddy,” is the point of focus.
Amidst these songs that were written intently to be part of this story are a couple that originated outside of the project, but fit into the overall narrative, anyway. “Come Back Little Star” was conceived by singer/songwriter Kelly Hogan as a ode to the just-departed Vic Chesnutt, while “Depression Era,” commissioned for the short film That Evening Sun, is a character sketch of a man who grew up in that time, stubbornly holding on to his values in the face of a radically changed world.
Never forced or threatening, Heat is, at times, is calmly transcendent, using themes local to Hood that projects out to at least a good portion of us all; a Southern tale that’s deeply American, not regional. I don’t know if that’s what Hood had in mind, he can only speak authoritatively from his own experiences like anyone else. But the plain, eloquent way he does that and sets it to music that connects to the everyday guy puts Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance in a special space.
The next Faulkner? That remains to be seen. The rock poet laureate of the South? That’s not a stretch.
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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Patterson’s band the Drive-By Truckers. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
Pizza Deliverance (1999): Looking back now, over a decade after the release of Pizza Deliverance, it’s refreshing to listen to Truckers’ in a more country-based tone.
Brighter Than Creation’s Dark (2008): After being seemingly stuck on cruise control following the tour de force Southern Rock Opera (2001), Brighter Than Creation’s Dark reveals in many discreet ways that the Truckers are expanding their craft again.
The Big To-Do (2010): All killer and no filler, The Big To-Do might be the Truckers’ best album to date, and they’ve had plenty of great albums already.
Go-Go Boots (2011): Here, they give us more of those kind of lyrics and melodies with toned down, nuanced performances that brings buckets of soul. Eddie Hinton would be proud to see that his legacy lives on, because it’s been caressed in very good hands.