Matt Patton was reading the Curtis Mayfield biography “Traveling Soul” on a recent flight home from Denver, following the first Drive-By Truckers shows of the year, when a profound coincidence hit him.
It was the weekend leading into the Martin Luther King Jr., holiday, and the chapter he was on happened to deal with Mayfield’s reaction to the assassination and aftermath of the Civil Rights leader. On top of that, he was traveling in support of his band’s most overtly political album, the latest in a 20-year history filled with songs about controversial political figures, such as George Wallace.
Patton, who plays bass in Drive-By Truckers, may have been groggy after the late-evening flight and drive back home to Water Valley, but his disbelief at the confluence — and how history seems to cycle — was palpable.
“We were looking back through history and kind of likening these times to what it must have felt like back in ’68,” said Patton, recalling the tumultuous year that brought King’s assassination and riots at the Democratic National Convention, marking the end of the “Summer of Love.”
“It was strange how many parallels you could draw between what’s going on now in the world and what was going on then,” he said. “That’s why I think this record was important for us to make, [with] that direct of a statement right now.”
American Band, the acclaimed latest album from Drive-By Truckers, deals directly with immigration, racial division and violence, inspired by the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, the re-emergence of the Confederate battle flag in the national debate after Dylan Roof murdered nine innocent lives at a black Southern church and the coarsening of dialogue during the recent presidential campaign.
As the band’s frontman Patterson Hood noted, where the band once dealt with “the duality of the Southern thing,” it’s now addressing an American duality — urban values versus rural values, with an acknowledgment that every blue state also contains wide swaths of red.
Patton lives along that divide, balancing his time between running Dial Back Sound recording studio in Water Valley with playing to audiences across the U.S. and several oceans with his bands, The Dexateens and Drive-By Truckers.
The Jasper, Ala., native uprooted from Tuscaloosa for Water Valley in 2011 after marrying a local gal, artist Megan Kingery Patton, who had recently moved to “the Valley” from Oxford, about 20 miles north on Highway 6. The town’s low cost of living, low profile and generally open-minded spirit have attracted other artists, writers and musicians in recent years. Indie rockers Water Liars once called the town home, and Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nut Zippers lives just up the road.
Patton found a regular job there when The Dexateens went on hiatus, a time when he felt he had lost his footing in music and needed a new beginning. Local studio owner and Fat Possum Records general manager Bruce Watson swooped in, offering him session gigs at Dial Back Sound that got him back on track.
“That’s one thing I was sort of counting on that actually came to fruition,” he said. “I remember I was driving to visit Megan one day, and [Watson] called me to do a session as I was coming into town. I made a pit stop over there and played on a couple of songs. We’ve been doing 10, 11 sessions a year probably ever since.”
Less than a year later, his old friends in Drive-By Truckers offered him the bass slot for a few gigs. The band had scaled back its touring after spending more than a decade on the road, allowing Patton to play weekend-warrior with the band while still keeping his day job. When the Truckers went to record English Oceans, he went full-time with the band.
In late 2015, he and studio engineer Bronson Tew had the opportunity to buy Dial Back outright from Watson. The co-owners finally grabbed the keys in April 2016, and have since brought in bands from around the country to record while unplugging from the pressures of touring and city life.
“I think when musicians come here, especially from far away, they’re not really sure what to expect,” he said. “They just know they wanna’ come to Mississippi and find out what that vibe is all about, and hope some of it transfers to their record.
“They love the BTC Grocery and they love Rip It Up vintage,” he added. “They love going down to the Piggly Wiggly, and they love going down to the Yalobusha Brewery. That’s stuff they don’t necessarily expect to see when they get here.”
Patton has seen the studio’s story spread from band to band by word of mouth. Once they hear about the charms of this Hill Country enclave, artists book time at Dial Back and enjoy the local lifestyle, then tell their friends.
“There’s a steady stream of creative types coming into town, so that’s really exciting for us. You hear about a new family coming in every week.”
As the nation wrestles with inflamed emotions and the wild rhetoric of the times, Drive-By Truckers will embark on its biggest tour in years. Patton expects to visit Europe two or three times, sandwiched between cross-country runs for the rest of 2017.
All of this presents its own duality for Patton — the studio owner and rocker versus the father and family man. To wit, just one night ago, his travel-induced 1 a.m. bedtime had him reaching for coffee as lunchtime approached. For the next week, he’ll adjust back to his early-riser schedule, only to flip it around again when he gets back on the bus for the next round of shows.
It’s all worth it for Patton. Reinvigorated by the songs on American Band, the group has shed frills like pedal steel in favor of its classic three-guitar attack, and is playing tighter and with more purpose than it has in years.
“There’s sharper edge to [the live show] now,” he said. “It definitely feels like there’s something in the air.”