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From White Supremacy To Opioids, Drive-By Truckers Confronts 'The Unraveling'

Drive-By Truckers' latest album, The Unraveling, is out this week, and it is the group's most political work to date, confronting some of America's most charged issues: church shootings, opioids, overdoses, racial violence and extremism.

The band has come a long way from its earliest days. Founded in Athens, Ga., in 1996, Drive-By Truckers made its name early on with unabashedly fun Southern rock albums with titles like Pizza Deliverance and Alabama Ass Whuppin' and profane and smile-worthy songs like "Too Much Sex (Too Little Jesus)."

But Drive-By Truckers' real breakthrough came in the early 2000s, with music that stared down the South's racial history and reflected on what it means to be a Southerner. Since then, the band hasn't looked back.

NPR's Renee Montaigne spoke to Patterson Hood, one of Drive-By Truckers' co-founders, about the political becoming personal, his musical and political upbringing as the son of an influential session musician in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and his struggles to find a source of optimism. Listen to their conversation in the player above and read on for highlights from the interview.

Interview Highlights

On confronting white supremacy on the song "Grievance Merchants"

It talks really directly about the roots of white supremacy and the people who feel that way and are caught up in that. It's terrifying stuff, and it's happening. I live in Portland, Ore., now, and it's at least thought of as one of the more liberal, progressive-minded cities in America. And we have white supremacists marching in our streets there. Our children's babysitter's best friend was murdered in an incident — a white supremacy incident — that happened on the train in beautiful Portland, a couple years ago. So, the political becomes personal really quickly.

On growing up in Muscle Shoals and its influence on his worldview

Even though [my father and his bandmates] may not have talked about it on a conscious level, there was a certain feeling that they were sort of part of a resistance. They were these nerdy white guys who made their living in the deep South. During the darkest parts of the Civil Rights movement happening, they made their living backing up soul artists, backing up Wilson Pickett, and Etta James, and Aretha Franklin, and Bobby Womack and all that. I was always really politically aware; I was the weird kid who would come home from third or fourth grade and watch the Watergate hearings on TV. I got in trouble in I think fourth grade for writing a little paper about Nixon [and] how he should be thrown in jail. My teacher did not appreciate it. That was actually maybe the only time my parents took my side in a confrontation with a teacher.

On finding optimism while recording a dark record

It really bothered me in the writing process of this record, the extent that it was dark. By nature, I try not to really be that way. As a parent, I don't want to raise my kids to not have hope for a future. And to me, the hope I get comes from the kids — from not only my kids, but the young people that I'm around so much in their 20s are amazing. So that's the biggest ray of hope I get. The last line of the song, "Awaiting Resurrection," that ties in with the album cover, which has the two little boys standing on the beach watching the sunset. I'd like to think that somehow that is the ray of hope at the end.

NPR's Ned Wharton and Cindy Johnston produced and edited the audio of this interview. Cyrena Touros and editorial intern Jon Lewis adapted it for the Web.

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Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Ned Wharton is a senior producer and music director for Weekend Edition.