Patterson Hood, co-founder of the Drive-By Truckers, explains how an overnight stay in Roseburg and the 2015 tragedy at UCC inspired him to write ‘Guns of Umpqua,’ a song on one of the most critically acclaimed albums of 2016.
Story/Interview by Dick Baltus
The Drive-By Truckers may not be a household name in Douglas County, but they should be.
For more than two decades they’ve been producing consistently great rock/country-influenced songs that tell rich stories of life in the “Dirty South.” Their latest release, American Band, was named to multiple “Best Albums of 2016” lists, including NPR’s (#14), Rolling Stone’s (#24) and Billboard’s (#39).
But beyond those reasons, there is now a permanent bond between the Drive-By Truckers and Douglas County in the form of one of the best songs on American Band. Written and sung by band co- founder Patterson Hood, “Guns of Umpqua” was inspired by the tragedy at Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1, 2015.
It’s a beautiful mid-tempo ballad that explores the incongruous juxtaposition of horrific events in idyllic, unlikely settings — and of heroes fighting wars overseas, only to return to new dangers at home.
Southerners to their core, the Truckers have been based in Athens, Ga., for years. But the summer before the UCC shootings, Hood relocated with his family to Portland. In the liner notes for American Band, he describes the last night of their trip:
“On my family’s three-week cross-country drive to Portland, we spent the last evening of our journey in a sleepy college town called Roseburg, Oregon. A couple of months later, on a stunningly beautiful autumn morning, someone in that town opened fired on the campus of Umpqua Community College, killing ten and injuring seven* others. I was at home with my family when the news broke and I walked around all day ina daze of questioning and sadness. I wrote “Guns of Umpqua” on a flight back to Atlanta a few days later. It’s fictionalized, but there’s far too much truth within it.”
(*Editor’s Note: The shooter killed nine; he shot himself after being injured by police detectives. Eight others were wounded.)
In the following email interview with UV, Hood talks about the song and his new life in Oregon.
UV: Can you describe how the UCC tragedy affected you and inspired you to write “Guns of Umpqua?”
Patterson Hood: In the summer of 2015, my wife and two kids and I moved from Athens, Georgia, to Portland. We drove across in the Honda minivan and turned it into a three-week vacation — kind of a Chevy Chase meets David Lynch vacation movie. Lots of great times, and some terrible and some surreal thrown in for good measure.
The night we stopped in Denver, we heard the news of the horrific Charleston, S.C., church shooting. I was already in the midst of the American Band album and that event deeply affected the writing of it. The final leg of the journey was driving up I-5 to Portland. We stopped for the final night in Roseburg.
I was sitting on my front porch in Portland on the morning of Oct. 1, drinking coffee and reading the news, when I heard about the (UCC) shooting. I remembered the pretty town and the beautiful geography surrounding it and was taken by what a really beautiful northwestern fall morning it was. I wrote “Guns of Umpqua” a couple of days later.
UV: Were you inspired to write the song because, now, it felt close to home? Or was it a matter of getting to a point where you felt you had to address the issue of gun violence?
PH: It was a little of all of the above. Pondering how something like that could happen on such a gorgeous day and in such a beautiful place. I had long wanted to write a song addressing the gun culture in our country and the mass shootings that were happening with more and more frequency, but never found my entry point to it for a song. I also learned about the former soldier (Chris Mintz) that had been shot, and thankfully lived, and that entered it also. He survived the Mideast and got shot back home going to school. I wrote the majority of it really fast, but I did spend a good deal of time tweaking and editing it. It was hard to learn to sing also, but I think we got a good take and we play it really well live now.
UV: In the American Band liner notes you address the divisiveness in this country, the red/blue, rural/ urban divide. Nowhere is that more apparent than in people’s opinions about guns. Do you see any hope for compromise or even rational discussion around this issue?
PH: I think the vast majority of folks would like to see some sane moves in a positive direction on the issue, but the NRA has so much power and money and the militant ones are so loud and obnoxiously uncompromising. I think I’ll live to see it and I’m very encouraged by the efforts of the kids that have been rising up. But it’s going to be a long struggle.
UV: How have you and your family adapted to your new Oregon home?
PH: I absolutely love it here. I’ve loved Portland for years, ever since the first time I played here. It’s so stunningly beautiful, and the climate really suits me. I love the people and the food and honestly about everything about it.
UV: Do you get recognized in Portland?
PH: Sure. We’ve been playing up here for nearly 20 years. I’ve been treated wonderfully by everyone. The move has really benefited my writing, and it’s been great having a bigger West Coast presence for the band.
UV: Do your children understand your fame, and do they ever try to take advantage of it?
PH: They look at it with a little puzzlement. “Why is that person looking at Daddy?” That kind of thing. Most people are respectful, and I especially appreciate that when the kids are with me.
UV: How have you adapted to living across the country from the rest of the band? For example, how do you rehearse?
PH: My partners were unbelievably supportive of the whole endeavor. We honestly never rehearse. We’ve played so long and so often. When there’s a new album or show to work up we get together for a few days and woodshed. Otherwise we work up songs at sound check and wing it a lot. Keeps it fresh.
‘Guns of Umpqua’
I see birds soaring through the clouds outside my window
Smell the fresh paint of a comfort shade on this new fall day
Feel the coffee surge through morning veins from half an hour ago
Hear the sound of shots and screams out in the hallway
Spent my last weekend camping out
Again down the roadways
Just me and Joan and a couple of friends on this beautiful trail
Watched the sun slip down behind a mountain stream in these
Saw a mighty hawk swoop down upon a stream to devour its prey
Now we’re moving chairs in some panic mode to barricade the doors
As my heart rate surges on adrenaline and nerves I feel I’ve
been here before
I made it back from hell’s attack in some distant bloody war
Only to stare down hell back home
Outside my mind I wander freely past this rocky shore
Waves crash against the banks where Lewis and Clark explored
We’re all standing in the shadows of our noblest intentions of
Than being shot in a classroom in Oregon
It’s a morning like so many others with breakfast and birthdays
The sun burned the fog away, breeze blew the mist away
My friend Jack just had him a baby
I see birds soaring through the clouds
Outside my window today
Heaven’s calling my name from the hallway outside the door
Heaven’s calling my name from the hallway outside the door