Patterson Hood’s musical universe contains a number of characters you wouldn’t necessarily want to sit down with over a beer in a dark bar.
It is populated with dangerously burned-out cops, creepy and corrupt preachers, murderous women, meth users, and all manner of folks who live in the cracks between sanity and something else. Then there’s Billy Ringo on his excellent 2012 solo album “Heat Lightning in the Distance.”
He’s wild and fun, the kind of fellow who likes a good party, but always pushes things to a dangerous edge. Hood, whose main gig is with the Drive-By Truckers, puts Billy in a couple of songs as a key character on “Heat Lightning” and a story about him is a centerpiece of his solo shows like the one scheduled at The Ark in Ann Arbor on Wednesday.
“He’s your fun friend, but he’s not necessarily your true friend,” said the gregarious Hood in a phone interview from his Athens, Ga., home as he drank coffee, let his dog in and out of the house, and answered questions with long, rambling replies.
“I don’t know what draws me to those characters. I guess because we all know them. I’m always drawn to stories that involve relationships, particularly the troubled ones.”
Over the course of the Truckers’ nearly 20 years and his three solo albums, Hood has created a body of work that has the depth of a novel and the cinematic scope of film. An avid movie buff and voracious reader — he cites the fourth volume of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography The Passage of Power as the best book of 2012 — Hood also has deep roots in America’s musical firmament.
He and the other original members of the Truckers, Mike Cooley and Brad Morgan, hail from the Muscle Shoals region of Alabama, which was home to Fame studios where artists such as Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Bob Seger, the Rolling Stones, and many others recorded. His father is David Hood, who played bass on many of those great soul and rhythm and blues records from the ’60s and ’70s as part of the Muscle Shoals rhythm section.
Hood’s music draws from a broad swath of influences that range from Lynyrd Skynyrd and AC/DC to punk, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, and Todd Rundgren. His lyrics are more like short stories than traditional songs and even when he writes from a more personal perspective, it’s almost as if Patterson Hood is a character in his own music.
“A lot of it is based on people or things that I’ve known or witnessed through the years at least personally or known of through other people or folklore or whatever. But it’s all filtered through my warped weird little brain,” he said, laughing.
“Heat Lightning” was the result of several happy and not-so-happy accidents, including an aborted attempt at a novel that he tried to write when the Truckers were on the road in 2010 and 2011. The plot was derived from a difficult time in the 49-year-old Hood’s life after the breakup of his marriage and first band in the 1990s, and a number of the songs reflect that existential unrest.
“One of the main characters in there was certainly based strongly on who I was 22 years ago. I’m still the same person maybe fundamentally, the same DNA, but I’m different enough that when I write about that person it’s very much like writing about somebody else,” he said.
“My life couldn’t be any more different other than the fact that I’m still fortunate to solve some of my darker demon problems through my writing, which was kind of the key to that character’s salvation at the time when he didn’t have anything else to pick himself up. I still have that and it still works for me.”
A major difference now is his settled home life. He’s been with his wife, Rebecca, for more than a decade and they have two young children, which provides “Heat Lightning” with its second theme: family.
Hood has long written about his relatives — one of his most touching Drive-By Truckers’ songs, “The Sands of Iwo Jima,” is about his beloved uncle — but he’s never sentimental or maudlin even though “Heat Lightning” tunes such as “Leaving Time” and “Fifteen Days (Leaving Time Again)” reflect the love/hate relationship musicians have with the road.
The album was the direct result of Hood’s domestic contentment. After a difficult tour with the Truckers that ended with the departure of guitarist John Neff and bass player Shonna Tucker and a series of financial problems, he found solace in working out the new songs in a relaxed manner.
A family vacation led to the decision to release the “Heat Lightning” songs. After packing up the kids, he shoved in a CD of the album’s demo versions of the tunes just to hear how they sounded and Rebecca weighed in.
“We were driving that day and I put it in and my wife’s there and we’re listening to it and she said, ‘That sounds like an album.’ And I said ‘It really does, doesn’t it?’ She really kind of talked me into it.”
Rebecca also took most of the photos that accompany the album package.
“She was such a big part of this solo record and I think that helped our relationship, at least the part of the balancing between my career and all of that because she felt like she was such a big part of this record,” Hood said.
“She’s the one who talked me into doing it and kind of made me aware of it being a record. She did the photography that is on the album cover. Whereas I think that at points in time the band felt a little distant for her.”
Hood is embarking on the solo tour that brings him to Ann Arbor with a band (the Downtown Rumblers) that consists of just himself on guitar and vocals, Drive-By Truckers member Jay Gonzalez on keyboards and guitar, and Morgan on percussion.
The set list will cover all three of his solo albums — “Killers and Stars” (2004), “Murdering Oscar (and Other Love Songs)” (2009), and “Heat Lightning” with a few Drive-By Truckers obscurities such as “Little Bonnie” thrown in.
He said the band has emerged from its recent struggles and is eager to return to the recording studio in August to work on what will be the group’s 10th solo album.
“The band’s in a real good place. We came out of a pretty long difficult period with a couple of pretty major personnel shifts, which is always traumatic and brutal, but it’s all worked out well in the end,” he said. “I’m very happy with where everybody is and where their heads are at. I think everybody in the band feels very strongly about where we need to be.”
His home life also is blessedly peaceful, although he noted wryly that could change when the Truckers embark on another of their year-long touring cycles.
“Ask me again next year when we’re in the midst of a huge tour for the new record and I might be pulling my hair out, but right now it all seems pretty doable and good.”
Patterson Hood and the Downtown Rumblers are playing The Ark in Ann Arbor Wednesday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $32 for reserved seats. Information: http://theark.org/tickets.html.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.