Patterson Hood didn't have big plans when he started working on what eventually turned into his 2012 solo album, Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance. Hood's band, the Drive-By Truckers, had just released two albums within a year of each other—2010's The Big To-Do and 2011's Go-Go Boots—and spent months on back-to-back tours. To maintain his sanity on the road, Hood started writing a novel.
"I thought, maybe this is something I can do on tour that'll keep me from going crazy the rest of the time, when we're not playing," he says. "It was kind of a fictional account of some things I went through in 1990, '91, '92, some pretty rough times for me."
The project grew in scope as Hood worked on it. Since the story involved a songwriter, he interspersed lyrics from songs he had written during that period in between chapters. Then he found himself writing new songs to fill in those spaces. Pretty soon, the songwriting process took over, and Hood found himself with an album instead of a book.
"I was about to go on a trip with my family," he says. "It was going to be a long drive. I thought, well, I'll make a playlist of the new songs and see what I've got. I came up with a quick little sequence for us to listen to on this drive, and we were driving on this trip and listening to it and it hit us that it sounded like a record, not just a bunch of songs. It stuck together, even though some of the songs were based on that book and some of the songs had nothing to do with it. It all just kind of fit together really well. Honestly, the sequence of the finished record is almost identical to the sequence of that playlist."
Heat Lightning, released in September, is Hood's third solo album, but easily his most fully formed. The creative voice that has become familiar to Drive-By Truckers fans over the last decade is recognizable, but the new disc sounds nothing like Hood's main band, even though most of the Truckers play on it. It's a suburban record, not a country one, elegant and spare in contrast to the Truckers' rough and rowdy three-guitar attack. Hood says two albums in particular—Son Volt's Trace and Neil Young's Harvest—influenced the arrangement and production on Heat Lightning.
"I had that kind of sound in my head, that kind of sparseness or airiness," he says. "I wanted there to be a lot of room for it to breathe, and I didn't want to sing over a bunch of loud guitars. I've had to do so much of that. I heard myself singing in a different kind of voice, a quieter, almost conversational kind of voice."
For his current winter tour, Hood's offering another interpretation of his new album. After a short tour with a six-piece band immediately after the record's release, he realized he needed to strip the sound back even further, reducing the act to an acoustic trio featuring him and fellow Truckers Jay Gonzalez (piano) and Brad Morgan (drums).
"I went out last fall and took a really large band—well, by large, it's about the size of the Truckers, I guess, or the size the Truckers were at the time, with different instrumentation. There were six of us out there, and it was a blast. It was great—a killer band and a fun tour. But honestly, the economics of touring with a band that size and the size of the rooms that I play solo, it was killing me. I came home in the negative from it, even though the shows were well attended. We had great shows at all those rooms, but they're just much smaller rooms than the Truckers would play."
Heat Lightning isn't the first writing project that Hood has adapted into music. The Truckers' breakthrough album, Southern Rock Opera—a 2001 concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd and the New South—had its origins in a screenplay Hood started in the mid-1990s.
"Maybe I should just keep trying to write books and screenplays and mine the records that come from them," Hood says. "There's worse fates, I guess. I still haven't given up on maybe writing a book or a screenplay, but in the meantime, it's always good to have new songs."