I have much to say about Patterson Hood’s Heat Lightning Rumbles in the Distance yet I don’t know how to begin. I could tell you that I love the record but that doesn’t tell you much. I want to tell you what the record is like but all my thoughts seem to venture around what the record’s not. HLR… isn’t a rock record and it is clearly not a DBT record. It’s possible that there are more personal songs on this record than any other in the PH or DBT catalogue. There is a downtrodden elegance throughout HLR…, something that I never would have said about some of the earliest Truckers albums but in many ways the transition has been in the works for a while and welcomed. HLR… is Essential Listening.
Many of the folks in the Nine Bullets office don’t share my affinity for this record and I will admit that one of the reasons I like HLR… so much is that my musical preferences have grown in a similar direction to Patterson’s output. The most up tempo songs here, “Leaving Time”, “Better Off Without”, and “Better Than the Truth” aren’t the types of songs that would toss a roomful of a thousand fans into a frenzy but they’re not written to. Patterson’s songwriting is more akin to the short stories of William Gay instead of the songs of The Replacements or Skynyrd.
There’s no way to say this without sounding like I’ve gotten old and boring but this record shows a monstrous amount of maturity. Patterson has always written about death but when it’s dealt with here, particularly on “(untold pretties)” and “Come Back Little Star” it’s so different than the way he wrote about death on songs like “Do It Yourself” or “Careless”. The anger that was once there, both in the lyrics and the music, isn’t there anymore. And in “Come Back Little Star”, about the loss of Vic Chestnutt, there is almost an understanding. Another sign of a growing shift can be found in comparing “(untold pretties)” to previous spoken word songs. There’s pride in debauchery in “Let There Be Rock” that would never surface on HLR…. If Patterson was still trumpeting his young and foolish past it would probably make for terrible music. “World Of Hurt” is the middle point between “Let There Be Rock” and “(untold pretties)”.
In the last dozen years or so Patterson has written, recorded, and released over 110 songs with DBT or solo. (I think it’s 116 but I’d love for somebody to check my math) That’s a shit ton of songs for one person and I for one am glad that his songwriting has changed over time. Many longtime DBT fans will say that some of their records, starting with A Blessing And A Curse, were subpar, and I tend to agree. I think one of the reasons for that was because Patterson’s songwriting wasn’t fitting into the DBT model. As a band they were trying to make his songs fit into the three guitars or a life crime attitude and it most often didn’t work. I may be the only nine bullets writer to think so but I believe the band found the sound for the songs with Go-Go Boots. It’s almost funny, when Patterson and the band was playing shitty bars and clubs they were writing songs designed for the big stage and now that they’ve reached the big stages Patterson’s writing songs that are significantly more intimate.
There isn’t a single guitar solo on HLR… and only a song or two features a guitar prominently. HLR… relies on Jay Gonzalez’s piano touch and Brad Morgan’s simple driving percussion to move each song. But what holds true and true is that no one writes songs like Patterson Hood. Nobody. Heat Lightning Rumbles In The Distance isn’t a record for a party, it’s for private moments. I’m looking forward to tracking down a vinyl copy, putting on a pair of headphones and pouring a drink around dusk.