Jay Leavitt, manager of Plan 9 Carytown, is a font of knowledge about the musical history of Alabama's legendary Muscle Shoals music scene. He's even delivered guest lectures about the region before concerts.
Leavitt, 53, hails from the small town of Florence, Ala., where he once worked at a recreation center there playing music. There he met a precocious fifth-grader named Patterson Hood, son of well-known bassist David Hood of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
Leavitt went on to manage the first video store in Florence, and later a record store, where he says he can remember young Patterson "foaming at the mouth" when he came in with his mother, looking for new music.
Little Patterson grew up to be lead singer/guitarist/founder of the popular Athens, Ga.-based rock group Drive-By Truckers, which just released another critically acclaimed album on New West Records. "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" has reached No. 37 on the Billboard charts.
Leavitt moved to Richmond more than two decades ago and began working at Plan 9, but he's closely followed the rise of the Truckers, staying tight with his old family friend. Leavitt and Hood recently sat down to talk in advance of the Truckers' gigs here at Plan 9 Records and The National Theater, featuring honorary Trucker Spooner Oldham -- keyboardist for Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Brent Baldwin
Leavitt: The new album may just be the most critically acclaimed album of the year so far. How does that make you feel to be so well-received?
Hood: I feel differently about this record than anything I've ever done I love playing in this band and I'm real proud of everything we've made but this one is really different for all of us. It's a much deeper connection that I can't even really explain. Everybody came into this album with a whole bunch of songs and ideas. And all our ideas completely meshed and were in sync with each other. It was effortless to make it: very little discussion in the studio; we pretty much just did one song right after another. We didn't have a timeline. But at the end of 10 days, we had 17 songs recorded. It became evident that there weren't any songs to leave off. It was there; no changing or editing stuff, very minimum of overdubbing. It was just one complete piece. If a song wasn't totally happening immediately, we just moved on.
Richmond has always been a special city for y'all a home away from home. When you see Richmond on your tour itinerary, what comes to mind?
Well, it really is a home away from home. Sadly, we haven't gotten to play there as much as we would like to in the last couple years for one reason or another. It was the first town outside of Atlanta that our band actually had a following in. Early on, we would make enough money in Richmond to get us to New York.
We met Wes and Jill Freed. They invited us to play our very first show we played in Richmond. Their barn dance had a following and we got a good slot on it, so we got to instantly play for a much bigger crowd the first time we came to town. We stayed at [the Freed house], which was filled with Wes' artwork. Fell in love with his artwork and decided that night we would get him to do the illustrations for the [album] "Southern Rock Opera." Wes and Jill are part of our extended family, like members of the band but not playing. And you've been part of our extended family for a number of years now, too so it's just a good place for us.
I love the vibe of the town, too. It's old and has so much history, kind of a bloody history, you know. As storytellers and people who are kind of obsessed with different dualities and modern mythology, Richmond is full of that. It's a very haunted tradition, and I think we've always been drawn to that.
A year ago, y'all played a benefit here at Plan 9 and raised $8,000 for the Harvey foundation. The first song on the new album, "Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife," is about the Harvey tragedy, and that's the song you chose to play on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" recently. I remember when you e-mailed me the lyrics I opened that e-mail here at the store and had to go out the back door and walk around the parking lot so nobody could see me crying. [The murders] had a huge effect on you personally as well. Can you explain that?
Well, my daughter was about to turn 1 when that all happened. Being a father, there's that extra reaction to something like that. Becoming a father made me more emotional anyway, harder to hold back the tears.
There's no making sense of something like [that tragedy]. The best you can hope for is to process it in your mind somehow. The song is about seeking some truth about it. I didn't want to write about what happened. I guess it's dedicated to a moment in time when they were all alive and well.
I think the most idyllic memory I will have when I'm an old man are those moments like I describe in that song, when your family is not doing anything, just layin' around. That seemed like heaven to me. That's where I wanted to place the song. I hoped that it would have that effect on other people and maybe make it easier to deal with on a daily basis.
Some people tell me they listen to "Two Daughters" once and can't listen to it again. Others say they listen to it over and over again. For some, it just hits too hard.
I second-guessed putting it on the record all the way to the end. But I felt really drawn to it as an artist. I couldn't let go of it. I was really concerned about what people in Richmond and the family would think about it. The last thing I wanted to do [was] dredge up painful memories and add to anybody's suffering. But the reaction I kept getting from people who were close to it was that it somehow made them feel better. I have been touched and been really happy with the fact that I've been contacted by numerous members of their extended family and it's all been really positive.
How did it come to you? In pieces or at one time?
It's like my radio station was tuned to that channel and I picked up my guitar and wrote it down. It kind of has a weird tuning, and I don't know if my guitar happened to be in that tuning that night. I don't know. Somehow I stumbled into this strange place to put a capo, strange key. But it sounded in my head when I wrote it very much like the version on the record. We never tell anyone in the band what to play, but they always seem to know exactly what to play. In my head, I heard a banjo and a fiddle part. The first time I played it for Cooley, he said, "I think I'm going to play banjo on that." He said the night we met Bryan [Harvey], at that first barn dance, Bryan played a banjo.
The song happened very naturally. I knew the moment I wrote it, if the song made the record it would have to be the first song on the record. Changing into that mood once the record started, it would be too hard to shift back out of it.
We're both from Muscle Shoals area. We've had as rich a musical heritage as anywhere in the world. What does that heritage mean to you?
Oh man, it means the world to me. The whole music thing that happened there was nothing short of a miracle. That was the unlikeliest place on earth for something like that to happen. I'm so proud that my dad has been a part of that. And I'm proud that in some small way we're able to carry some of that on, carry it forward. I'm like you, I don't live there anymore, but it's still home. I still have some deep, deep roots there.
You went back to do the Bettye LaVette album ("Scene of the Crime" featuring DBT) which was Grammy nominated. Can you describe what going to the Grammys was like?
It was super lame. It was like going to a high-school reunion that didn't sell any alcohol. I had high expectations. Watching it, it's like, this isn't even what I do for a living. It's so distant and unrelated to what we do it's almost like visiting another world. That said, I'm glad for any recognition. I don't want to sound disingenuous about that aspect of it but I'm sure glad it's not my reality. All the flash and glamour has very little to do with the artistic end.
Now if you can just get support from your label, New West.
[Laughs] [Co-founder Mike] Cooley just walked in and I'm telling him what I'm talking about. Why I've got an earpiece in like a dork talking to the wall.
Was Cooley wearing his "Cocksucker" T-shirt on TV last night?
[More laughter, inaudible] Were you? He wore his goddamn "Cocksucker" T-shirt on TV last night. [Laughter] I didn't even pick up on that.
Do you wanna talk about the label?
There's not that much to talk about. It's kind of like a divorce, you know, when you're time's up.
OK. For someone who has never seen you all live: How would you describe it?
I don't know. I'd rather hear you describe it.
It's just a pure rock and roll band that kicks my ass every time I see you guys. It's good for my soul.
Ours too. We all do this because we love it. It's well known we had a year of turmoil a couple years ago things weren't real happy in our camp. I had to remember to tell myself that I'm living the dream, and ask myself what about it wasn't fun?
To me, it's blasphemous to do this and not have fun with it. I would rather work a shitty job that I hate than turn this into a shitty job I hate. That goes against my religion. That's a close to a religion as I have. [Playing music] should be fun.
To me, the last couple years have been all about connecting to what made it fun in the first place. And making the record was part of that connecting to what drew us to this in the first place. I think that's why things are going so well and people are responding to this record. I think you can feel that.
How about your solo record, when's that coming out?
Whenever we're through working full time on this record. Next time the band takes a break, I'd love to put it out. Definitely not this year though. I'm not ruling out re-recording it all. But there are all kinds of other factors, the business end, that need to be worked out. I'll leave it at that.
You're doing another in-store performance at Plan 9. How does Plan 9 stack up against other music stores in the country?
Plan 9 is easily one of the best record stores in the country. Unfortunately, there's less and less of them out there now the great independent record stores. Plan 9 is not only one of the last, but one of the greatest.
Well, I got a nice clean version of [Rolling Stones'] "Exile on Main Street" waiting for you here. With the postcards.
Ohhhh man. Beautiful.
"Two Daughters and a Beautiful Wife"
When he reached the gates of heaven
He didn't understand
He knew that folks were coming over
Or was it all a dream?
Was it all a crazy dream?
He saw them playing there before him
What were they doing there?
It felt like home, It must be alright
Or is it just a dream?
Is it just a crazy dream?
But then memories replay before him
All the tiny moments of his life
Laying round in bed on a Saturday morning
Two daughters and a wife
Two daughters and a beautiful wife
Meanwhile on Earth his friends came over
Shocked and horrified
Dolls and flowers at the storefront
Everybody cried and cried
Is there vengeance up in heaven?
Are those things left behind?
Maybe everyday is Saturday morning
Two daughters and a wife
Two daughters and a beautiful wife
Two daughters and a beautiful wife
Dec. 19, 2006, for the Harvey family
Drive-By Truckers perform with The Whigs at The National Friday, March 28, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 and available through Ticketmaster outlets. Drive-By Truckers will also play an in-store acoustic set that day at Plan 9 Music Carytown at 1:30 p.m.