Jason Isbell

Working Class Hero:
Jason Isbell’s Country and Soul Anthems Offer Solace from Desperate Times

The first time I meet Jason Isbell it’s at a Drive-By Truckers show, circa the winter of 2005-06, and although the mood backstage is festive bordering on the boisterous, with well-wishers, hangers-on and bandmembers and crew all mingling noisily, Isbell seems oddly guarded – distracted, even – as he signs a couple of records and chats. He’s like a man who wants to be someplace else but doesn’t have an immediate escape hatch. I don’t know it then, but as outlined in the recent DBT documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending, Isbell and the Truckers are on shaky ground at the time (as are Isbell and his then-wife, DBT bassist Shonna Tucker), and within less than a year and a half, he’ll be gone.

The next time I run into Isbell is in the summer of ’08, and he’s in a markedly different mood: friendly and outgoing, joking with club personnel, a video crew and a couple of journalists as he prepares for soundcheck and an interview taping. His debut solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, had come out a year earlier, and he’s doing a short acoustic tour with Browan Lollar, fellow guitarist in the recently-formed 400 Unit. Whatever stress he’d been experiencing previously is firmly in the past; this is a guy energized and just itchin’ to perform for people. He even happily signs a tour poster for my kid, adding “Thanks, buddy!” as a bonus salutation.

Fast-forward to January of 2011. Isbell, on the phone from his Alabama home, is bringing me up to date and talking about his new album Here We Rest, his third solo release and the followup to 2009’s Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (in addition to Isbell and Lollar, the band currently features bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble, and keyboardist Derry deBorja). He’s even more upbeat than before, clearly jazzed about the record and interested to get my take on it.

“This was a pretty quick project,” Isbell enthuses, of assembling the 11 songs that appear on Here We Rest.  “I was also off the road more last year than I have been in ten years. There was some travel, but we didn’t do 200 shows like we did the year before, no monster tours; we have to keep going out just to keep the bills paid, of course, and we can’t afford to take off so much time completely, say, a full month. But I was at home a lot, so the writing process was pretty much done and my ideas for arrangements and my production ideas were mostly already formed in my head. So once we got into the studio it didn’t take very long, really.”

Interestingly, much of Here We Rest‘s subject matter steers towards the dark side: there’s the protagonist of the countryish  “Alabama Pines” who seems utterly defeated, a lost soul alienated from humanity; in the Stones/Petty rocker “Go It Alone” another person finds himself at a daunting personal crossroads; the jangly, keyboard-powered “Stopping By” details a young woman aching to reconnect with her long-estranged father; and the returning soldier of the bluegrass-flavored “Tour of Duty” is painfully aware that he’s damaged goods no matter how chipper a face he puts on. (Isbell clearly has deep empathy for our military personnel, having dipped into related thematic waters on “Dress Blues,” from Sirens, and 400 Unit‘s “Soldiers Get Strange.”) In fact, listening to the new album it’s hard not to think of an earlier extended meditation on how people feel and act when they find themselves at the ends of their ropes during desperate times – Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness At the Edge of Town.

“Man, I appreciate the hell out of that,” Isbell replies, when I draw the comparison. “And I was listening to that quite a bit. That [title] song’s been stuck inside my head for a year now. I would even say that I consciously had that song and that record in my mind when I was working on these songs.

“I’ve been through those times myself. I had a tough year, and I think a lot of people around me did too. But it’s one of those things where you just have to be persistent, and figure it out; sometimes you have to break it down to the smallest details, not from a writer’s point of view but just to live through things like that and go on about your business, and whatever happens, happens. I’d like to think [the songs] are also filled with a lot of hope. Because, you know, these days you really have to try to hang on to that little bit of positivity. A lot of people are real down right now, having the hardest times of their lives.”

Springsteen, of course, set the bar pretty high when it comes to identifying with and chronicling the lives of working class people, and that’s a lesson not lost on Isbell.

“Some songwriters actually don’t want to be any more insightful than they are. I was reading an interview with the guy from Nickelback, talking about how he wrote songs for ‘average people.’ I guess he was saying that he was writing for people in Middle America who didn’t want to be challenged, and I think that would be kind of insulting to me if I was some guy working in a steel mill that listens to Springsteen, because you know, average people do want to be challenged. They want to learn; they want to listen to something that’s insightful. They don’t want all the bullshit that he’s talking about.”

Isbell pauses, then adds in a voice directed at the Chad Kroegers of the world, “When you get to a certain age, man, stop talking like you’re 20 years old, living in a fraternity house. Don’t demean your audience; don’t condescend to your audience by writing something that’s disposable, like the McDonald’s of music.”

Though lyrically downcast, Here We Rest is, musically speaking, anything but, its tracks ranking among Isbell’s most luminous to date, and this skillful balancing of the yin and the yang is a key element contributing to Isbell’s rising stature as a songwriter – of the Americana scene, and beyond. These are radio-ready tunes of the most immediate sort, from the aforementioned country-rocker “Alabama Pines” and the brawny “Go It Alone” to the rollicking New Orleans funk of “Never Could Believe” and a cover of Candi Staton’s “Heart On A String,” originally cut in 1970 at Muscle Shoals. Too, as Isbell has matured as a musician, his voice has steadily grown huskier and more soulful, full of nuance and imbued with subtle dignity. He freely admits to being heavily influenced in college by such songwriting icons as Springsteen, Dylan and Neil Young, but growing up in Greenhill, Ala., just down the road from Muscle Shoals also meant that the classic soul sides cut at the studio during the ’60s and ’70s by the likes of Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and Arthur Alexander became part of his musical DNA.

Explains Isbell, “I was a big fan of the recordings made here, although it didn’t hit me until I was maybe about 16 or 17 and started playing out locally, running into some of those studio guys. Then I started realizing the gravity of the music and I really got into that kind of music pretty heavily at that point. There’s something really special about it. And I guess there’s also a new soul revival going on that I dig. I really like what Mark Ronson’s doing, the Amy Winehouse records were great. I like the Daptone Records stuff a lot. I love the John Legend and the Roots collaboration.”

We continue talking about soul for a little while, comparing notes on favorite artists and records. Isbell’s particularly proud of having performed years ago at a benefit to help pay for the funeral for Arthur Alexander and serving as de facto leader for a band backing up Bettye LaVette at a party in New York following a 2010 Who tribute concert they both appeared at. He also notes that it was through his recommendation that Booker T. Jones got in touch with his former bandmates in the Drive-By Truckers to record the Grammy-winning 2009 album Potato Hole.

At the mention of the Truckers, I can’t help but ask him if he’s still in touch with anyone from the band, given that, while at the time of his departure in 2007 the parting was officially characterized as “amicable,” the DBT documentary makes it clear that a good deal of tension fueled the split.

“Yeah, I still talk to them. I sent Patterson [Hood] the record, in fact, when we got it mastered, he called me and we talked for a couple of hours. I think he really likes it a lot; normally if he doesn’t like something he won’t say anything about it. So I think that’s a good thing. And yeah, I think we still get along. We don’t have a whole lot of opportunity to hang out because of all the time we both spend on the road. But I think it’s fine – it’s kind of a ‘water under the bridge’ situation at this point, whatever happened. Because you know, it’s been awhile.”

Back in 2008, that poster Isbell autographed for my kid bore the legend “acclaimed songwriter and guitarist formerly of the Drive-By Truckers.” Does that – “formerly of,” etc. – persist for him, and at what point should musicians expect their former lives not to shadow (or in some instances, overshadow) their current ones?

“I don’t see it as much as I used to, no. I don’t mind it, but if it happens every time I do anything it can get a bit frustrating. That’s an issue of kinda how other people look at me, and I try not to care too much about that. As long as they’re listening! [laughs] But I’m really proud of the work we [Isbell and the Truckers] did together. I think we did some great stuff.”

With three albums featuring your name above the title, that name should probably stand on its own by now anyway.

“Yeah, I’m kinda hoping that’s the case.”

Consider it a done deal, then, sir. Here’s to the future.

Photo by Joshua Black Wilkins.