Talking to Alabama-born Jason Isbell, you are struck right off by his affable, easy-going nature. He has the warm drawl and native politeness of a Southern gentleman and the thoughtfulness of a songwriter who puts great care and intellectual honesty into his writing. He is a former member of the well-regarded alt-country group Drive By Truckers with whom he played from roughly 2001 to 2007, sharing prominently in the singing and songwriting duties. After his split with DBT -- by all accounts amicable -- Isbell put out a solo record and then put together his own band, the 400 Unit. Their second album, due to drop April 12 on Lightning Rod Records, is called Here We Rest -- the original motto of the state of Alabama.
A sense of place is very evident on the new album, which opens with the beautifully nostalgic, "Alabama Pines." It is written from the perspective of someone who longs to return to his home and knows all the twists and turns along the way:
You can't drive through Talladega on a weekend in October./
Head up north to Jacksonville. Cut around and over./
Watch your speed in Boiling Springs.\
They ain't got a thing to do. They'll get you every time.\
Isbell grew up in the musically rich tradition of the Muscle Shoals area with its famous studios and stars like Elvis, Dylan, Aretha, and Clapton, in a little town called Greenhill. But even before he was aware of those famous connections, Isbell was influenced by a musical family, including his grandparents who sang and played, mostly gospel, bluegrass, and "old country." In a family where nearly everyone picked a little, Isbell says he got an early start.
"I started playing guitar when was I was 6 or 7 years old. And when I got to be a teenager, I started playing out and getting some paying gigs at bars and clubs around town." At such a tender age, he and his buddy were kept in check, though: "They would rope off a little section for us in the corner so they could make sure we wouldn't sneak off and drink anything between sets."
"I've been playing music since I could tie my own shoes, so it was at about that level of difficulty for me. Not to say that I was any good at 15 or 16, but I wasn't scared to do it in front of people." By the time he was attending college in Memphis, Isbell felt confident enough to play songs that he had written himself on open mic nights, and remembers, in particular, one gig at a coffee shop for which he decided to write an additional 25 minutes of original material -- overnight -- when he realized he didn't feel good enough about what he had to fill up the full 45 minutes. Not only did they make it into the show, "I took a lot of those songs and demoed them and turned them into the studio here in Muscle Shoals -- Fame -- which eventually led to me having a publishing deal with those guys." That is the kind of no-nonsense work ethic Isbell has carried with him, first in his successful years with DBT, and then out on his own, where his new work has also met with praise.
The 400 Unit is made up of Jimbo Hart (bass, vocals), Browan Lollar (guitar, vocals), Derry deBorja (keys), and Chad Gamble (drums). "I really like the guys a lot. We've known each other a long time and we all get along well and travel well together." Other contributors to Here We Rest are Amanda Shires, who plays fiddle and sings on the sadly poignant "Codeine" and Abby Owens, who adds background vocals on other songs.
The songs pack an emotional punch. They are the stories of a cast of characters dealing with familiar problems -- hard economic times, relationships gone sour, and connections that have frayed with time and circumstance. Isbell has a light touch, laying bare the emotional heart of a song through well-chosen details and turns of phrase.
If there's one thing I can't take/
it's the sound that a woman makes/
about five seconds after her heart begins to break./
That's one thing I can't take.
I asked him how he thought his songwriting had evolved over the years. "I think I've got better at saying what I want to say and being concise and conversational in my language. ...A line that you might overhear in a conversation sounds a little more poignant when it's in a song and has a lot of different meanings to it when someone's singing it in the right context. I really like that kind of conversational songwriting."
The album has the lyrical richness of a collection of short stories, and Isbell says he feels comfortable writing about situations in which there may be pieces of his own experience, but for the most part, are fictional. "I really like the tradition of what Randy Newman calls the untrustworthy narrator, where you're writing from the first person, but you're not specifically talking about your life. I think people assume that a lot of the songs are about me but they're not necessarily that simple. ...You read a book or you watch a movie, and you don't automatically assume that the person who wrote it was the person who lived through all of it. It's strange to me that people assume the person singing the song -- that it's about them."
It's unsurprising that a songwriter, finely attuned to the power and play of words, is also an avid reader. Isbell numbers among his favorites fellow Southerners, Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah and Rick Bragg, as well as Paul Auster and Tom Robbins. And for songwriters, Isbell says, "As far as influences, anyone who cares at all about lyrics is going to say Dylan, Springsteen, Neil Young, and Leonard Cohen." Of a more contemporary set, Isbell singles out the work of James McMurtry, Joe Pug, Hayes Carll (his tour partner), Will Johnson (Centro-matic, South San Gabriel, Monsters of Folk), Conor Oberst, and Ray LaMontagne.
When I asked him if he ever felt the itch to join the seemingly never-ending exodus of musicians to Brooklyn, Isbell laughed. While he might relocate somewhere else one day, right now he feels the pull of close family that keeps him near the place where he grew up. But he is primed and ready to get back on the road. "More than the touring itself I actually enjoy feeling like I'm contributing something to society. If I'm home and I'm not recording, I spend a lot of time thinking, man, I'm a bum -- just sitting around." Thankfully, Isbell's sitting-around-time involves some keen observations and reflection, resulting in the sensitively rendered songs on Here We Rest.
You can catch Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, along with Hayes Carll plus Shovels and Rope, this Friday, April 15 at Headliner's Music Hall. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. The show starts at 9:00 for 18 and over with ID.
Jason Isbell performs "Cigarettes and Wine":