Jason Isbell performs at the 11th annual Americana Honors & Awards last fall.
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When the time came for Jason Isbell to begin working on the songs that would result in his acclaimed new “Southeastern” album, he had no choice but to take a fresh approach that veered away from his usual work habits.
Not only was he sober for the first time in his adult life, but the Nashville-based singer/songwriter also was settling into a serious relationship with Amanda Shires, an in-demand fiddler and session player who also has a solo career.
The combination of clarity of mind, openness of heart, and the fact he had an editor/muse/peer living under the same roof, inspired a level of discipline and craftsmanship that is evident on his fourth studio album since he left the Drive-By Truckers in 2007.
“My wife and I did this thing where we would separate for a day and she would go upstairs and I would stay downstairs or something and we wouldn’t come back together until we had a song finished and we’d play it for each other and then edit it,” he said in a phone interview. “That worked really well for this particular record. I got four or five songs that way.”
The result is a highly detailed style of writing with full-blown character-driven songs that capture a number of complex emotions. Themes of sobriety, new-found love, coming to terms with your past, relationships, wrestling demons, and finding peace course through the disc’s 12 songs.
Isbell’s musical palette draws from country, rootsy Americana, hard rock, pop, and Dylan-like folk to deliver finely wrought tales that have the depth and complexity of well-written short stories. Both with the Truckers and over the course of his solo career on songs such as “Dress Blues,” “Codeine, “Streetlights,” and the 2012 American Music Awards Song of the Year “Alabama Pines,” Isbell has always brought a literary style to his writing.
The result is a reflection of his own tastes.
“At the end of the day I’m just trying to write a song that I like, that I’m not afraid to turn loose on the world. I do read a lot. I know a lot of people who read more, but I do try to keep a book in my hand most of the time and I think that informs any kind of output that I’m going to have,” he said.
“I like those kinds of songs that have details that you remember and that have stories that mean something and that open up into different levels philosophically. I like those kinds of movies and I like those kinds of books.”
“Southeastern” and the resulting tour that brings him to the Ark in Ann Arbor Thursday night have been the subject of much hype in both the mainstream and music press.
The New York Times Magazine wrote a long profile on Isbell that ran last month and that detailed his efforts to stop drinking. The Wall Street Journal also wrote a prominent feature on him, he is on the cover of alternative music magazine Paste, was featured on National Public Radio, and is finally getting the kind of attention fans have felt he deserved years ago.
Isbell was introduced to a national audience when he joined the hard-rocking and hard-partying Drive-By Truckers in 2003. He made his presence known immediately with his incendiary guitar playing and songs such as “Outfit,” “Decoration Day,” “TVA,” and “Danko/Manuel.”
No hard feelings
But his drinking and the fact that his marriage to the Truckers’ bassist at the time, Shonna Tucker, was coming to an end forced his departure from the band. Patterson Hood, one of the group’s principal songwriters and creative forces, said in a separate interview that despite the breakup he has remained a fan of his former band mate.
When he heard “Southeastern” he immediately called Isbell.
“I had to tell him, ‘Holy [crap], man, you have made a great record. You have made the record that delivers on the promise of your early stuff,’” Hood said.
“When he was 22 years old and churning out stuff like ‘Outfit,’ ‘Danko/Manuel,’ and ‘Decoration Day’ all in a really short period of time I was like, ‘This kid is already incredible. What is he going to be doing when he’s 30?’ And you know all of his stuff has been real good. He’s certainly been a fine and consistent artist, but this is the first stuff to me that has delivered on the promise that his early stuff was doing. I’m very proud of him.”
For his part Isbell has no hard feelings about the Truckers. “I think what they’re doing is really vital and important and I think they’re trying to do the right thing with the music that they make and I think we have the same goals,” he said.
His music shares a similar feel to the work of Hood and Mike Cooley, the Truckers’ other songwriter, thanks to the storytelling quality of the lyrics, which draw from influences that range from Tom T. Hall and Willie Nelson to Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.
Isbell said he is comfortable fictionalizing elements of his own life if it leads to a good song.
“It’s important to me simply because I like stories and I don’t feel like I have the most interesting tale to tell all the time, but luckily songs can be fiction and you can just make stuff up,” he said. “The idea of writing that way and creating some kind of narrative has always really appealed to me.”
With that in mind, he broke down three of the songs from “Southeastern.”
● “Elephant” is an intense, finely wrought sketch of a man and a woman dealing with her terminal cancer. He sings her “classic country songs” while she gets high and the song tackles the weighty subjects of suffering, grief, and how much we are willing to do for the ones we love in the face of death.
It’s heavy stuff, but beautiful. Isbell was asked if the song was about someone he knew.
“I usually try to base those kinds of stories on more than one person. That one is a collection of probably three or four characters that I’ve known over the last 10 years. I tried to create the two people that are important to the song and then allow them to behave the way they would normally behave,” he said.
“I like the people that they turned out to be in that song. I felt for them myself after I got done with it and that’s the only way that I knew that it would work as a piece of music. I had sympathy and I empathized with those two characters.”
● “Live Oak” is a complex tale of identity that addresses something all addicts or alcoholics face in their recovery: What if people loved who I was when I was using, but they don’t love what I have become sober? “There is a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be, and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me,” Isbell sings on the chorus.
But the song also covers issues of betrayal, jealousy, and murder as he fictionalizes the account and turns it into a noir-like story.
“That one originated out of sobriety. When I stopped drinking... there were so many things I had to face that I didn’t even realize were part of my makeup before. When you do that and have any changes that severe you lose a lot of things, both good and bad,” he said.
“That song came out of that fear and anxiety about what I would lose and what I would retain and what kind of a person I would be on the other side of this. A lot of things are going to be a lot better, but what are the things my partner’s most attracted to, what are the things my friends are most attracted to, and then I fleshed a narrative out of that.”
● Lest “Southeastern” seem like all doom and gloom, Isbell lets it rip on guitar on several songs including the rollicking, funny “Super 8” which is a classic tale of rock and roll excess and misadventure. There are hotel room brawls, wild women, a bass player who gets hit with baseball bat in his “baby fat,” and all manner of debauchery as the singer says he’d be better off sleeping in the county jail than dying in a cheap motel.
The song takes three or four real-life events that occurred when he was in the Drive-By Truckers and mixes them up.
“We had a lot of those nights of staying in really [bad] hotel rooms or someone’s basement and think, ‘How did I end up with these people and how much of my life is in danger right now?’ So yes, those things all really happened, but they didn’t necessarily happen in the same evening.”
Jason Isbell will play Thursday at the Ark in Ann Arbor. It is a solo show, but he will have members of his band the 400 Unit accompanying him. Music starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. Information: www.theark.org.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6159.