“You put in the work. You put in the hours.” That quote, in a nutshell, sums up why we have selected singer/songwriter/guitarist/rocker Jason Isbell as our 2013 Artist Of The Year, a designation that members of our staff actually sensed might be coming months ago, when his album Southeastern was initially released. Well, that kind of work ethic, and the fact that the record so clearly marks the man as one of America’s greatest songwriters currently operating, period. Below you’ll read a highly revealing interview with Isbell conducted by journalist and fellow musician Nick Zaino; following the main feature is a sidebar outlining the man’s discography to date. And elsewhere on the BLURT site you can read editor Fred Mills’ personal tribute to Isbell, with whom he has crossed paths numerous times over the years. —Ed.
BY NICK A. ZAINO III
It is late July, and the crowd at Boston’s Sinclair club is singing along with every song Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit plays. Southeastern, Isbell’s fourth solo studio album, has been out for a little under a month, but it seems more like an album fans have treasured for years. Then, when the former Drive-By Truckers songwriter/guitarist straps on his acoustic guitar to play the beautifully heart-wrenching ballad “Cover Me Up,” the crowd gets silent. They are enraptured.
Something strange and wonderful happens when he gets to the second verse, one of the most personal and vulnerable lines on the album. He is singing of a self-destructive, alcohol-fueled incident, and pulling back from the brink, seemingly just in time. And when he gets to the words, “But I sobered up/And I swore off that stuff/Forever this time,” the audience cheers and applauds. There is a recognition of both the man and the song, an uncommonly strong connection between an artist and his audience.
Southeastern is the kind of album artists produce maybe once in a career, if they’re lucky. Critics and fans alike have swooned over it. It’s his best effort to date as a songwriter, singer, and musician, and not coincidentally, he has watched his fanbase increase in its wake. He is no longer a Trucker gone solo, four studio albums removed from that experience. He is his own artist, and that makes him an easy pick for our Artist of the Year.
Isbell has been penning classics like “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” since his first album with the Drive-By Truckers in 2003, Decoration Day. But Southeastern is a step beyond. It taps a deep well of gratitude and pain, its stories both raw and complex. Isbell may be wearing his heart on his sleeve, but he has placed it there artfully. Vividly. There is an arc that starts with the first lines of “Cover Me Up”:
A heart on the run/Keeps a hand on the gun/You can’t trust anyone
to the final words of “Relatively Easy:”
Here with you there’s always something to look forward to/My lonely heart beats relatively easy
Isbell starts with a desperate longing for recovery and ends with a feeling of acceptance, and along the way, asks for an end to loneliness (“Traveling Alone”), describes a man killing what he loves (“Live Oak”), finds friends battling tragedy (“Elephant”), and shows a boy growing up quickly in response to the abuse of a friend (“Yvette”). For good measure, he also explores the “bad old days” of a rock and roll lifestyle he’s left behind (“Super 8”).
Every song is touched with the clear ring of honesty, and reflects some recent, important changes in Isbell’s life. He has gotten sober, and he married Amanda Shires in February. Both released new CDs within a few months of each other—Southeastern dropped in June, and Shires’ Down Fell the Doves hit in August (go here to read our feature on Shires, by contributing editor Lee Zimmerman). It’s that honesty, Isbell notes, that sometimes makes these songs hard to sing. But it also makes it all the more necessary, and satisfying, that he does.
BLURT: When you were in Boston, you said that it was good to see people singing along with songs from the new album instead just the ones you wrote when you were twenty-two. Had you not had that experience much before?
JASON ISBELL: I had, but not as much as I’ve had with this new record. Certainly not as immediately. I feel like we’ve really opened up to a new audience. There’s a lot of people I think who have been turned on to the music that I’m making that weren’t Drive-By Truckers fans. And I don’t know if that had happened until now, really. At least it hadn’t happened on the level where I could see it from the stage.
Do you have a sense that Southeastern is a different kind of album from the others you’ve done so far?
I think it’s better. I think my goals have always been the same, just to try to write the best songs that I could and tell the best stories and record a period of time. And then not screw it up in the studio. Serve each song individually and try to record the song in a very natural and honest way. I just think that we’ve gotten better at it. And I think I’m better at writing, just because I’ve spent more time with it. And I also think that turning over some of the control to Dave Cobb for production duties was a good idea, because I’ve always, up until this record, I’ve always had some say in the production. And at this point, I didn’t.
Did you want to do that to take that part of it off of your plate, to just concentrate on writing and playing?
No, I mean, because the writing was done. So I didn’t need more time to concentrate on that. And playing is easy, honestly. I wanted to do it so I wouldn’t continue to make the same record over and over.
What goes through your mind when you hear a crowd cheer for a line like, “But I swore off that stuff/Forever this time?”
Oh, it’s great. Sometimes it’s hard to sing the one after it because you get moved by that, very much. You feel like people are rootin’ for you. And you also feel like people are connecting with the honesty of the line. There’s a lot of different ways to say, “I quit drinking.” And a lot of them aren’t very poetic, but it’s nice. For one thing, it’s an affirmation that you said that the right way. And also, it just feels nice to know that people want you to survive, you know? People want you to do well.
Did you get tired of getting requests for songs like “Decoration Day” or “Outfit?”
No. I play them every night. I get tired of anybody who does something stupid. If there’s a guy there yelling “Outfit” from the first song to the last song, I get real tired of that real quick. Because that person’s an idiot. I don’t mind the song, I love playing those songs. Playing both of those songs at the Ryman the other night with both my parents there was a high point of my professional life.
Are there any hard feelings with the Truckers? Somebody just reviewed a show and they said you took a bit of a dig at the DBTs and their quote-unquote heavily-bearded fans.
Oh, no, no! I don’t think that was a dig. I was probably referencing my own fans, as well. No, I don’t have any kind of hard feelings. Patterson [Hood] and I still talk a lot and I think we’re still good friends. And I saw [Mike] Cooley play a few months ago here in Nashville. Thought he was great. He and I don’t talk that much, but he doesn’t really talk that much in general. But I don’t have any kind of hard feelings toward them. I was a drunk, and some of them were at some point, but that’s their own decision to make. But it wasn’t a healthy environment, and creatively I think the combination of the three of us working together had run its course. And it just wasn’t going to work any longer. And personally, it was like a bomb had gone off on the bus and people needed to scatter. So I don’t feel any kind of resentment toward all that.
Are you getting fans now who only know you from the new album, do you think?
Yeah. Quite a few. It’s nice. If every album I do renders the material before it meaningless, that’s fine with me. It means I’m working in the right direction.
You did also sarcastically took yourself to task at the Boston show for playing all that “downer” stuff, but people were into it. Is that something that you’ve always done that’s kind of carried over from the Truckers’ days? The sad songs that everybody celebrates?
Yeah. That’s just my nature. That’s the kind of stuff that I listen to and read and the kind of movies I enjoy. That’s my nature. It comes from a lot of different places. One of them, the first music that I ever paid any attention to was old country music and the blues. And I feel that idea of claiming that sadness and making something creative out of it is what really drew me to be a musician in the first place. That and the fact I got it naturally from my family.
Are any of those songs difficult to play onstage? Is it strange to hear people cheering for “Live Oak” or “Elephant?”
Yeah. Some of them are very hard to sing onstage. If I feel like I’m doing it right and I’m in the place I should be in to sing those songs, sometimes it’s all I can do to get through them.
Are there any ones in particular that are the toughest?
It’s different from night to night. I mean, I’ve had a hard time singing “Outfit” when my dad’s in the audience before, and sometimes “Cover Me Up” can be difficult. And “Elephant” has shaken me up a few times. “Dress Blues” has definitely shaken me up when some of Matthew Conley’s family has been in the audience. “Decoration Day” has been difficult when my mom’s family has been around. It’s a different one from show to show. I try really hard to remember the reason I wrote those songs when I’m singing them.
Do people sometimes get a completely different idea about a song from what you intended?
I’m sure they do. And sometimes you hear that, you know? And I don’t correct them, because once I’ve written it and recorded it, it’s not really mine anymore. So yeah, I’m not going to tell somebody, no, this song’s not about you, or this song’s not about what you think. That would just be a terrible thing to do. Whatever they take from it, unless it incites them to go out and kill somebody or themselves, then I’m happy about that.
“Elephant,” for example, to me, that song is just as much about the narrator as it is about the woman he’s singing about. They’re both laughing about what they used to be, but we know what’s wrong with her. What’s wrong with him?
Well, there’s certainly things in his past that aren’t clean and aren’t perfect. And really, I think the song, at its heart, is not really about death or about cancer, but it’s about friendship. To me, it’s about two people who have sort of met themselves after a whole lot of other things have happened to them individually.
There is the one line, “If I’d fucked her before she got sick,” and I was listening to it in the car, and people were talking, and that line all of a sudden jumped out –
[laughs] Yeah. It does.
Everybody in the car was like, “what is this song about?”
Yeah. “What just happened?” [laughs]
Is there a whole world around some of these songs that you see that not directly attributed to it? Do you see these characters walking around in the place you’ve made for them, outside of the song?
Yeah. I think I’m kind of taking a picture, you know, of somebody who has a whole life, before and after the song documents it. And you know, I’ve always felt that in the music that I like. If you think about like, “Lights of Cheyenne,” the James McMurtry song. It’s from the perspective of [a] woman who’s being abused by a man who’s lazy and violent. You get a feeling that she’s dealt with this for a long time and whatever happens next is going to change things.
And then “In Germany, Before the War,” the Randy Newman song. That one, while it’s not necessarily a short snippet of time that he’s giving, he’s giving more of an overview, but you still feel like there’s a lot of darkness and a lot of just terrible things that have happened to the individual he’s singing about that you don’t know. You just have to assume. I like that. I guess “slice of life” is what people would call it.
There are two songs that are very much like that on this. While a lot of them have autobiographical elements, some read like short stories: “Live Oak” and “Yvette.” Are there any real-life underpinnings to those?
Yeah. There’s always some of that, you know? Not necessarily to the narrative, but to the concern. The concern in “Live Oak” is a personal concern. The fact that after you make a big change like I did when I quit drinking and got married, cleaned my act up and stuff, what parts are going to be left and what parts are going to be gone, and that can’t all be positive. So you wonder if the people around you are still going to want to be the people around you in the end and who you’re gonna lose and who you’re going to keep. And out of that, I created a narrative. And “Yvette” is very much the same way. It’s about a child, basically, who’s been abused by her father. I built a narrative out of that, out of people I knew who that’d happened to.
How does “Super 8” fit sort of tucked into an album like “Cover Me Up” and “Different Days” and “New South Wales?”
I don’t know if that’s for me to say, is it? I just wrote it and recorded it. I needed a rock song so I wrote it in about two hours before I went into the studio.
It seems like a celebration of the life that, say, the narrator in “Cover Me Up” is trying to escape.
Yeah, I mean, it’s a rock and roll song and there’s always a little bit of that celebrating debauchery in a rock and roll song. I don’t disagree with that. But you know, there’s a lot to be celebrated. Sometimes bad decisions are the best ones. [laughs] They’re not for me right now. I don’t think they’ll be for me again. But at that point, yeah, I’m glad I did all that stupid shit.
And I understand it’s way too early to ask this, but what do you do to follow a record like this?
You just write real hard. You just sit down and write real hard and you pay a lot attention to it and don’t get rid of your editors. There are people around you who will tell you a song is shit if it’s shit.
And you put in the work. You put in the hours. There’s no magic to it. Just sit down and write.
HE LOVES HER TOO: Jason Isbell on his wife Amanda Shires
There is no harmony without listening and connecting. So it’s a given that Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires have to be on the same page musically as collaborators and sometime tour-mates. But that musical connection is equally important for their marriage, according to Isbell. “It’s like what Roger Ebert said about movies,” he says. “You’re not gonna have a very happy relationship if you don’t enjoy the same movies. It’s the same way with music. She wouldn’t marry me if I had Steely Dan playing at the house all the time. And I like Steely Dan. But that’s one of those things I certainly don’t mind listening to in the headphones if I ever need to.”
An initial bond over similar musical tastes became a friendship that turned into a marriage when the pair wed in February. Some of the material for both of their albums this year came from self-imposed writing time, something they had to do in order to finish the projects. “Probably three or four songs off of my record and three or four songs off of her record came out of those days,” says Isbell, “because we needed to write and we were spending so much time just hanging out and having fun that we decided to separate in the house and not reconvene until we each finished a song.”
Meanwhile, the marriage only served to deepen their ability to communicate as musicians. “People just underestimate marriages now. Your whole world is different if you’re married to somebody. It’s a connection you have that’s different from any other musician that you’re playing with or anything like that. And it’s probably easier to speak musically in a lot of situations because you know each other so well.”
Shires isn’t officially a member of Isbell’s band, and he says direct collaboration is the exception rather than the rule. “As much fun as it is to play music together, that’s completely separate from our marriage,” he says. But he loves getting the chance to be a sideman, and it’s even sweeter getting to support Shires. “It was nice for me to be able to do that with her. The few shows that I’ve done just being her guitar player have been really a lot of fun.” —NZ
JASON ISBELL: A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
Our Artist Of The Year’s career kicked into an immediate high gear when he was drafted into the Drive-By Truckers in 2001 for their A Southern Rock Opera tour, and by the time of his recording debut, on 2003’s Decoration Day, he was such an integral member that he contributed two of that album’s strongest songs, “Outfit” and the title track. The Dirty South (2004) and A Blessing and a Curse (2006) followed, each boasting several eventual Isbell setlist staples (notably “Goddam Lonely Love,” to this day a show-stopper).
Sirens of the Ditch (New West, 2007) Begun prior to his 2007 departure from the Truckers and featuring most of the band guesting, Isbell’s solo debut is rife with character studies and spare-yet-precise arranging. Impressive enough to prompt critical predictions of future greatness.
Live at Twist & Shout 11.16.07 (New West, 2008) A special 6-song Record Store Day limited edition release, this found Isbell now fronting a new band, The 400 Unit, and masterfully reworking three of his Truckers classics, two from Sirens and a low-key but emotional reading of Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic.”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Lightning Rod, 2009) Young Springsteen/Petty comparisons had started to crop up in reviews by now, and Isbell rose to the challenge with a muscular set that nevertheless contained plenty of folkish twang and burnished Southern soul coloring in his rich narratives.
Here We Rest (Lightning Rod, 2011) Isbell’s ongoing musical and lyrical evolution was profound here as he utilized an expanded palette for the former (in particular, his Muscle Shoals soul roots were on display) and a keen understanding of the human condition for the latter. In a review, this writer called it his Darkness On the Edge Of Town; I stand by that assertion.
Live From Alabama (Lightning Rod, 2012) Recorded over two nights on home turf and featuring a horn section on several tracks, it’s a definitive snapshot of Isbell and the 400 Unit at a pivotal point in time. Solo nuggets and Truckers gems comprise the tracklisting—plus a staggering encore of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane.” Memo to fans: if you buy the vinyl, the download card rewards you with digital-only bonus tracks.
Southeastern + “Southeastern Official Bootleg” (Southeastern) If HWR was Isbell’s Darkness, this is his The River. Read our feature to learn more. Oh, and about that “bootleg” notation: fans smart enough to visit selected indie record stores a week or so prior to the album’s official June 11 release were able to purchase a numbered/limited-to-500-copies 180gm vinyl edition featuring old-school bootleg-style cover graphics. My copy is 64, in case you were wondering.
Tributes & Covers: Big Star’s “When My Baby’s Beside Me” (bonus track on “deluxe edition” of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit): A spot-on version that Isbell originally leaked out digitally via his MySpace page… Sing For Your Meat: A Tribute to Guided By Voices (No More Fake Labels, 2011): Isbell and his 400U boys are the odd men out here alongside such indie-rock icons as Lou Barlow, Blitzen Trapper, Elf Power and Flaming Lips, but “Everywhere With Helicopter” is an elegantly waltzing highlight… You Don’t Know Me: Rediscovering Eddy Arnold (Plowboy, 2013): Understated and acoustic, with an accompanying violin, his “Johnny Reb, That’s Me” slots in nicely with fellow country-music aficionados Alejandro Escovedo, Pokey LaFarge and Jason Ringenberg…. High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama (Lightning Rod, 2013): Continuing in the country vein is “Old Flame,” a remarkably poignant duet with John Paul White; other performers include Lucero, JD McPherson, and a talented young lady known to some as Amanda Shires—to others as Mrs. Jason Isbell. —FRED MILLS
These articles originally appeared in issue #14 of BLURT. Photo credits: Glen Rose, Michael Wilson, Erika Goldring, Andy Tennille.