LEAP OF FAITH Jason Isbell

The Alabama rocker holds forth on soul
music,  songwriting, his brilliant new
album, and the timeless allure of “big ol’ women.”

 

BY FRED
MILLS

 

Dateline: Austin, SXSW 2011: Jason Isbell is onstage at the
Wednesday afternoon American Songwriters day party, wielding an acoustic guitar
and joined by fiddler player Amanda Shires. Together the duo previews selected
tracks from Isbell’s forthcoming album Here
We Rest
(out April 12 on Lightning Rod) – notably “Alabama Pines” and
“Codeine,” for which on the album Shires guested – alongside choice nuggets
culled from Isbell’s previous releases, 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch and 2008’s Jason
Isbell and the 400 Unit
, plus a couple of crowd favorites from his Drive-By
Truckers days. It’s a powerful, emotional set, and the tunes take on fresh
nuance and additional resonance by virtue of their acoustic rendering.

 

Yet the
lingering impression I take away from this particular show – Isbell will also
perform several more times during SXSW with his full band, The 400 Unit – has
less to do with the music itself and more with the quiet charisma that I witnessed
unfolding. I’ve long held (and have stated publicly on more than one occasion)
that since his departure from the Truckers in 2007, he’s steadily been turning
into one of America’s
most gifted young songwriters. This afternoon, with the room stuffed to the
gills with young and old Isbell fans hanging onto every word, frequently
singing them back to him, and enthusiastically encouraging him and Shires song
by song, line by line, it’s almost possible to close one’s eyes and imagine
this was some young folk troubadour onstage in Greenwich Village or the Bay
Area back in the ‘60s, in the midst of launching a career that would push
forward through the decades en route to being judged iconic for all time.

 

Rewind to late January: It’s snowing like hell outside so
I’m sequestered indoors with the fireplace going and an advance copy of Here We Rest for company. I glance up at
the wall an Isbell poster from a summer ’08 tour hangs; Isbell had signed it
for my young son so it naturally enjoys pride of place in the room. The legend
on the poster reads, in part, “acclaimed songwriter and guitarist formerly of
the Drive-By Truckers.” That gets me to thinking: once an artist enters a new
phase, how long should he expect the former life to shadow (or overshadow) the
present one? With this new album, I suspect, the answer can be found in the
songs and the sonics themselves.

 

Isbell
and his road-seasoned Alabama combo – guitarist Browan Lollar, bassist Jimbo
Hart, drummer Chad Gamble, keyboardist Derry deBorja – have crafted a record
that’s subtle yet diverse, one imbued with an understated power. (Much of it
was recorded at the legendary Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals.) From beefy
rockers like Stones/Petty amalgam “Go It Alone” and New Orleans-styled
chooglers like “Never Could Believe” to the luminous, reflective “Stopping By”
and the aforementioned fiddle-powered “Codeine,” which is lyrically dark but
musically upbeat, the record scores on multiple levels, laying a firm
groundwork for eventually attaining “classic” status if there’s any justice in
the world.

 

Anxious
to get Isbell’s take on all this and sundry other matters, I ring him up at his
Alabama home.
Apropos of nothing, rather than snowing down there it’s pouring rain, and at
one point Isbell even has to pause the interview to go move some furniture away
from under a leak in his roof…. [Note: go
here
for a review of Isbell’s previous album, and go here to read our 2008
interview with him.
]

 

***

 

BLURT: I know that Sirens took a good deal of time to put
together, and then Jason Isbell and the
400 Unit
came together relatively quickly. What went into the making of Here We Rest?

JASON
ISBELL: This was a pretty quick project too, really. 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. And I wouldn’t want to do that,
to tell you the truth. 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.

 

Are you the kind of songwriter who
can, say, create on the spot, or even write on the road, or do you have to
sequester yourself off some place, alone in a room?

I can
write on the road, but I don’t like to. Not as much as I do when I’m at home
because I don’t have as much time to find a space. But sometimes a song’ll come
to you and it’ll go away if you don’t write it down, so wherever you are you
have to try to take advantage of that. And I don’t really ask for help that
much either, as far as songs go. I have collaborated with a few people before,
and there are very few people I can collaborate with and really feel like it
was mutually beneficial. I’m just not that good at that, although I know some
people are great at it. I can collaborate on any other aspect of a song, but
not the writing of it.

 

Your songs have always had a
conversational quality, which suggests that you’re a good listener and you can later
tap those conversations for dialogue, almost like a script writer or a
novelist. Do you write like that, or do your lines come to you more
spontaneously?

It works
both ways. Some songs I have to spend a lot of time on, and some songs just pop
out. “Codeine” on the new album was one that took me about as long to write as
it did to physically write it down. Sometimes that happens; “Dress Blues” [from
Sirens of the Ditch] was like that. Some of ‘em just pop
out. But there have been a lot of songs that I’ve poured over. I won’t say I’ve
spent as much time as, say, Leonard Cohen on one of his songs, with notebooks
and notebooks and spending a year revising one damn song. I don’t have patience
for that.

 

 There’s a great story about Cohen when he was
trying to finish “Hallelujah” and how he was literally beating his fists
against the floor of his apartment just trying to wrench the song out of
himself.

That
doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. But lord knows, it works – that’s one of
the ten most-covered songs, ever. It’s an amazing song.

 

Tell me a couple of songs on the
album you’re particularly proud of.

Well,
let’s see… I really like “Alabama Pines”. The production on it kind of reminds
me of Paul Simon, especially the rhythm section. We’re all big fans of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, and that was recorded
down here with the Muscle Shoals folks. I like the way the melody works on that
song, and a couple of little lyrical techniques in there I think worked.

 

 The protagonist in that song seems like he’s
on the verge of losing everything.

Yeah.
He’s fairly down and out, and it was really timely when we went in to record
that. It was the first song we recorded for the album, and one of the guys in
the band had lost a friend to suicide that day – and had found out while I was
sitting in the control room playing it for the band for the first time. He got
the call and it was really difficult for him; I sat down and asked him if he
needed to go, but he said he needed to stay here and work and keep his mind off
it. It was really brave of him, but it was a tough time for him and it was
really odd because of that particular song.

 

 You mentioned “Codeine” came easily. Although
it’s really upbeat and tuneful, here’s some real pain in that song – lines like
“she should be home by now but she ain’t” and “one of friends has taken her in
and feeding her codeine.” Is that a metaphor for a friend providing comfort and
shelter for your woman, or is it literally codeine that he’s feeding her?

It, ah…
it is a metaphor of sorts. I changed the drugs to protect the, um, guilty. [laughs] It’s not literal, I don’t guess.
But it’s a damn good word, and it just came to me I guess. I can’t say that I
meant it to be a metaphor; I can’t say that I meant it to be anything. It just
popped out.

 

In that one you rattle off a list
of things that you don’t much care for, including a great line about not liking
the sound a woman makes right after her heart breaks.

Oh, thank
you! That comes from this thing I used to do in college. I’d sit on the porch
of the house and people would walk past while I was playing this one recurring
song called “You Know What I Hate?” – I would make up lines on the spot, get
drunk and make fun of people walking down the street. And I don’t think I
consciously remembered that when I started listing things [during the writing
of “Codeine”], but once I got about halfway through I thought to myself, man,
that sounds like my college joke song.

 

Somebody will now hear the new
record and remember you playing that other tune all those years ago…

Somebody’s
gonna get a big kick out of that! Yeah, some of my buddies from school: “Man,
you remember that song you used to do…” That’s a fun song to do.

 

 “Stopping By” is very reflective, sad and
wistful.  Who’s that about? Anybody
specific?

There are
a couple of people in there. But it is about a girl I know fairly well, that
didn’t really have a family. “Daisy Mae” kind of deals with that too, not
completely; that one gets a little more into the abusive side of things.
“Stopping By” is really about somebody who is trying to reconnect, for better
or for worse, with the father they didn’t have growing up.

 

 You’ve got another memorable line in that one
too: “I think the best of me is still standing in the doorway.” That paints
such a picture.

Oh yeah.
I appreciate that. You know, she told me that story, how she was standing in
the doorway and counting cars, waiting on him to come home.

 

The whole thing about listening to
people: do you think you’re a good listener and are able to turn these
conversations into something more universal?

I think
it has to be something you do as a writer if you want to keep enough material.
You have to pay attention to what people around you are saying, and you have to
try to empathize with those folks, try to get inside their lives a little bit.
Because a lot of people who aren’t necessarily the most creative will still say
the most poignant things off the cuff. I love it when I hear somebody who’s
just falling down drunk sitting at the bar and they something out of nowhere
and I think, man, that’s such a great line.

 

I grew up in a little textile mill
town, at the NC-SC border, and there were always people around who weren’t well
schooled or “sophisticated” in the classic sense, but who could come out with
some very profound truths if you just took the time to listen to them and talk
with them. That’s what I tell my son: always listen to people, don’t talk over
them. Not that he’ll remember my advice…

People
get wonderful things in their brains that a formal education can’t necessarily
put there. No, he’ll remember it, if not now, later. I was like that with my
parents. But the older I get, the closer I get to them, and I realize that the
things they said were very true.

        My dad is someone who just enlightens
me all the time. He went to high school but I don’t think he paid much
attention while he was there; he graduated on the day that the movie Dazed and Confused was set, and all his
friends were all the people in that movie. Over the years I’ve really thought
back on that. Particularly on “Outfit” [from Drive-By Truckers’ Decoration Day], I took a lot of those
things for that song. But he’s just really a thinker. He has always done
painting, construction and maintenance work, never went to college, but man, he
can sit down with anybody and hold his own.

 

Did you ever go through that
protracted period of not being able to talk with your parents?

Yeah, I
was an asshole some when I was a teenager. I guess everyone kinda is. But it
never got to the point to where we didn’t… I’ve always lived here. I went to
college in Memphis for four years, but I’ve
always been an Alabama
resident. I didn’t move to Athens
when the rest of the Truckers did. Obviously I’ve spent a lot of time on the
road.

       You know, my folks have always been real
supportive of me as a musician. I think they realized early on that I had
completely decided 100% what I wanted to do in my life. This happened when I
was probably 9 years old, so they were like, “Well, hell, we’re not going to be
able to tell him any different now…”

        I
think my mother was upset when I went to college, which was a strange thing,
but I understand it now. But when I was 18 and went off, she said to me, you
could be playing now, you could be writing and singing and doing all these
things, and I don’t know if it’s necessary for you to go to college at all.
Which wasn’t a selfish thing on her part: she just knew I wanted to make music.
So I sorta put that on the backburner when I went to school; I went with the
intention of reading a lot, to make my writing better. And those four years,
man, if I was doing at 18 what I was doing at 22, I probably wouldn’t be alive!
[laughs] I’m glad I had those years
mostly of just beer and books, because after that, the beer got a lot…
stronger! When I got out of school I started smoking a lot of pot, and I still
love it but I can’t smoke it anymore because I have to sing every song every
night, and even if I smoke when I’m off the road, I’ll keep it up when I do get
on the road and it will just destroy my throat.

 

 What were you listening to back in high school
and college? I hear a lot of country and soul in addition to rock influences on
your albums, but I’m thinking that when you were a teenager in the ‘90s, maybe
country and soul weren’t all that fashionable. [Note: Isbell was born in 1979.]

It wasn’t
fashionable, no, although it was popular here. And soul, a lot of it got made
here. 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.

       And then in college I was listening to a
lot of Dylan, a lot of Springsteen, a lot of Neil Young – and a whole lot of
the discs that were cut here, like Arthur Alexander, Wilson Pickett, old Aretha
Franklin.

 

 And you’ve got that one soul cover on the new
album, “Heart On a String”…

Yeah, by Candi
Staton. That was cut here in the ‘70s. It got released a few years ago by EMI,
and it was like the Bettye LaVette record [that was recorded] down here back in
the day and had a limited release or never came out at all because she had
trouble with her label or something. That damn Candi Staton record, that’s one
of my favorite soul records. She wasn’t as big a star as Aretha, but I think
she was every bit as good a singer.

 

 On that song you have a quality in your voice
that suggests you’d been up late listening to the Atlantic soul boxes or
something

I listen
to that stuff a whole lot! A friend of mine, Mickey Buckins, was one of the
writers on that song. He lives down here. Mickey was a guy who really got me
and some of my friends started. Chris Tompkins, my best friend in high school,
was in there. He went on to write that Carrie Underwood song that was so big
[“Before He Cheats”].

        There’s something really special about soul
music. 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.

 

Have you performed with any of the
classic or contemporary soul artists?

Yeah, I
played with Bettye LaVette; we both played a tribute to The Who at Carnegie
Hall [in 2010], and then later we were at an after-party and I got up with some
folks to back her up. That was really great. And it was funny because I was
playing with these great New York
session players, but we were playing old soul songs and I had to call out the
numbers to these guys, these seasoned veterans, because I was the guy from
Muscle Shoals.

      [Years earlier] I also did a benefit for
Arthur Alexander – after he’d died, but amazing at it may seem, his family
couldn’t afford a grave stone for him. It happens to a lot of those cats, and
this is a guy who was covered by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

        And Booker T also played with us. Right
after I left the Truckers [in 2007] but before Booker did any work with the
Truckers, I introduced him to that band. I was out in Austin with my band doing our first run of
shows, at South By Southwest, and Booker wanted to sit in and play with us. We
got to talking and I told him how I’d been in a band with David Hood’s son, so
he started looking into that and wound up working with the Truckers.

 

I wanted to bring up the subject
of the Truckers, actually, however indelicately. On a poster I have from one of
your solo tours it prominently mentions “formerly of the Drive-By Truckers.” Do
you still see that as a common reference to you, or have we gotten to the point
yet where folks don’t need the shorthand?

I don’t
see it as much as I used to. I don’t mind it, but if it happens every time I do
anything it can get a bit frustrating. But I’m really proud of the work we did
together, I think we did some great stuff, and I think that’s a great band to
be associated with.

 

Still, with one solo album under
your belt and two albums with the new band, maybe your name should stand on its
own?

Yeah, I’m
kinda hoping that’s the case. That’s an issue of how other people look at me,
and I try not to care too much about that. As long as they’re listening! But I
do find more people now – in fact I ran into someone the other day who was a huge
fan and had never even heard of the Truckers. I said, “Cool – and you should
also listen to the Drive-By Truckers band!” [laughs]

 

Are you still in contact with
those guys, or do you run into them any?

Yeah, I
still talk to them. I sent Patterson 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.

 

You spent 7, 8 years of your life
with the band: does anything stand out in your mind about what you learned or
took away from the experience?

Yeah,
there were a lot of things. Just touring and playing and trying to figure out
what it took to survive on the road, which can be a big deal. I’d never toured
before that. A lot of things about songwriting, too, that I took from
Patterson. He’s a great writer, and I guess for lack of a better word, there’s
a darkness in a lot of his songs that I wouldn’t have had otherwise – that is,
I wouldn’t have been able to think about the darker side of life as well if
those records hadn’t had such a high body count.

 

“High body count”: that’s an
understatement.

Yeah. [laughs] We used to joke about that and
go back and count how many people died on the Truckers records. I don’t think
anybody died on mine, nobody I can think of. This may be the first project I’ve
worked on that none of the characters were harmed in the making of it! [laughs]

 

Yet some of your characters seem
to be dying inside. There’s different kinds of death. Sometimes a sudden,
abrupt death might even be preferable to a slow withering away…

You’re
right. Sometimes, sometimes. But I think they’re also filled with a lot of
hope. Like, the guy in “Alabama Pines” is not doing well at all. In his mind,
he’s gone, but I think there’s some hope there for him too, and he’ll probably
wind up making it home okay. And the girl in “Stopping By” is, for better or
for worse, trying to reconnect and try to reestablish that relationship. So
there’s some hope for those folks.

      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.

 

 Years ago I interviewed Patti Smith, and one
thing she told me, when I asked her what is the role of the artist, is that sometimes
it’s just to be there and offer a shoulder to lean on – the artist can let the
people listening know that there is someone who has gone through this and understands.

She is a
smart lady. That ability to empathize is a mighty valuable thing to have.

 

Maybe people who hear your album
can take that away with them too. A lot of songwriters haven’t quite mastered
that, however – their songs are all about ME! ME! ME! And stringing together
catchy words.

That’s
for sure. I wonder how these folks conceive themselves? But some of them 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.

        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.

 

You know, that’s the second time
in this conversation you’ve mentioned Springsteen. And I kept thinking of Darkness on the Edge of Town when I was
listening to your new album.

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

 

Some of the characters in your
songs are the modern day equivalent of people like the guy in Springsteen’s “Badlands” who’s out there on the edge, trying to figure
out how to hang on.

Yeah,
yeah. You know, I’ve been through those times myself. I had a tough year, and I
think a lot of people around me did too. A lot of people in my family had a
real tough year. 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.

 

Last thing, then, because this
sort of ties in to what we’ve been talking about. Do you still remember the
very first song you wrote, and if so, can you remember how were you feeling
when you wrote it?

I do
remember the first one! I was probably 10, 11, 12 years old, somewhere in
there, and the lyrics, I wrote my own lyrics to an old jazz standard. I think
it was “Southside Shuffle” maybe, Duke Ellington or something, and I wrote
lyrics to it – it was about a “big ol’ woman.” [laughs] That’s what it was about! And I remember my parents reading
it and being, ah… really impressed.

 

 Well, you gotta love the big ol’ women!

Yeah,
love the big ol’ women! And of course they were laughing. They thought it was
pretty hilarious that their 11 year old son was writing lyrics to a jazz
standard and it was about a big ol’ woman.

        And I remember this too: I had baseball
practice that day, and I folded the song up and put it on top of my books, in
the dugout. One of the other guys on the baseball team got it, picked it up and
read it out loud to the rest of the guys. And they all made fun of me.

 

Aw man, that’s cold…

Well, at
that time it kinda sucked. But I’ve seen those guys since, especially the guy
who picked it up and read it. And it’s a much different relationship now. [laughs] Matter of fact, he’s married to
a big ol’ woman. [laughs again]

 

There is justice in the world.

And you
know, the song means more now to him than ever.

 

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