Browsing America’s
record stores with musicians – famous and infamous.




“I’m gonna make
you walk behind me and carry that thing like Buddy Guy’s brother unwrapping his
guitar cord behind him,” Jason Isbell says with a laugh, gesturing to the
digital recorder-and-lapel-mic contraption I’m fiddling with as we wander into
San Francisco’s Amoeba Music. “You’ll just have to follow in my wake.”


If anyone’s
qualified to relate the difficulty of following a tough act, it’s Isbell, the
talented 29-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist from Greenhill, Alabama
who left the Drive-By Truckers in April 2007 to pursue a solo career after
three tremendous albums and five years with the band.


Although fans
questioned his decision to part with the wildly popular Athens, Georgia
rockers, Isbell quietly went about his business, forming a new band – the 400
Unit (bassist Jimbo Hart, guitarist Browan Lollar, keysman Derry deBorja and
drummer Mike Dillon) – to tour behind Sirens
of the Ditch
, a fantastic, 11-song studio debut released in July 2007 on
New West Records that quickly topped many critics’ annual album-of-the-year


“The majority of
that record was done over several years and some of the songs dated back to the
time when I joined the Truckers,” Isbell explains. “These guys I’m playing with
now really didn’t play on that one, which is why I’m excited about getting the
next one out.”


Just as with Sirens of the Ditch, FAME Studios is
playing host to the recording sessions for Isbell’s forthcoming sophomore
effort, which he hopes to release in early 2009. The legendary, Muscle Shoals, AL studio – where the
likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke journeyed to record
– has seen its share of spectacular sessions since it opened in the early ‘60s.


“Here’s another
great, great soul record from down at FAME,” he says, holding up Candi Staton’s
1969 debut I’m Just A Prisoner. “It’s
real good, but then she got married, became Candi Staton Sprewell and started
making religious records. She’s a real Ann Peebles-style soul singer and
probably could have been on Hi Records before she went the religious route, but
this one is an incredible record.”


Soul music –
beyond the classic Atlantic tracks cut in his backyard at FAME under the
watchful eye of the dearly departed Jerry Wexler – has been a defining
influence on Isbell since he was a young boy. You can hear it on a song like
“Hurricanes and Hand Grenades” off his most recent release: Isbell’s channeling
of Ray Charles and The Band’s Richard Manuel is almost uncanny.


“I’ve always
loved Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes,” Isbell says of the ‘70s Philly soul
outfit. “Their biggest hit was “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” but they had a
lot of great songs. Most people outside Philadelphia
couldn’t name anyone in the band except for Teddy Pendergrass. He was the most
famous one of the bunch. But they were together for like 30 years and made some
really good music.”


Certain albums
often serve as cultural barometers and shed insight into the mind of the
listener. Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited? Lady Soul or Aretha Now? The Bends or Ok Computer? For me, one of the best
indications of someone’s musical taste is to ask which of the five albums Stevie
Wonder released in the ‘70s is their favorite.


“Now that’s a
good question,” Isbell replies, rubbing his chin. “It might be Innervisions. That might be my
particular favorite, ‘cause it’s probably the one I’ve listened to the most out
of those. I think it’s got the best songs on it. But you can’t go wrong with
any of them, really. Music of My Mind,
Talking Book…even Secret Life of Plants. They’re all
pretty incredible records. Stevie never gets old for me.”


As big an
influence as soul music has played in his life, Isbell is quick to point out
that great songwriting has always been the focus for him as a musician.


“I listen to
Nick Drake a lot, ‘cause I like the texture of his music,” he says. “Pink Moon is hard to beat. Bryter Layter is really cool too. It’s
really sad music. He’s a great songwriter and a really good guitar player. His
tone is really unique: it sounds like his guitar strings are way off the neck.”


Talk of the
sanctity of song stirs a memory in Isbell, who excuses himself to search for an
album by Iain Matthews of Fairport Convention.


“Check this one
out right here,” he says, handing me Matthews’ 1972 country-folk album Journeys from Gospel Oak. “It’s an ok
record with three or four songs that are pretty good. Some of it is just bad,
like the ‘Tribute to Hank Williams.’ But this song “Polly” is one of the most
brilliant songs I know. It’s just gorgeous.”


Despite his
penchant for older music (“It’s hard to buy vinyl on the road without it
getting damaged. I’m still waiting on that fiberglass-graphite blend of vinyl
that doesn’t warp in the van.”), Isbell says that’s he does draw inspiration
from a few of his contemporaries.


“I listen to a
lot of Ray LaMontagne. I like his two records a whole lot. In fact, I might be
one of the few people out there that thinks his second record was better than
his first,” he says. “Fionn Regan is a cool little Irish fella on Lost Highway. I saw
him for the first time out here in San
Francisco when he opened up for us at Café du Nord.
He’s a real talented songwriter. Kinda weird, but his record is really good.”


“I don’t like
Alicia Keys,” Isbell says, spotting the sultry soulstress’ newest release,
2007’s As I Am. “Her new songs sound
so run-of-the-mill to me and her old stuff that was supposed to be so good was
just over-sung. All these melismatic singers who do the vocal acrobatics just
drive me crazy. Joss Stone’s the same way. I like for people to just belt it
out. I dig Amy Winehouse, but she just can’t seem to get to the gigs. It’s not
like you have to be sober when you show up. Trust me: you can play drunk if you
want to. You just have to be there and play…”


“And not get
caught smoking crack on video with Pete Doherty,” I offer.


“Yeah,” Isbell
says with a crooked grin. “Funny story: I met that guy once. I lit a cigarette
for him and then realized that I was in danger of being photographed hanging
out with Pete Doherty, so I took off. Just split.”



[Photo Credit:
Andy Tennille]


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