The new album from Jason Isbell and his backing band will hit stores on Feb. 17th. This new offering has his fans clamoring for more of his introspective, yet distinctly Southern lyrics and exquisite instrumentation that was introduced on 2007’s “Sirens Of The Ditch”. Isbell first gained notoriety when he joined the Drive By Truckers after they released “Southern Rock Opera”, an album devoted to all things Alabama. “Opera” was the album that helped to break the Truckers to a wider audience. During that tour, and on subsequent albums until he left the band, Jason contributed to the songwriting in a prodigious manner, no mean feat for a new member to a band that already boasted the creative talent of Patterson Hood.
On the eve of the release of “Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit”, we took an afternoon to talk about his new record, his new band, and his leaving the DBT. Isbell is a charter member of a new batch of Southern troubadours that includes Justin Townes Earle and Willem Maker. Not all dreams end in San Quentin, some die hard on lonely roads in the heart of Dixie. That is exactly the point of these songwriters, because Southerners own their own brand of misery that never sees the West Coast.
But not all of the tunes are sad bastard offerings. In fact, some of the music can be pretty damn uplifting. With that in mind, we shared a phone line with Jason Isbell.
Q. How about some background?
A. I was born on the Alabama/Tennessee line in Greenhill, Alabama. My parents still live there, my mom lives in Greenhill, and my dad lives in Killen. They’re the only people in my family who aren’t musicians. Some of my family were semi-professional in their younger days. But my parents were very instrumental in my foundation as an artist, mainly because they had so many records at the house. My dad would come home each day from work and put on a record to help clear his head. He’s really young and a fan of 70’s arena rock, like Queen and Free.
Q. Did you take advantage of the proximity to Muscle Shoals?
A. I did. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I started hanging around the guys and their bars until I began to play there. But I was already playing without their influence. I started playing guitar when I was five or six. My grandparents got me started when they stuck a mandolin in my hands because my hands weren’t big enough for a guitar. I started writing when I was thirteen or fourteen.
Q. It seems like you were proficient at an early age. Did that lead to you joining the Drive By Truckers?
A. We’re from the same area. I knew David Hood, Patterson’s dad, pretty well. We had mutual friends. They had just finished “Southern Rock Opera”, and hadn’t toured behind it. They were playing acoustic shows in town, and I accompanied them on those shows when I got home from college. When the spot came open, I just went with it.
Q. How would you characterize your time in that band?
A. It was quality work. We achieved critical acclaim, and that was nice, but we tried our best to be honest with our fans.
Q. Is there an open door for you to ever return?
A. I still talk to them, but I don’t know if either party would be interested. I don’t think it is in the cards, but I won’t say ever say never.
Q. The song “Dress Blues”, from your last record was great. Did you know Matthew Conner, the subject of the song?
A. We went to the same high school. We didn’t run in the same circles, he was quite a bit younger than me. However, I do know his wife very well. I also know his family and friends. It was very sad to me, and I felt it was a story that needed to be told. I wanted to focus on the impact that something like that has on a small town, and how that type of shockwave reverberates through the community.
Q. Did you get any reaction from his family after they heard the song?
A. They were really, really glad that the song happened. They’re very supportive of what I’m doing. The town dedicated a stretch of highway to him last year, and I played that. We’ve done a couple of benefit shows for an organization they started for injured Marines.
Q. Do you have any other stories about Alabama and their natives that you can still write about?
A. Most of my songs are based on actual people that I know from this area. I can mine that forever, there certainly is no lack of inspiration there.
Q. Any other Alabama writers you admire?
A. I like Rick Bragg, I missed him on his signing tour. I was on the road. I like McCarthy, I consider him to be a Southern writer. I like Larry McMurtry, he’s more of a Western writer. He’s also a gifted musician. He’s on my label. I like Larry Brown.
Q. Would you ever be interested in writing books or short stories?
A. That’s what I went to college for. I’ve written quite a few stories, none that I’ve let out. If I ever got the time to write something in a longer form, I’d love to do that. But that’s a harrowing undertaking. If you could write a page a day, in a year you might have a book.
Q. Let’s talk about the new record.
A. It’s about my life for the past couple of years. I changed bands, got a divorce, and moved about a half an hour from where I was living. I tried to keep it as upbeat as I could, but there is a fair amount of darkness on there. Not that I’m in that space now, but you need a place to talk about those things. It’s my way of explaining the situation to myself. It served me well, and the recording was a lot of fun.
Q. Are any of the guys in your band from Alabama?
A. Yeah, all of them except the keyboard player, he’s from Baltimore.
Q. Was any of this record done in Muscle Shoals?
A. We tracked it at Jimmy Nutt’s studio. He was the engineer at FAME, where we recorded the album.
Q. What is your main goal right now?
A. Raising awareness for the new record. Getting ready to go on the road for six to eight months. Don’t get me wrong, I love touring, but I miss my family.
Q. What are your goals for 2009?
A. I want to stop smoking. I’d like to produce more. I did a couple of records I’m really proud of.