Jason Isbell: Tied To The Mast

By: Dennis Cook

Don't call what your wearing an outfit. Don't ever say your car is broke.
Don't sing with a fake British accent. Don't act like your family's a joke.
Have fun, but stay clear of the needle, call home on your sister's birthday.
Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus. Don't give it away.

From "Outfit" off Drive-By Truckers' Decoration Day


Jason Isbell
It's not easy to write an anthem. Summing up broad concepts in a way that touches us individually is a songwriting art that eludes most. One can string a lot of big ideas on some power chords but listeners can quickly tell the real stuff from shinola. Jason Isbell managed this rare feat his first time at bat with the Drive-By Truckers. 2003's Decoration Day marked Isbell's debut with the band, and "Outfit" introduced this hyper gifted singer-songwriter-guitarist to the world with a tune that harnessed his daddy's advice to a melody that ranks with the best Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Black Crowes ever mustered. Isbell's other contribution to that record - a nasty bit of vitriol that reminds us the dead don't always stay in the ground - was chosen as the title cut.

In no small way, Isbell helped move the Truckers from a cult darling to the critical and commercial going concern they are today. Yet, even in the beginning there was a degree of distance between the parties. Most tracks on Decoration Day are credited to the whole band with lyrics by Mike Cooley or Patterson Hood, while Isbell's songs are credited solely to him. Jump to 2007 and that distance is now official. After two more hugely well-received DBT albums Isbell is striking out on his own - a parting of ways Hood calls "extremely amicable" – to release his solo debut, Sirens of the Ditch [out July 9 on New West Records], a stoned soul picnic that serves up all the best parts of the Southern musical spectrum, blending a fabulously tough rock attack with a whole lot of sway. Put another way, this music has hips and a wicked grin.

"The issue now is a lot of people who make rock 'n' roll music don't have the confidence in making soulful music that they used to have," says Isbell. "I think confidence is missing in general in rock 'n' roll right now. You look at Humble Pie or The Faces or even the Beatles, and the music they made white people wouldn't dare try to do right now. They believed they could pull it off. Sometimes you can't but there's a certain accident in there when you go for it and miss that can sometimes be very beautiful. I think it was Duane Allman who said it's never the note you play that's right or wrong, it's the one right after it."

Laughing At Crying Time

"I like writing songs that sound happy about subjects that aren't. That's very interesting to me – uplifting sad songs. That's a big part of soul music in general, writing songs that have a musical nature that really lifts you up but the subject matter is really dark and painful," observes Isbell, who's just begun his first solo tour with his new backing band, The 400 Unit, made up of Jimbo Hart (bass), Ryan Tillery (drums) and Browan Lollar (guitar). "They're all guys from the Muscle Shoals area around my age that I've known for a few years, playing around bars," he says. "We've been friends for a while so it was pretty easy for me to pick the people I most wanted to work with, and luckily they were available."


Jason Isbell Band
"[Sirens is] all over the place stylistically. They're songs I've been working on for a long time, and they're reflective of the kind of writer I am, right now. Some of them definitely would not have worked for the Truckers," offers Isbell. "I'm just trying to write something that I would listen to or something different than what we already have in the canon. I'm pretty much trying to satisfy my own personal tastes. I listen to a whole lot of different kinds of music and I figure if I can make myself happy then it should work out pretty well."

Isbell mentions Ryan Adams and Gillian Welch as contemporaries he admires but then also sings the praises of Gomez. His tastes veer wildly from what most people probably assume a former Drive-By Trucker might have in his tape deck.

"I love that Amy Winehouse record. I think that's amazing. I always find myself going back to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel, which I listen to three or four times a week every week. Of course, I love Centro-matic. I love everything they do. They seem like the kind of people who'd make this music, too," Isbell says. "I really like it when you run across people whose music seems like a natural extension of their body. Honestly, I think the best artists are the ones it's hardest to tell what their influences are because they mix them together in such a strange way."

Continue reading for page II of our Jason Isbell feature...


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