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...

I'm in a phase where I'm into working very hard on the road, doing a lot of shows, traveling a bunch, and I don't necessarily think their priorities were in the same order as mine. Not to say either way is wrong but they're having kids now and settling down. I'm not ready to do that.

-Jason Isbell on his split from the Truckers


Alone Again Naturally

A lot of factors went into the decision to move on from the Drive-By Truckers, not the least of which was the dissolution of his marriage to bassist Shonna Tucker. The pair continued to play in the band after their divorce but such situations are complicated at best and just added to Isbell's itch to go his own way.

Jason Isbell
"As far as the kind of music we were making I think I was moving in a different direction, and just the whole atmosphere surrounding the band didn't help, where we weren't always having the best time on the road. It was time for something new for them and me, too. It seemed like the appropriate time for me to put all my energy into this," explains Isbell. "That band is a really great thing - always has been and hopefully will be for a long, long time - but, I'm in a phase where I'm into working very hard on the road, doing a lot of shows, traveling a bunch, and I don't necessarily think their priorities were in the same order as mine. Not to say either way is wrong but they're having kids now and settling down. I'm not ready to do that."

It's hard to imagine new tunes like "Chicago Promenade," which sounds more like The Hold Steady or Marah, fitting on a DBT record. "Even the last two songs I recorded with those guys, 'Daylight' and 'Don't Be So Easy On Yourself,' were kind of pushing it anyway. 'Daylight' was very close to something they wouldn't have normally done without me," says Isbell.

There's rootsy purity to the Truckers' aesthetic, folks playing instruments well on good songs, that didn't embrace Isbell's growing interest in sonic experimentation and production techniques.

Jason Isbell
"I've always been interested but now I'm forcing my way through. I like the idea of spending a lot of time making records. The record and the live show are two different things. I like studio trickery. I like to get in the studio and tinker. Sure, I like albums where everybody sits around and we bang it out – and I'll make plenty of those in the future – but right now I'm really interested in the different quality of sounds you can get in a room with good equipment," Isbell enthuses. "There's some crazy stuff going on in Sirens. I experimented with EBows, different amp/guitar combinations and mic placements. You can get really strange sounds just by putting the microphone in a certain place. Like on 'Brand New Kind Of Actress' there's a whole lot of stuff that sounds like reverse guitar but none of it's in reverse, I did all of it in real time using an EBow and a slide."

Lest anyone think there's a great divide between Isbell and his former bandmates, it's worth noting Patterson Hood co-produced Sirens and DBT alumni including longtime producer David Barbe, drummer Brad Morgan, keyboardist Spooner Oldham, Hood's father legendary Muscle Shoals bassist David Hood and even his ex-wife Tucker all contributed to the album.

The Touring Life

Rather than splitting frontman duties three ways, Isbell is now in the spotlight full-time. "It takes a different physical constitution," says Isbell. "I've had to get my voice a bit stronger, and I think I'm going to have to quit smoking, which I'm not too awful happy about. I just don't want to think of myself as a non-smoker!"

Jason Isbell
"There's a lot of real high points [to touring] and a lot of things that happen that are way more interesting than my life would be if I'd stayed home and worked a regular job, but, that said, it can be extremely exhausting. Sometimes you feel like you're just not going to make it to the next city or show but you do it anyway. I guess that's the nature of the beast. You're trying to do the best you can do every night, and make 'em all different, all interesting. It's like being on vacation and taking a test every time you get to Disney World."

"We do it different every night but we don't usually make a setlist," continues Isbell. "Sometimes we do because if I don't have the songs written down to look at I'll think ahead while I'm playing and that takes my focus off what I'm doing at the time. You have to be in the moment. I think it's very important to do that."

Asked about cover tunes with the 400 Unit, he says, "We've been doing 'Please Be With Me' off Clapton's 461 Ocean Boulevard. It's by a guy named Scott Boyer, who was in a band called Cowboy on Capricorn [Records] in the early '70s. He's a good friend of ours who lives right down the road and plays guitar for Leon Russell. We'll also do some Thin Lizzy once in a while. Someone needs to. We do a pretty mean 'Jailbreak' [laughs]."

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

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.
-Jason Isbell

The Southern Thing

"It's in the subject matter and the way I approach recording and playing music. It's just gonna be there. I didn't choose to be from the South but I'm gonna have to deal with it, one way or another. It winds up in there, and I'm proud of that," says the Greenville, Alabama native. "I think Southern rock is almost a redundancy. Even my favorite artists who aren't from the South try to sound that way sometimes. I don't necessarily think what the Truckers do is Southern rock."

Isbell & Hood :: Drive-By Truckers
2005 by Dave Vann
Given how the Truckers frequently trot out New York poet-rocker Jim Carroll's "People Who Died" it's clear there's more to them than moonshine and chitlins.

"That should let people know you're not Molly Hatchet [laughs]. I think what the Truckers were doing, and are still doing, is exploring the more interesting, darker stories from the South that don't usually end up in Southern rock," comments Isbell. "That's what Southern Rock Opera is all about. People have a hard time understanding framework when you're making an album. They can understand it in a novel or a poem but if you're singing a song and you say 'I' or 'me' people think it's you. That's kind of hard to come to terms with as a writer. If you grew up listening to Randy Newman and things like that then you know the narrator isn't always trustworthy. I don't know if he emerges much in his songs. There's always a little bit about yourself in every song but I don't think you ever hear Randy Newman talk about Randy Newman."

It's this kind of observation that makes one hesitate to read too much autobiography into a Sirens gem like "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades" [the only things strong enough to get a woman off the narrator's mind]. If this were a vinyl release "Hurricanes" would kick off a killer "Side B" of a very complete, thoughtfully sequenced album, despite the four year journey it took to completion.

"CDs don't really work that way anymore. It was the one time when the stoned guy on the couch is gonna have to get up and go over to the record player, so you better give him something worth getting up for [laughs]. Consistency is not something that's as valued as it used to be. People are looking for singles more than entire records made of quality. Even some of my favorite artists are guilty of that. There's a lot of filler on records today," laments Isbell.

Jason Isbell
Another thing one picks up on with Sirens is all the new places Isbell goes as a vocalist, showing a range his Truckers work only hinted at, and happily recalling swamp master Tony Joe White in places.

"That's definitely something I was going for, most obviously on 'Down In A Hole,' but there's lots of places I was trying to get [White's] familiarity between the artist and the audience," he says. "One of the drummers on the record, Mike Dillon [Les Claypool, GoGo Jungle], was doing a session with Tony Joe around the same time we were doing [Sirens]. Mike was in an isolated booth behind glass and Tony Joe was in the main room playing guitar and singing. And Mike was doing an upstroke thing on the snare drum that kind of echoed what Tony Joe was doing on the guitar. They went through a couple passes and Tony Joe turned around, slid the glass door open, and said, 'Hey, that ain't right. That ain't ever right.' [laughs]."

Besides a little sonic overlap, Isbell shares White's indestructibly sturdy craftsmanship, a solidity and truthfulness that gives his music long legs. Though only just getting to his first album under his own name, Isbell strikes one as a musical lifer who has the best interest of our ears at heart.

"You've got to be honest with the people listening to your music" says Isbell, "because they'll figure it out if you're not."

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mhc10 Thu 7/12/2007 06:47PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

Got the album on Tuesday and it's everything I expected and then some. Love Jason with the DBT, but happy for him that he is going out on his own. Saw him play an in-store performance in May and kicked some major ass. Can't wait till Louisville.
Go get the album!!!!!!

Chaloupka starstarstarstarstar Thu 7/12/2007 11:43PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Can't wait to see the 400 Unit in Denver!!

aquariumdrunk starstarstarstarstar Fri 7/13/2007 07:26AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Ditto, man.

I think the Larimer is the ideal venue for 'em.

dannymo Fri 7/13/2007 07:29AM
Show -4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!
kellerisafeller Fri 7/13/2007 08:23AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


i love this guy..ive met him backstage plenty times with the rest of DBT and he is a badass with and witout dbt!!

Summer starstarstarstar Fri 7/13/2007 11:55AM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


He is one of the best new song writers today. The last track on the album is amazing. Already seen two shows of the tour and the 400 unit is awesome as well. I am expecting big things.

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstarstar Fri 7/13/2007 01:12PM
+2 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

If u cannot say anything nice, do not say.........

kaiserbun starstarstarstarstar Fri 7/13/2007 02:44PM
+4 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

this guy is really good, nice article. i love him quoting the duane allman line as well, that's always been one of my favorite quotes from a musician. it would be cool if they wrote up a story about the legacy of duane allman on here. not enough people realize how badass he was.

willm1 Fri 7/13/2007 04:16PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


yeah im listening to the new album right now it kicks ass. i have always loved isbell i wish he was still in the truckers but wish him the greatest luck on his own.

Putnameter starstarstarstarstar Mon 7/16/2007 01:32PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


I saw Isbell play his Plan 9 in store performance the other day and it was fuckin brilliant. Awesome singer, awesome guitarist and awesome songwriter! By God hes got soul...keep pickin'

D14 starstarstarstarstar Mon 7/16/2007 01:33PM
+3 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Talk about honest. Isbell will give it to ya everytime. I haven't seen a lot of hype about this album, but it deserves everything it gets. Looking forward to seeing him in Nashville yet again.

MaseBase starstarstarstarstar Wed 7/18/2007 02:21PM
+1 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Just checked out the album and I really dig it. Some of the songs really have a similar sound to Slaid Cleaves... very nice. I'm not a huge DBT fan, but think this is a great album.

RothburyWithCheese starstarstarstarstar Wed 7/25/2007 02:28PM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Saw him at SXSW. Wonderful! Cant wait for the Mohawk show!!

Chaloupka starstarstarstarstar Fri 8/10/2007 12:43AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!


Whoa! Just caught the 400 Unit @ the Larimer Lounge in Denver, and they rocked the holy hell out of the place!

krazedmika starstarstarstar Fri 5/2/2008 05:06AM
0 Votes Thumbs down! Thumbs up!

i just got this album and it is amazing. i love Jason. I think that he is so talented. he actually did some really awesome interviews that people should totally check out.