Truckers in the Rear View
June 1, 2017
These days, it's good to be Jason Isbell.
A talented songwriter blessed with guitar-playing skills to match, the Alabama-born Isbell belts out country-flavored rock songs straight from the heart, leaving no doubt that much of what he has written down has come from firsthand experience.
One can find a clean perforation in the artist's career arc: before and after sobriety - and before and after his breakthrough solo album, Southeastern. As he continues to tour in support of his latest (and arguably best) record, the Grammy Award-winning Something More Than Free, Isbell reflects on starting over, his influences, his approach to the new album and the value of experience. Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, perform May 31 at the Fort Wayne Embassy Theatre.
The 37-year-old Isbell started young, picking up the mandolin at age 6. He established himself as a formidable musician and songwriter by 22, when he joined southern rockers Drive-By Truckers and contributed to several albums and tours. He also fell into a rock n' roll lifestyle that nearly ran his career off the rails. After releasing well-received but relatively obscure solo records in 2009 and 2011, Isbell cleaned up. And his star began to rise. Two thousand and thirteen's Southeastern was released to near-universal acclaim, and Isbell's profile grew. NPR featured his record. He and his band appeared on Austin City Limits and made the late-night talk show rounds. It's been an upward trend ever since.
When asked about his new album and how he approached making it, Isbell says, "I'm in a better place personally. Southeastern was a good time making that record ... it was not very difficult, even though I had a lot of things going on during the making of that record. I was getting married, had a little bit of health trouble - not anything major, but I was in a pretty good amount of pain during the recording of the record."
He credits his sobriety (and his adjustment to it) for a better-adjusted outlook.
"After Southeastern came out, things got a lot better. I became more assured in the world. I got more comfortable with being sober, which had taken some time. It took at least a year after I got cleaned up for me to feel like myself again, to feel normal. And I think that's reflected in the new album. I think it sounds probably a little bit more joyful. I still write sad songs; I think that's what storytellers do more often than not. That's what I'm drawn to, what I like to listen to. But I think Something More Than Free probably records a time in my life when I was a lot more comfortable."
Something More Than Free debuted last July at the top of Billboard's folk, rock and country charts. Isbell and The 400 Unit took to the road to promote it. Though the album is dominated by acoustic guitars and understated band arrangements, Isbell points out that the live show brings out another side of the songs.
"I look at the recording of the album and the performing of the songs as two completely separate things," he says. "A lot of people in the studio - especially if they cut primarily live, like we do - won't put something on a record if they can't re-create it live. But I don't work that way. These are two different purposes.
"We'll record the album first with out giving any thought to how we're going to play this onstage, and then we'll do a few rehearsals and figure out a way that seems to convey the same emotion from the songs," he adds. "But the live show is always more of a rock n' roll show than people expect because we are a rock band at heart. So it's a louder experience than most people are prepared for if they only have experience listening to Southeastern or Something More Than Free."
Though he doesn't go out of his way to discuss his sobriety, he's open and candid when asked about its role in his success and growth as a songwriter.
"When I cleaned up, I wound up having a lot more time to spend working on each individual song," he says. "I think that was probably a big reason for the success of those two records. There's less filler. They're more consistent from start to finish, and that was a big thing for me. Because I realized that, after getting sober and started writing Southeastern I thought, 'I really have the opportunity here to write a document, a record that doesn't make you want to skip 'til you get to your two or three favorite songs.' It's meant to be listened to all the way through."
The early influences that inform Isbell's songwriting won't shock anyone. But here is an artist who has clearly grown into his own voice, one who is quick to point out where to draw the line when it comes to taking inspiration.
"I started writing songs listening to people like John Prine and John Hiatt, of course Bob Dylan and Randy Newman, Patti Griffin, Lucinda Williams. That was the first songwriting that appealed to me lyrically. But I do still hear things that stand out. It's a difficult thing, because you don't want to directly reflect current influences on the work you're doing. I don't want to follow any kinds of trends or try to hard to immediately sound like something that I'm currently digging. I try to mix it all up as much as possible."
When it's jokingly suggested he add modern beats to his solidly Americana style, he responds in kind.
"I think maybe if I were broke and the baby didn't have any diapers, I might collaborate with some EDM folks."
However, here's where Isbell displays an open-mindedness and curiosity that many artists in his musical neck of the woods may not share: "But I like going to those shows. If I'm at a festival and Diplo or Skrillex or somebody is performing, I'll walk over and check it out. These people are having a whole lot of fun. But I wouldn't know where to start. I can barely work my computer; I couldn't build an entire song out of just computer noises. I can record demos of me playing acoustic guitar into my cell phone, so that's about as much as I need at this point."
In addition to managing a higher profile and promoting his latest album, Isbell is also adapting to his role as a father He clearly relishes it.
"It takes a lot more scheduling, which I was never really good at, but I'm getting better at it now," he says. "You have to make time for certain things. That's fine with me; I had a whole lot of free time before, so it's good to have that occupied by family. And really, the little girl's not a lot of trouble. She sleeps well; she travels well. We took her to a Lucinda Williams show and she was able to behave herself - didn't scream all night, so that was good."
Tellingly, Isbell is able to view his daughter's experiences from a writer's perspective.
"I'm definitely inspired by watching her have to learn everything from scratch. That's something that's opened my eyes a lot. A good friend of mine, Will Johnson (a great songwriter who lives in Texas), told me that having a baby is a very psychedelic experience. It really is! You see things in a very different way, and notice things you've forgotten about ... having to start from the ground up. You take that for granted as an adult, but when you see it firsthand, it makes you notice a lot more things. I think anything that makes you more aware of the world is good for a songwriter, for sure."
Having found balance in his life after over 15 years in the music business, Isbell finds himself at a point where he can, with clear eyes, observe the path that's led him here.
"I don't regret the things that I did when I was younger. I think that was a great time," he says. "We made a lot of good music together and had a whole lot of fun. As you get older you learn how to treat people, so there's always things you wish you hadn't said or things that you wish you hadn't done, but it's all led me to where I am now."
And if he were somehow able to go back in time and visit a young Jason Isbell, just starting out with the Drive-By Truckers, what would he say to the younger man?
"If I could give myself one piece of advice, it's just not to worry so damn much. Things have turned out all right to this point."