Sweet Freedom: Jason Isbell Hits His Stride

Posted on Sep 28, 2015 in Feature Pieces
Sweet Freedom: Jason Isbell Hits His Stride

Although its neighbors to the north in Tennessee get more ongoing acclaim, the upper reaches of Alabama have a deep, rich musical history tucked within their borders. The Muscle Shoals scene alone shaped the sound of artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Lynyrd Skynyrd, from Bob Dylan to Wilson Pickett. Somewhere in the middle of all that, singer/songwriter Jason Isbell grew up in nearby Greenhill with a head full of poetry and a heart full of soul.

Northern Alabama, like so much of the rural South, offers children plenty of room for their imaginations to run wild, but not necessarily a whole lot else. “I didn’t really have much else to do when I was a kid,” Isbell recalls. “Luckily, we weren’t really in the throes of the methamphetamine problem that small-town America’s in now — or heroin, I think it is now. We didn’t have shit to do. I was in garage bands when I was a teenager, but the majority of music that I played growing up came from family members.” Instead of going to day care, Isbell spent a lot of time with his grandfather, who played multiple instruments. The elder taught the younger mandolin first, before graduating him to guitar.

When he got older, Isbell took advantage of the Alabama liquor laws that forced establishments to sell more food than alcohol. Because they were essentially restaurants, a teenager with artistic aspirations could linger in the corner listening to a band of local musicians do their thing — even if he had no idea how famous and influential they might be. “I spent a lot of time in those places watching a lot of folks that had worked on really great Muscle Shoals music in the heyday … people like Spooner Oldham and David Hood and those folks,” Isbell says. “So I got to know some of them and they were kind enough to let me sit in, show me a little bit about how to play and conduct myself. As I got older, I discovered the quality of the music they had made. I knew the people before I really knew the catalog.”

Once he started digging, Isbell developed a deep appreciation for what his Muscle Shoals mentors had created over the years. And it’s something that has stayed with him. “I’m very lucky that the music that was made in my hometown, for the most part, is still my favorite music to listen to. So I think it’s probably going to keep itself rooted in whatever I’m working on a lot stronger than if I’d come from somewhere like Los Angeles, where some of it’s good and a lot of it’s total shit.”

For college, Isbell stayed pretty close to home, attending the University of Memphis to study English and creative writing while still spending a lot of time around Muscle Shoals. When he wasn’t working on songs for his $250 per week FAME Studios publishing deal, Isbell was hanging with music friends like Dick Cooper, Shonna Tucker, and David Hood’s son Patterson, who had formed the Drive-By Truckers a few years earlier.

Of meeting Isbell, Patterson Hood remembers, “We met at a late-night hang at Dick Cooper’s house, out on the lake, back when we were still working on Southern Rock Opera. Dick was roommates with Shonna, who was good friends — maybe with benefits or something like that — with Jason, who was, at that time, still in college in Memphis. He and I just hit it off pretty quickly and friendly. And we saw pretty quickly that we had a chemistry playing together. We’d all be sitting around playing guitars and there was a very easy, natural chemistry there. I flipped over his songs and thought he was great.”

A year or so later, in November 2001, the Drive-By Truckers were riding high on a buzz about Southern Rock Opera. Cooper set up a house concert at his place because SPIN magazine had sent a writer and photographer to do a story on them and they didn’t have any other gigs booked. The Truckers’ third guitarist, Rob Malone, was a no-show, but there sat Isbell. As Hood tells it, “We started playing without him, and then there was Jason sitting there and I knew full-well that Jason knew how to play all those songs. So, I was like, ‘Hey, man. Come jump in.’ So he jumped in and played with us. The next day, we asked him if he wanted to finish the tour with us. The day after that, he left on the road with us and played with us for five years and three albums.”

“It was an amazing thing,” Hood continues. “And it also made for a great story. Eric [Weisbard] from SPIN was like, ‘God! These crazy rednecks! You won’t believe what I saw!’ And then this kid, who looked about 14 … this kid sits down and obviously knew every song backwards and forwards. And harmonies and guitar parts. It was awesome. It was a very seamless changeover. There you go. He was in the band.”

wisbellWithin short order, Isbell crafted “Decoration Day” and “Outfit,” both of which made the first Truckers record that he played on — the former even becoming the album’s title track. Though he’d set out to do his own thing, being in an already-established band served him well. “We were a diversion — a very good diversion — because it enabled him to leapfrog over a lot of years of being unknown,” Hood says. “He was instantly known because he joined just as the buzz was generating about the Truckers and Southern Rock Opera. He was instantly playing much bigger rooms than he could have played by himself. Within a year, he was earning a paycheck from the band, which was something that none of us had ever had in our entire lives until then.”

Being in the Truckers gave Isbell more than just a bit of notoriety and a paycheck, though. It gave him the world — and his first flight on an airplane. “I’d been as far north as Philadelphia before that, but I’d never been out West,” he says, “never been to New England or anything like that, never been to another country. My first flight was from Atlanta to Amsterdam, with that band. That was pretty terrifying. I would definitely say that was my first experience in the real world. I’d read a lot about it, but it was the first time I ever saw those things.”

Within a few years, bandmates Isbell and Tucker were unhappily married, and the turmoil took its toll on everyone around them. Isbell drank heavily to get through it all, as his bonds with both Tucker and the Truckers crumbled around him. “I was not really a binge drinker in college,” Isbell says. “I got a little too drunk a handful of times, but it was kind of late for me. I didn’t really drink as a teenager. I was probably 20 years old before I started drinking regularly. And I didn’t start drinking too much until I was in that band touring.”

Hood remembers that they all partied pretty hard in those days, but Isbell wasn’t much fun about it. He admits, “It got to be pretty unbearable. And I think [Jason] started to resent us. I think he started to feel like he could be doing better solo than he was doing as a member of our band. He didn’t want to write two to four songs per album. He wanted to write a whole album, which is understandable. That had always been his plan. I think, in some ways, he would’ve liked to have quit the band, but it’s hard to walk away from a paycheck. At some point, it became necessary for us to push the issue a little bit, which was a hard thing,” he says, repeating, “It was a hard thing. He was an irreplaceable part of that era of the band.” Then, almost as quickly as he got in, Isbell got out. It was a move that needed to be made, even if it did require a bit of a push. Looking back, it was definitely the right thing for all involved. “If I hadn’t left the Truckers when I did, I would have left the next day,” Isbell says. “It wasn’t any fun for them and it wasn’t any fun for me, at that point.”

But the show must go on and, so, it did. Isbell started his solo flight and the Truckers kept on trucking. “I think we’re in an era, right now, that is the best we’ve ever been,” Hood says of how their respective careers have played out since. “And I think [Jason is], obviously, in a very wonderful spot. Of course, he’s gotten his shit together in his life and he’s grown up to become a very, very fine man that I’m very proud to be friends with. We were all younger and living in a wilder time. We all have kids and families now. Most of our wild abandon is on the stage now.” Hood laughs, adding, “Used to be, the show was kind of 24 hours a day and we would just take the show to the stage, at some point in the day. We aren’t really able to do that anymore, nor would we want to.”

Isbell’s manager, Traci Thomas, first met him when she was a publicist for the Drive-By Truckers and has worked with him in some capacity for the better part of 14 years now. She remembers seeing something special in him even in those early days. “He was this chubby kid and he was there. Then, all of a sudden, he was writing songs like ‘Outfit.’ It still blows my mind that he wrote that at 22 years old.” The day Isbell quit the Truckers, Thomas offered to manage him, but he declined. “He’d just kind of had the rug pulled out from beneath him and I felt like he needed someone who was going to be there for him. And I think he always knew that I was [that kind of person],” Thomas says. “I always knew and I always saw the potential. It’s been really amazing to watch him grow up and mature.”

Success and Sobriety

It was April 5, 2007, when Isbell announced his departure from the Drive-By Truckers. Come July 10, he was releasing his debut solo set, Sirens of the Ditch. For his own band, the 400 Unit, Isbell recruited keyboardist Derry DeBorja (formerly of Son Volt), bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble, and, before too long, guitarist Sadler Vaden (formerly of Drivin’ n Cryin’). In February 2009 came Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, followed by Here We Rest in April 2011.

shisbellIt was during 2011, too, that Isbell started dating singer/songwriter and fiddler Amanda Shires. Though the attraction was apparent, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. Still, Shires couldn’t help falling for him. “He’s really smart and funny,” she says. “He’s always been a charming person. Super-charming. Scarily so, sometimes. Outside of that, he really was well read and had things to talk about — books and poems and stuff. We had a lot to show each other. Common interests, I guess, really, are what brought us together.” She pauses, then adds with a laugh, “Plus, he just wouldn’t quit. Every time I said no, he’d just keep on being funny.”

Even as their love affair cranked up, Isbell couldn’t seem to kick the bottle. So, the following February, Shires held Isbell to his word that he wanted to get sober. She called his parents, some close friends, and Traci Thomas for support as Isbell entered rehab and recovery at Cumberland Heights in Nashville. “At the time,” she recalls, “it was difficult because I knew he could hate the idea and then break up with me, but it didn’t happen like that. In the end, I always tell people that I didn’t do anything. He made the choice. He makes it every day.” She shrugs off the notion that it was a brave, selfless move for her to make. “Some of it’s selfish, on my part. You just like to not watch anything bad happen to people you love.”

Comparing the pre- and post-sobriety versions of Isbell, Shires says, “I would’ve kept him as he was, but now he’s way more hygienic because he has time to be. There’s more time in the day. He reads more. We talk more. Now, he can express his emotions better and talk about stuff easier than before. I think those are tools he probably picked up in rehab, but they work in all situations, really. I think that when you care about stuff, it sucks, because then you have to deal when things aren’t going right, and now he knows how to handle stuff like that better.”

Thomas echoes Shires’ sentiment: “I think he takes it all a lot more seriously now. He’s just much more present.”

Isbell and his confidants discussed his recovery plan in-depth and at-length before he took the first of his 12 steps. “Before you make any major decision like that … it was something [where] he got his head in the game before he took that leap,” Thomas offers, “which is why, I think, it’s stuck and that he’s thriving and doing so well in his sobriety. He was dedicated to it on a number of levels. I think he realized he was probably going to lose Amanda, if he didn’t, and their bond is obviously something that’s very deep and important to him.”

With clear-eyed hindsight, Isbell insists that the substances didn’t directly hinder his creative muse. But he knows they also didn’t help. “They took more time out of my day. So, in that way, they hindered my work,” he offers. “But people saying that substances help them be able to write — and I’m not including marijuana in there; that’s a different thing altogether — but as far as hard drugs and alcohol are concerned, I think anybody who says that helps them be more creative is just looking for more reasons to keep drinking and using drugs.”

So what if he’d kept on at that pace? “I think I might still be alive because I’m still fairly young, but I wouldn’t be doing any really good work, I don’t think. I don’t think my work would’ve progressed. I certainly wouldn’t feel as good physically or be as happy personally as I am now.”

In getting sober, Isbell learned to live life from the inside out. “The sense of adventure has become a different thing for me. But that’s only because the adventures I was looking for in those days didn’t really exist, not in that way. It’s a struggle and it’s a challenge to see how drunk you can get on a nightly basis and still survive and perform. But it’s not an adventure like you think it is at the time because you romanticize it,” he says. “Now, adventures are more internal for me, they have more to do with solving problems and trying to communicate with people and trying to enjoy my time here.”

A huge part of that newfound commitment to communicating, obviously, comes in the form of his songs, and Isbell documented his journey in 2013’s Southeastern, a stunning work that refused to sugarcoat where he’d been and what he’d done, the fears he faced and the hopes he held on to. This was Isbell’s personal recounting and his public reckoning, all wrapped up in one. And it hit people hard in the best possible way.

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Two years after the album’s release, Thomas says, she still gets emails from people who have been deeply moved by Southeastern. “I sit here and cry at my computer — whether it’s people that are dealing with cancer or people that are trying to deal with sobriety,” she says. “There have been lots of times when I feel like I’m giving therapy to people because I don’t want these emails to go unanswered. We just tried to put it out there and, obviously, he was completely honest about everything he’d been through, whether it was in the interviews or the writing itself. I think that just really resonated with people. It’s refreshing to see that people actually embraced that.”

Pulling your skeletons out of the closet and putting them on display is a bold move, and one that could make moving through our image-obsessed, gossip-driven world a rather awkward affair. But Isbell wouldn’t have it any other way. “I want people to know about me if they’re going to be listening to my music, because I like winding up in rooms full of people who are similar to me or, at the very least, open to my interpretation of the world. I want them to do that so they can interpret the songs in the way that I’m delivering them. And so they don’t turn their backs on me.”

At the helm of Southeastern was producer Dave Cobb, who took over after Ryan Adams, due to a last-minute glitch, was unable to work on the project. Cobb, a Georgia native, had heard Isbell’s “Outfit” years earlier while living in Los Angeles. The song made him so homesick for the South that he moved to Nashville. It also made him want to work with Isbell, and things were headed in that direction when Adams signed on, so Cobb bowed out graciously.

“Ryan, I’m a huge fan of. I thought he would do a great record with Jason,” Cobb says. “I thought it would be a really awesome match. I couldn’t wait to hear the record they were going to make. But, I got a call, about a week-and-a-half before we made Southeastern, and Traci said, ‘Well, the dates aren’t lining up or something happened with the scheduling with Ryan. Are you interested in doing it?’ And I was like, ‘Who do I have to kill?’ I was definitely the second ringer. I was sitting on the bench and didn’t know I was going to have the opportunity to do it. I would’ve stabbed anybody to get in there and do a record with him.”

Luckily, no one was injured before or during the making of Southeastern, though plenty have been laid out by it since. Did the team have any idea what an impact it would have? “No way. No way. No way. Absolutely no way. I had no idea,” Cobb contends. “I think maybe it was one of the first records that … you know, when you’re writing about tailgates and shit and you hear ‘Elephant,’ as a lyricist, it must shut you down. He’s devastating. When we were doing Southeastern … you’re having goosebumps thinking, ‘How is this coming out of the speakers right now?’ It sounded like one of your favorite records that you’ve never heard.”

“I never expected this many people to react in that way to the music I make,” Isbell adds, “especially with Southeastern, because it’s not a rabble-rousing kind of record. … It’s not the kind of record that really gets people out of their seats and, traditionally, that forces them to have a good time. It’s a very melancholy and internal, thoughtful kind of record. So it’s a wonderful thing to be able to play those kinds of songs and still have audiences that are right there with you every night. That’s more than anybody could really ever ask for.”

Southeastern didn’t just hit home with fans; critics, too, raved about its merits. Isbell found himself featured in the pages of the New York Times magazine and with Terry Gross for the full hour of NPR’s Fresh Air. One institution that didn’t recognize the artist or the album, though, was the Grammy Awards. The night of the nomination announcements, Shires and Thomas were backstage with Isbell and, while he wasn’t outraged by the oversight, they certainly were. “They were pretty upset about it, which I took as a big compliment, because I think they care enough about me to get upset in my stead,” Isbell offers. While he says he’d certainly be grateful if he ever got nominated or won, nabbing a Grammy is just not on his bucket list. “You’re not going to do the good work — you’re not going to do the great work — if you’re concerned about shit like that. It’s just never going to happen. If that’s the kind of thing that sidetracks you or pisses you off, then you’re not bound for glory.”

On the other hand, being honored with three Americana Music Awards was just that — an honor. “The Americana thing, I think that’s very different because … the people who are voting on those are the people who make music that’s similar to the music I make,” he says. “And I know that there were a lot more of my personal heroes in the audience that night than there were at the Grammy Awards. So that was humbling and very special. I mean, to walk up and have Lucinda [Williams] hand you an award and say something sweet about your album is unbelievable to me. I just can’t wrap my head around it because she’s a hero.” Having the respect of people he respects, that’s the best reward Isbell can imagine. He adds with a laugh, “When Lucinda hands you an award and says your album is a beautiful piece of work, that’s going to be a whole lot different than getting something from T.I.”

Topping Southeastern

Earlier this year, with all of that acclaim still lingering, Isbell had to sit down and write Southeastern’s follow-up, Something More Than Free. “There’s pressure, but I tried to step out from under it as best I could,” Isbell confides. “I think that’s the goal when you’re following something that’s been successful. It’s a really good problem to have, first of all, because it’s a hell of a lot easier than trying to get people to pay attention to you, which I’ve done in the past. But, you have to feel the pressure and you have to ignore it at the same time.”

smtfIsbell admits that he’s a very competitive person, with his own body of work as much as anyone else’s. So, naturally, he wanted to not just clear, but raise his own high bar. “I wanted to write songs that were more concise and better edited and had better melodies and better turns of phrase,” he says. “I think I may have done that. I feel very strongly about the lyrical content and the melodic content of this record. Dave Cobb produced it and did the brilliant things that he always does. I think it’s going to be alright.”

Isbell and Cobb are mutually appreciative, trusting, and respectful of each other, neither wanting to accept much credit. Cobb contends that Isbell does all the heavy lifting with his superlative songwriting: “It’s really easy and it feels like, when you hear his stuff, you hear the things around it. You hear the cinema side of his music. You’ll suggest something and he just goes, ‘Cool. Let’s try that.’ It’s never a forced situation. It’s just magic.” Those warm and fuzzy sentiments extend to Isbell’s band, as well. When they all come together to make a record, they come in blind, or, perhaps, deaf. Isbell doesn’t play the songs for anyone other than Shires beforehand. It’s a production technique that everyone gets behind, mostly because they trust Isbell’s songs to be solid.

“He brings a song in and it’s crushing, every time,” Cobb continues. “He’s never brought a crap song in and we go, ‘Okay, now how do we tell him the song sucks?’ Everything the guy pulls out of his hat is, not just good, but devastating. I think there are only a couple of people out there that are even able to compete lyrically with him. His writing connects and hurts and makes you feel good and makes you feel sad. He’s a very cinematic writer, so I think he’s able to paint a picture, paint a landscape like nobody I’ve ever heard.”

Though his wife she may be, Shires is a singer/songwriter as well, so her experience of Isbell’s songs is both personal and professional. “This record, I’ve been surprised that anybody could … leave off from [Southeastern] and get even more precise with words and be able to go deeper into relationships — not just ours, but family relationships and other stories he’s learned,” she says.

Shires cites “Flagship,” “24 Frames,” and “If It Takes a Lifetime” as her three favorite cuts on Something More Than Free, then adds with a laugh, “I’ve had a few too many of those moments with this record where I think, ‘Well, damn it. Why does anybody ever want to write a song now?!’”

Cobb concurs. “It would be a hard thing to top Southeastern. It really would be, but his well is still full,” he says. “They keep coming out of him. I think maybe it’s that beautiful period that artists have where they’re just inspired about where life is. Whatever it is … whatever the thing that motivates somebody … he’s full right now with that energy.”

Right as they were finishing Something More Than Free, Isbell tweeted that he thought he had, in fact, bested Southeastern. That proclamation was met with mixed emotions from the fans. As Thomas tells it, “When he tweeted that, the fans were like, ‘That’s blasphemy! You can’t say that!’ Obviously, he has every right to say it.” Thomas laughs, then adds, “The songs are different. It’s growth, but it’s just such solid songwriting, from start to finish, as an album. I know that’s important to him.”

An Entirely Different Project

While Isbell’s craft and career are, obviously, at the forefront of his mind right now, they must share the space with the new baby girl he and Shires are welcoming in September. The one word they both use to describe their impending parenthood: terrifying. As Shires puts it, “It’s terrifying because you’re thinking, ‘Oh, no. What am I going to do with the identity I have with my art and my career? And then have a whole other life to look after. My mom did it single with two kids, so … I don’t know. I feel like people have done it before. I think we just go on ahead with it and bring somebody with us to hold the baby while we play music. That seems to be the thing to do. Jason keeps telling me it’s going to be fine. I really don’t know how that’s going to work, but it’s going to have to. I was never going to be a stay-at-home mom — not that that’s a bad thing. But I was not planning on ever doing that.”

mercyLike everything else in his life post-sobriety, Isbell is taking fatherhood in a thoughtful, measured stride. “I’m a little bit more reactive than I used to be. I understand that I can’t control everything that’s going to happen to me in the future,” he says. “I also keep reminding myself that good, healthy, intelligent children have been raised by people who voted for [George W.] Bush, for example. If they can do it, I can do it.” He laughs, then concedes, “It’s terrifying, in some ways, because I want to be able to do it right. If I dwell on it a lot, it can make me pretty anxious. But I’m pretty sure that she and I are well enough equipped to handle it in the right way. We communicate with each other really well and we make a good team. And we both have a lot of love to give to somebody, so I think it’s going to work out.”

With both his career and family on track, does Isbell have any still-to-be-realized dreams? “That’s a good question,” he says. “What was it Steve Earle said? ‘When your dream comes true, you have to find a new one fast.’ I think being a well-adjusted, grown-up person who’s still a little bit feral at heart is a pretty big thing to aspire to. That’s a dream of mine. Other than that, I just want to have a happy, healthy family. I think keeping a marriage together for longer than 10 years, nowadays, is probably harder than becoming a rock-‘n’-roll star. That’s quite an aspiration right there. So that’s certainly a goal. I don’t want to say it’s a dream because that makes it sound like there’s a chance for it to not come true.

“I really enjoy the life that I have now,” he adds. “I really love playing shows in which I can hear myself sing and I can hear my guitar every night, playing big theaters that are really, really pretty. I don’t want to say that my goal is to maintain because, if that’s the goal, it’s only on a logistical level. Creatively, I like to keep pushing myself. But, I don’t feel the need to collaborate with people I don’t already work with. I don’t look for awards or recognition, in that way. I think, if I can just be left alone to work for the rest of my life and to take care of my family best I can, that’s a pretty big dream for me.”

When you come from a small town, those are the values that find their way into you: a good day’s work and a happy home life. To his credit, those are the values that Isbell continues to harbor and hold. Because, even after all of these years and accomplishments, Jason Isbell is still that same kid from Greenhill, AL, who just wants to make music surrounded by his family. Only now, he has the whole world for his imagination to run wild in.