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Published: 2003/10/28
by Andy Tennille

Used With Jason Isbell

A walk through the used record bins of some of the country’s finest music stores with musicians, both famous and infamous.

What good is a job really until you can take it on the road? From the tradition of circus performers, traveling church musicians and door-to-door salesmen to corporate business trips and big rock n roll tours, the road is where the battles are won and lost, turning some unfortunate souls into Roadkill and other grizzled veterans into Road Warriors.

As in that tradition, "Used with" took to the open road this month with a trip to Austin, Texas to check in on the hype surrounding Willie Nelson's hometown and headquarters of the Austin City Limits Festival. Jambands.com didn't send the corporate card or roll out the expense account, nor were there any clowns involved, except for maybe my traveling companions. Del Griffith was nowhere to be found.

But the Drive By Truckers were most certainly part of the festivities, playing a one-hour slot at the festival on Saturday afternoon and late-night shows at venues in Austin on both Friday and Saturday nights. The new torchbearers of Southern rock, the Truckers rode into the Texas capital with a summer's worth of touring under their belts in support of their new album, Decoration Day.

One big part of the album is the arrival of new guitarist, Jason Isbell. Isbell, 24, is from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and was breaking into the studio scene there when Truckers frontman Patterson Hood came calling in the spring of 2002 following the departure of former guitarist Rob Malone. On the day after he joined the band, Isbell wrote the title track to the album, a song about feuding families in the South that sounds like it could have been written by the late Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings. It's outlaw rock, punctuated with a jam at the end of the song that sounds like something off of the Allman Brothers' classic album, Live at the Fillmore East.

"That was David Barbe's doing," Isbell said as we stepped into Austin's Waterloo Music for a look around. "We had finished recording the song, and David comes over and says, I think it would really sound good with a coda at the end. What do you think?' We talked about what he had in mind, and then went in and laid it down. I like the Allman Brothers stuff that Duane played on, but I really dig the other stuff he did in sessions with folks like Wilson Pickett and a few others. The Hey Jude' he did with Wilson Pickett is one of the best recorded guitar outros of all time, I think. Just a real genius of a player, man. But the Duane influence is definitely there on that tornado guitar jam at the end of Decoration Day.'"

Isbell's influences on slide guitar stretch from Son House and Hound Dog Taylor to Ry Cooder, but the first album he bought as an eight-year-old kid was from a slightly different musical genre.

"My first album that I owned was Janet Jackson's Rhythm Nation on vinyl," said Isbell with a laugh. "I’ll always have a soft spot for Janet. I was eight years old when I bought that album, and it was down hill from there for sure. Her Control album was pretty good too. That was her I'm no longer Michael's sister album.'"

As if by instinct, Isbell steers away from the new music section and instead heads for the used department. As he turns down the vinyl aisle, he spots a Chet Atkins album that stops him dead in his tracks.

"I just bought a Gretch guitar just like Chet Atkins used to play," Isbell said, picking up the album. "It's a Gretch Tennessee Rose. (_See picture_) I saw Chet play in Lawerenceburg, TN when I was 12 years old, and I've wanted a guitar like his ever since. I can't play it like Chet, but what the hell, you know? I've been big into Chet for a long time, and I think the first time I heard him was on one of those Mama Maybelle & the Carter Sisters albums."

Talk of the Carter family inevitably leads to the recent loss of Johnny Cash. Isbell and the rest of the Truckers participated in a tribute to Cash in lieu of The Man in Black's daughter Roseanne's appearance at the Austin City Limits Festival.

"I think the most nervous I've ever been was Saturday onstage playing the Johnny Cash set," he said. "It was really overwhelming. Playing Johnny's music in this town, on this stage, in front of these people it was just too much, man. I love Johnny Cash, that's all I can really say about that right now."

From one member of the Million Dollar Quartet to another, Isbell sees a copy of Paul Oakenfeld's remix of Elvis Presley tunes and immediately turns around with a huge grin on his face.

"Not exactly your Aunt Shirley's Elvis, is it?" Isbell said. "I wasn't really into Elvis until I started playing shows and figured out how American Elvis really was. He was out there in all this craziness, flicking sweat on people in the audience. But Elvis was really a redneck at heart. Jerry Lee Lewis was kind of the same way. I guess 13 year olds keep you young…look at Bill Wyman. He still looks good."

Another looker is Nicolette Larson, a female vocalist who recorded an album in Muscle Shoals during Isbell's time there. Isbell spots her record on the rack at Waterloo and flips it over.

"Real beautiful girl," Isbell said, pointing at the picture of the stunning brunette, tanned and slender, on the back of the album. "She's almost Linda Rondstadt-esque. Don't get me started on Linda. If I weren't married, I'd be stalking Linda Ronstadt all over the country. That album that has just her face on the cover…just beautiful. I got a lot of use out of that record. And I listened to it a lot too."

One musician that Isbell has listened to a lot of late at home in Alabama is Tom T. Hall. Interestingly enough, Isbell got the recommendation from his kid brother.

"My brother, who is eight years old now, turned me on to Tom T. Hall," Isbell admitted. "He was four at the time. He would walk around the house singing "Ravishing Ruby" and one day I was like, That's a really cool song. What the hell is it?' Kids like Ravishing Ruby,' but I'm not sure they're supposed to, really."

As we pass through the jazz section, Isbell stops to leaf through some Cannonball Adderly albums.

"I love John Coltrane, but I think Cannonball Adderly kicked his ass on Kind of Blue," Isbell said. "Cannonball's riffs and straight solos on that record are just phenomenal. Coltrane matured later into one of the greatest of all time, but on that record, Cannonball Adderly owned him."

Despite his busy schedule while in Austin, Isbell was able to get out and see a few of his fellow musicians at the festival, including the Dallas-based Polyphonic Spree, a 30-odd-person white-robed band that resembles a cult straight out of Heaven's Gate.

"The Polyphonic Spree was amazing and a little creepy," Isbell said. "Really disturbing in the way I like to be disturbed, though. I thought it was really cool. I also saw Ian Moore, REM, and Billy Joe Shaver this weekend. But the best thing I saw was Harry Dean Stanton play flamenco guitar and sing some Spanish birthday song to Luke Wilson, who was there at the festival. It was probably the best thing I've seen all year."

Isbell is currently finishing up a solo album, recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals with the help of Patterson Hood, which is expected to be released next spring. As we head out the door at Waterloo, Isbell spots a life-size cutout of John Mayer next to a record display of the singer-songwriter's new album.

"I want to draw a mustache on him so bad," Isbell said with a laugh. "You know, give him a fu-man-chu or something completely over-the-top. He needs it, I think."

Jason Isbell’s Picks of the Day

Danny O'Keefe, Breezy Stories
Merle Haggard, Big City
Anything by Anne Peebles
Centro-Matic, All the Fastest Hearts Can Try, or Love You Just the Same
Linda Ronstadt, Heart Like a Wheel

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