Jason Isbell Answers The Sirens’ Call
It’s always nice when something positive comes out of the utter shitstorms we so often encounter in life.
On April 6, Drive-By Truckers frontman Patterson Hood announced, in a letter to fans posted on the band’s website, that guitarist and vocalist Jason Isbell would leave the band to pursue a solo career. “The split,” Hood wrote, “which I consider extremely amicable, is the result of a period of personal and artistic growth from all sides which has left us with differing dreams and goals.”
Isbell’s terse response on his MySpace page posted an hour or so after Hood’s letter hit painted a less harmonious picture. “I am not in the Drive-By Truckers anymore,” he wrote. “Go figure. I wish them luck. I will not answer questions about it. If I could change it…I would.”
Word had been trickling out of Truckerland for some time that Isbell’s exit was looming. Rumors abound that the guitarist’s departure was driven by his recent divorce from Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker and his struggles to contribute as a songwriter to the band’s recent studio releases.
“It wasn’t necessarily a struggle, not always,” Isbell explains on a recent afternoon from his home in Northern Alabama. “The last record (_A Blessing And A Curse_) was a little bit difficult in that respect. I think a lot of my songs are moving in a little bit of a different direction than what they’re doing as a band right now and probably wouldn’t be very appropriate on a Drive By Truckers record. Rather than make the atmosphere tense and struggle to get songs on a record, I’ll just go make records on my own.”
Isbell’s first foray as a solo artist Sirens of the Ditch (New West Records) is a fantastic studio effort that represents the Greenhill, Alabama native’s expansive influences and music tastes over 11 tracks covering country, blues, rock, folk and soul. The album-opening single “Brand New Kind of Actress” is a riff-heavy, Replacements-era rocker that ironically fits nicely next to “Down In A Hole,” a tale about a local heavy in North Alabama that comes off as swamp greasy as Larry Jon Wilson’s “Sheldon Churchyard.” Isbell’s soul side and affection for Aretha Franklin comes out on “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades” but he saves his best for the album’s two odes “Chicago Promenade,” which details Isbell’s feelings on the passing of his grandfather, and “Dress Blues,” an homage to a childhood friend who lost his life serving in Iraq and a mournful rumination on the number of small-town American boys who lose their lives on the front line.
While the majority of the album is cut with his former bandmates in the Truckers plus a few special guests, Isbell has assembled a crack band, dubbed the 400 Unit, to support his 40-date, cross-country summer tour bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Ryan Tillery, guitarist Browan Lollar and Son Volt keysman Derry DeBorja.
“More than anything else, I really want to be on the road a lot more than those guys in the Truckers do right now. When I’m their age, I imagine I probably won’t want to be on the road too much either. Hopefully by then, I’ll have some kids and a fairly stable family and all that kind of good stuff. That’s at the top of their priority list and I understand that completely,” Isbell says. “But me being the age that I am, I’m still pretty hungry for traveling and for going out and playing as many shows as I can play. That’s not the direction the Truckers are moving in right now. They don’t want to be on the road as much as we were on the road in ’02 or ’03. I can’t say that I blame them but the fact is I still do.”
AT- Before we jump into the record, I want to talk a little bit about your past. Before you joined the Truckers, you were a Fame songwriter [Editor’s note: Fame Publishing is affiliated with the celbrated Fame Recording Studios in Muscle Shoals, AL]. Can you tell me about that and some of the early bands that you were in?
Jason Isbell: That really happened almost around the same time I joined the Truckers. I signed with Fame like a week before I left with the Truckers. I got involved with Fame through local Muscle Shoals folks, pretty much through the same people that I met Patterson through – Dick Cooper and Scott Boyer and those guys. I’d been in college in Memphis for four years and I came back home and had a batch of songs that I had written. When I came back, Scott Boyer, who used to be in Cowboy, and his son, who are both real good friends of mine, went down in Scott’s basement and recorded three or four different songs. It was me, Scott, Scott Jr. and Shonna. I don’t know if we were trying to get a band going, but we wound up taking them to Fame to see if they wanted to cut any of them and they offered me a publishing deal.
That was pretty much the only time I had to do a whole lot of playing with other people. I had done some sessions around town on demos and stuff like that. The Fame folks were working on finding a new generation of the rhythm section, so they would get a lot of us in on Tuesdays and we would go work in the studio and do charts and do sessions and stuff like that. Pretty much most of what I did to that point was play in coffee shops and stuff when I was in college and I didn’t do a whole lot of that. When I got back to Muscle Shoals, it was really such a whirlwind with me going out with the Truckers.
AT- So let’s talk about the record. The old saying goes that you have your entire life to record your first album. I guess that’s true in the case of your debut album as a solo artist following your time in Drive-By Truckers as there have been delays in getting this out there. Can you put into context this album, when it was recorded, how many songs were finished and considered for the album itself?
JI: Well, we started on it probably three or four years ago now. I was pretty much just recording when I was off the road because we were so busy with The Truckers. The first batch “Brand New Kind of Actress,” “Down in A Hole,” “Chicago Promenade” and “Hurricane and Hand Grenades” happened fairly early. Then there was another session that was three or four more days where we got three or four more songs. We went back and did “Try,” “Grown,” and “The Devil Is My Running Mate,” all those songs probably a year and a half ago. More recently, I went in and did “Dress Blues” as the last tune to make the album. It was really a situation where I had to go in when I could because we were on the road so damned much with the Truckers.
AT- As far as the different people contributing to the record, Spooner Oldham and David Hood played on “Down in A Hole” but was the rest of the record done with Brad Morgan (drummer, Drive-By Truckers) and Shonna Tucker (bassist, Drive-By Truckers) as the rhythm section?
JI: Most of it was. Mike Dillon who is not the same Mike Dillon that plays drums with Les Claypool – plays drums on it. He played on three songs on the record and maybe another three that didn’t make it on there. Shonna played on everything except “Down in A Hole.” There was a guy named Tommy Patterson that played piano on “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades.” I had originally planned on playing that part but when he came in to tune the piano, I asked him to play on the track cause I knew he was good. Tommy was like, “Nobody’s ever let me play, that’d be great. They always make me tune it for some douche bag to play it.” (Laughs) John Neff played on “Dress Blues.” This whole process was really good for me because whoever was available was willing to work on it with me so I just kind of called who I wanted from song to song and got em in. We cut three or four more things that were mixed and mastered and everything that we just kind of decided against putting on the record at the last minute, so there will be some bonus track material available.
AT- Will “Crystal Clear” or “Whisper” be among those bonus tracks? I remember seeing you live a few years back doing those two songs
JI: Yeah, they were both recorded and they should be pretty readily available when the record comes out or later on through some sort of bonus track promotional type thing.
AT- Given that you’re from that area and recorded this record at Fame, can you give me a sense of how much the Muscle Shoals sound and the history of the music recorded in the area influenced the making of this record?
JI: Well, I’ve studied a lot of those records pretty religiously and know what came out of here for the most part and have a whole lot of respect for it. But to tell you the truth, the thing that always had the biggest influence over me as far as a musician coming from here was just the individual people and the way they treated each other, the sense of community that the musicians have down here. Folks like Patterson’s dad, David, and, Spooner Oldham and a lot of those musicians that kind of took me in and let me sit in with their bands and worked with me some in the studio and stuff like that. Those folks really took care of me from an early age. I think that probably influenced me more than even the music they made.
It’s been good for me to be able to make a record at home. Even the people who own Fame Studio were really gracious about letting me have studio time and tape and people working on spec so I could get the record done.
Obviously, it would be impossible for me to not be influenced by all that soul music and the classic rock and roll that came out of here. In a lot of ways, some of the songs on this album remind me of a Tony Joe White record or even something like Aretha Franklin is in there somewhere. I wanted to make a record that felt like and sounded like a Muscle Shoals record but I didn’t want to make it too obvious for people to say he’s trying to sound like this or he’s trying to sound like that. I just wrote the songs and then let them constitute how they were played and how they were recorded.
AT- Well, let’s dig in a little bit on the album. The single “Brand New Kind of Actress” is like the musical version of “The Usual Suspects.” It’s confusing as to who’s speaking and what the storyline is since you shift speakers a couple of times within the song’s narrative. I wanted to ask you how important is perspective in songwriting? Do you enjoy writing from other people’s points of view?
JI: For me, it’s hard for people to accept the fact you have a song that you’re not the narrator sometimes. That kind of baffles me. Nobody watches a movie and thinks it’s always about the director or the screenwriter’s life. In a song, they almost always do that. If you write a song and say I or me, people think that it’s you. That’s real interesting to me because I don’t think Randy Newman is the character he portrays in “Good Old Boys.” I don’t know him but I would imagine he’s probably not that kind of person.
So for me, songwriting is a little bit escapist. It gives you an opportunity to be honest about somebody else’s point of view and to really delve into what you might assume somebody else’s feelings are about something. But there’s a line there, whether you’re writing about a real character or a fictional character, where you don’t want to assume too much. You want it to be obvious to the audience that you are just assuming this persona and that you’re not trying to prove anything about that character because, even if it is a fictional character, you still don’t know what it’s like to be them. I like to hear those songs. Ten people are more interesting than one person. If one person has the ability to write about the lives of ten people, then that’s gonna be a lot more interesting than him just writing about himself. I just think it’s a good way for a songwriter to keep from boring people.
Musically, it’s kind of a Stonesey riff, like a Keith Richards kind of riff. It’s in that tuning the Keith Richards’ tuning so it’s a little bit like that. It’s definitely a little cleaner than the way he would have done it, but I don’t know if I meant it to be that way or it just kind of came out that way.
AT- Next song is “Down in A Hole.” After reading the lyrics, where did this character the man in the dirty white suit and a big white hat come from? Is this someone you’ve see in Northern Alabama a lot?
JI: Not anymore. It’s kind of about a couple of different generations of people. It’s another one where my granddad comes in because it was somebody that he had some problems with when he was younger and other people have had problems with his offspring. It’s somebody that’s kind of a local character around here. I’m not gonna name any names. It’s more of a descriptive thing than a personal thing.
AT- Let’s talk about “Dress Blues” a little bit. In your opinion, why haven’t more songwriters stepped into the fray and written about what’s going on politically in the world or more specifically in Iraq?
JI: I think there are a lot who have but I think more haven’t because you face a whole lot of negative feedback if you do. It’s really gotten to a sad state in this country when people who write songs or who write fiction aren’t as welcome to comment on those kind of things as beauty pageant contestants speculating on Fox News. Bono catches more flack for his political views than some of the Botox girls that are reporting the news to us on television every day. It really drives me crazy.
If you’re a writer, people pay to hear what you have to say. If you’re a musician, people pay for your songs and they buy your records and they listen to what you do. I think they want you to, or at least I’ve always assumed that they want you to, tell them how you feel about something. I think it’s a little bit dangerous nowadays for songwriters to talk about how they really feel about the political environment because there are just so many people giving flack to creative people who speak out. There have been some really great things done about it, some really great records made about it. Springsteen’s tackled it and Neil Young, of course, has made it a real big priority of his. It’s a hard thing to do. It’s a really hard line to walk because, like Tom T. Hall says in his songwriting book, you don’t want to be bitter. And you don’t want to be sentimental either. So it’s very hard to write a song about something that you feel this strongly about and not be bitter about it, at least for me anyway. It was very difficult for me to write a song that told the story the way I heard it and got out at least some of how I felt about what was going on without just screaming and cursing at the people who caused these things to happen.
AT- When and where did you write “Dress Blues?”
JI: I wrote it at home a couple weeks after Matthew Conley died. He was a Marine who lived in Greenhill, Alabama and we went to high school together. When I got off the road, I pretty much just walked in the front door and sat down at the table and wrote it. The way that I was able to write it and get it out as honestly as possible was just to write what I knew about the story and just try to put as many exact details in there to show what happened more than explain really how I felt about it. I think it’s pretty obvious how I feel about it. The story pretty much told itself. The song didn’t take long to write at all. It pretty much came out in one big spurt so I just held on to the pen on that one.
AT- Have you ever had a chance to play it for Matthew Connelly’s family?
JI: Yeah, actually I have. I went back for a thing for Veteran’s Day at my high school and played it. It was really, really nerve racking. I was scared to death. They were all there just kind of sitting right in front of me.
JI: I’ve gotten really good feedback and good sentiments from his family. Almost all of them have made it a point to tell me they appreciated it and everything. I can imagine it would be a difficult thing to listen to.
AT- The song obviously has affected a number of people. In your mind, why do you think that this song has meant so much to so many people?
JI: There are a lot of people that are thinking about those things right now. The war is on everybody’s mind, or at least everybody who keeps their head out of the sand. There are just so many people who have lost somebody close to them over there already.
In my mind, the song is really about the way a small town deals with its sons going to war and dying. It’s really interesting to me how many of those kids come from small towns. Whether it’s here, Valdosta, Georgia, Ocala, Florida, wherever. There are just so many kids that come out of a small town environment that wind up involved in the military during a conflict and wind up either not coming home or coming home in pieces. I don’t know if I’m just noticing more of them being from small towns because I’m from a small town. But it seems like so many of those kids are small town folks.
AT- If I had to pick a favorite song off the album, it might be “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades.” It sounds like an Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles tune.
JI: Well, I don’t know if I did that on purpose but I’ll take it for sure. (Laughs) That’s about the best I can get. It’s definitely my stab at a soul song and probably the song most influenced by Muscle Shoals on the record. I was writing on piano a lot at that time. I guess that one came out of a mood really than anything else or just kind of an overall malaise that I was in around that point and time. I wrote it at home after we had come back from New Orleans. We were down there playing at Tips right before the hurricane hit and then I came back home and wrote that song after that.
It doesn’t have really a specific story. I had a friend who died last week named Topper Price who was a harmonica player from Birmingham. I didn’t write the song for him and he wasn’t in mind when I wrote it but the character I had in my mind was very much like the person that he turned out to be someone who was a lifelong musician and always kind of felt like shit, especially when they got up in the morning. I don’t always feel like that, certainly not as much as Topper did, but the song seems really kind of appropriate now as a little bit of a paean to him.
AT- You are recently divorced from your wife (Shonna Tucker, bassist in Drive-By Truckers). Is this song at all influenced by that change in your life?
JI: No, this song was written before that happened. I could see how people might think that but this one was written before all that went down. There are specific people in there, but that was more about somebody that I was with a long time ago than it was about her.
AT- Let’s talk about “The Magician.” Tell me a little bit about the song and when and where you wrote it. It obviously deals with life on the road. Why did you choose a magician to get that message across?
JI: I don’t know why it came out in that way really. This one I’ve had written for a long, long time. I wrote it after I joined The Truckers. It was probably written in the first year I was playing with them, sometime in early ’02.
The era of the magician is definitely coming to a close, I think. With the way the world’s going nowadays, the answers to everything are pretty readily available to anyone. The wonder that magicians used to inspire is kinda gone and sometimes I feel like it’s that way for musicians, too. Sometimes I feel like there’s just so much available in the music business and there’s not really any magic left in it anymore. That’s a little bit disappointing to me. On the other hand, it’s a natural progression because maybe it’s not supposed to be such a mystical thing to be able to make music and write songs and stuff. Maybe the next phase of the music business will be better because more people will be able to do it. I don’t know. I haven’t decided if there are too many writers or if there aren’t enough. I still don’t know.
AT- Did you play the banjo on there?
JI: Yeah, I played that. I played everything on that song and, and on “The Devil Is My Running Mate.” That’s the only one I played bass on.
AT- I didn’t know you were a banjo picker.
JI: Yeah, I’ve got a few of them. My granddad played so he gave me his before he died.
AT- Tell me about your new band, 400 Unit.
JI: Let’s seeJimbo Hart plays bass. Jimbo and the drummer, Ryan Tillery, have played together for the past couple of years with Gary Nichols, who’s on Mercury. He’s out doing some acoustic shows and stuff right now by himself. We’ve all been in bands together off and on for years, but both of those guys have been on the road some and they’ve done some studio work too. The guitar player, Browan Lollar, he’s never really traveled up until now. He’s played in local bands but he’s never gotten in the van and took off before. So that’s really exciting. It’s really good to go places with people who haven’t ever been there before. It’s just really great for me to travel with folks who are excited about traveling and who are happy to be out of the house.
AT- It sounds like his experience is akin to when you left to go on the road for the first time.
JI: Yeah, very much so. That makes it a lot easier when we’re on the road because I can definitely have a frame of reference for what he’s feeling right now. They’re all great players, really excellent players. They’re good soulful players good technical players, too. It’s a real solid, real tight sounding band.
AT- Where did the name 400 Unit come from?
JI: There’s a place here at River Bend, which is a recovery hospital, and the folks who have the fairly serious mental problems get put in the 400 Unit. Sometimes on the weekends, they’ll take them out and give them like 15 bucks a piece and let them all walk around town and get lunch. So anytime you see them walking around downtown looking like they’re a little lost, you pretty much know that’s who it is. We’ve all got family that’s been in there before.