He’ll keep trucking, but solo: Jason Isbell

Boston Globe, July 15, 2007

The Alabama band Drive-By Truckers has earned something of a cult following both for its fresh take on classic themes of Southern music and for its powerful three-guitar front line, made up most recently of Patterson Hood, Mike Cooley, and Jason Isbell, all native sons of the musically distinguished Muscle Shoals region. Now Isbell has gone solo, a development that has caused some alarm among Truckers fans, but that also marks a broadening of the revival and reinvention of Southern rock that DBT has heralded.

At 28, Isbell is quite a bit younger than Hood or Cooley, but he made himself essential both as a musician and as a gifted songwriter on the group’s last three records. Hood and DBT drummer Brad Morgan and bassist Shonna Tucker, from whom Isbell is divorced, appear on Isbell’s just-released solo album, “Sirens of the Ditch,” confirming that all these splits have been amicable. Isbell is touring now with a brand-new group; they stop at T.T. the Bear’s in Cambridge tomorrow.

An afternoon phone call on the eve of the tour’s launch finds Isbell at a bar in Muscle Shoals, taking a break from helping to set up for the next day’s gig. “I wanted to do a local show to kick off the tour,” he says. Though the town is home to the legendary FAME studios, where countless soul and rock classics were once recorded, it has no large music venue, and Isbell and friends are converting a firehouse-turned-studio into a concert hall for the occasion, which has involved practical matters like getting a vendor’s license.

Having to do most things yourself, in fact, is the main difference Isbell has found from his time in the Truckers. “Now I spend five or six hours a day on the computer and phone talking to my label and my booking agent,” he says. “It’s three times the work preparing for the tour.” On the other hand, he says he’s enjoying the challenge of being solely responsible for the material: “I think I made a good record. It’s the same job, I feel like I have pretty much the same purpose – write songs, record them, tour, and play.”

For the most part, “Sirens” possesses neither the dense texture of classic Truckers songs nor the intricate lyrics spinning Gothic story lines of populist love and anger. Isbell has chosen a different tack. Though his songs range from the power-pop of “Try” to the swampy country soul of “Down in a Hole” and the pared-down singer-songwriter style of “Chicago Promenade,” they are generally more straightforward and easily grasped than his work with the group.

They’re also arguably more personal; many tell stories drawn from Isbell’s childhood or family, or the lives of his circle of friends. The alt-country ballad “Dress Blues” pays homage to Matthew Conley, a Marine from Isbell’s tiny hometown, Green Hill, who was killed in Iraq; from that intimate perspective, its critique of the pointlessness of the war is at once gentle and deeply cutting.

“He was a bit younger than me but I knew him in school,” Isbell says of Conley. “I grew up with his wife’s sister. Obviously bigger towns have their communities too, but there’s a certain small-town phenomenon that goes along with the war and its cost.” He says the song, which the Truckers also performed on tour last year, isn’t political per se: “I have my own political beliefs – reality has a liberal bias, as Stephen Colbert says – but this is more of a subtle hint.” That, of course, makes it all the more effective.

Isbell has noticed how the pop world has been, by and large, quiet about the current conflict. “You catch a lot of flak in the public eye for saying how you feel these days,” he says. “A lot of people have forgotten that writers and artists are paid to express their opinions, that’s their job.” As a still relatively little-known indie artist, he says he feels more freedom to write about what’s on his mind.

Of course the power of both DBT’s and Isbell’s lyrics resides in their describing not so much single issues like the war, but a bigger social and emotional landscape shaped by the manufacturing recession and the suburbanization of rural communities; a world where people trust neither politicians nor preachers, drift from job to job, and find crutches in drugs and alcohol. This anomie isn’t uniquely Southern, but it somehow makes sense that it’s taken Southern artists to give it its most forceful and poignant depictions.

One reason for that is the music: The Muscle Shoals tradition from which these acts stem blends the great American popular music styles, particularly across racial lines, to a degree that remains unparalleled. Isbell consciously draws on that heritage. “A lot of the musical and instrumental part of this record is a tribute to the music made down here,” he says. “It encapsulates rock ‘n’ roll, country, and soul. I didn’t want to make just a Southern record, but really a Muscle Shoals record.”

Rodney Hall, FAME’s president, confirms Isbell has captured the spirit. “Muscle Shoals is swampy, Southern, soulful music,” he says. “That’s basically what we look for, that’s what we do. We always try to keep a thread of soul. It all goes back to the first artists to record here, who were black singers of country music. It was the start of country soul.”

By recording at FAME, Isbell follows a long list of dignitaries including Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, and Wilson Pickett. The studio Isbell worked in, Hall says, is where Duane Allman held the first tryouts for the Allman Brothers Band. “Down in a Hole,” the richest, swampiest song on “Sirens,” features two iconic Shoals session musicians, keyboardist Spooner Oldham and bassist David Hood, Patterson’s dad.

For all this history, “Sirens” is a contemporary album with an eclectic feel, counting among its influences, Isbell says, power pop of the 1970s, Tom Petty, and inevitably the Truckers themselves, with whom Isbell has spent most of his 20s. He’s not ready to look back on his time with the group: “Not yet. I haven’t had the chance. Maybe in five or six years, when life gets more quiet. I might have to take a long motorcycle trip.”

The constant across the phases of his career, Isbell says, is his love of songwriting – as good a clue as any to why he chose to go solo. “I still write the same kinds of songs,” he says. “I write songs to teach myself how I feel about something.”