BOOTS AND BACK­BONE

Ja­son Is­bell and the ris­ing stars of the alt-coun­try sound.

North & South - - Photo Essay -

Coun­try rock (or Amer­i­cana, or alt- coun­try), has a his­tory scat­tered with sto­ries so Gothic and south­ern and tragic, Ten­nessee Wil­liams would have re­jected them as too overblown.

Start with Gram Par­sons, who in his early 20s per­suaded the Byrds – al­most as hot as the Bea­tles at the time – to record the first true coun­try rock al­bum, Sweet­heart of the Rodeo, in 1968. Gothic? Par­sons’ fa­ther, whose nick­name was “Coon Dog”, killed him­self with a shot­gun when Gram was 12. In 1973, Par­sons died of a mor­phine and al­co­hol over­dose. His road man­ager, Phil Kauf­man, stole the body, took it into Cal­i­for­nia’s Joshua Tree desert, and cre­mated it, ful­fill­ing, he said, a pact he’d made with Par­sons.

Think of Florida’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, at the height of their ca­reer when a 1977 Mis­sis­sippi plane crash killed three in the band, in­clud­ing lead singer Ron­nie Van Zandt. Or gui­tarist Duane All­man of the All­man Broth­ers Band dy­ing in a mo­tor­bike crash in Macon, Ge­or­gia, in 1971, and how, a year and two weeks later, the band’s bassist Berry Oak­ley also died in a mo­tor­bike ac­ci­dent, three blocks from where All­man had his fa­tal crash.

For a time, it seemed Grammy award-win­ning singer/song­writer Ja­son Is­bell, born and raised in Alabama, might be join­ing the tragic roll call. Is­bell was just 22 when he joined great south­ern band Drive-by Truck­ers in 2001. He knew his par­ents were wor­ried. “I wasn’t even from a small town,” he said. “We lived in the coun­try.” So he wrote a song, “Out­fit”, that he played to his fa­ther be­fore he went on the road.

Later recorded with the Truck­ers, and pur­port­ing to be his fa­ther’s ad­vice to him, it was a beau­ti­ful mix of heart­felt and tonguein-cheek: “Have fun” was fol­lowed by “Stay clear of the nee­dle”, which was fol­lowed by “Call home on

your sister’s birth­day”.

But on tour, al­co­hol and co­caine quickly be­came a ma­jor part of his lifestyle, and after the break-up of his mar­riage to the band’s bass player, Shona Tucker, he found him­self, in 2012, check­ing into a re­hab cen­tre in Mem­phis, urged to do so by a mu­si­cian who’d fought his own demons, Ryan Adams. Now re­mar­ried to an­other mu­si­cian and song­writer, Amanda Shires, Is­bell is a star on the rise, sell­ing out 19,000-seat are­nas with his band the 400 Unit on a re­cent Amer­i­can tour.

Is the at­ten­tion be­ing paid to him de­served? Ab­so­lutely. His lat­est al­bum, The Nashville Sound, is prob­a­bly his best, which is re­mark­able con­sid­er­ing the one be­fore, Some­thing More Than Free, in 2015 won him a Grammy for best Amer­i­cana al­bum.

The ti­tle The Nashville Sound is a sly dig at most of the mu­sic be­ing made in the coun­try-mu­sic cap­i­tal. Is­bell ex­ists out­side the man­u­fac­tured, man­i­cured sounds that usu­ally top coun­try charts, the hat acts who look the part but are cyn­i­cally re­ferred to by Nashville in­sid­ers as be­ing “all boots, no back­bone”. You could never imag­ine Garth Brooks writ­ing a love song, as Is­bell does, called “If We Were Vam­pires”, which is buoyed by a truly beau­ti­ful melody.

“If we had a per­ma­nent time on the Earth, we wouldn’t have the mo­ti­va­tion to pur­sue any­thing,” Is­bell told Paste magazine. “Time is a lim­ited com­mod­ity, and if it weren’t, I’m not sure we would work up the courage to love any­body or to make art. If you have lim­it­less time, you can al­ways say, ‘I’ll say that to­mor­row; I don’t need to do it to­day.’”

The cho­rus of “Vam­pires” runs like this: “Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone/maybe we’ll get 40 years to­gether/ But one day I’ll be gone/ Or one day you’ll be gone.” Yet, oddly, the ef­fect is more touch­ing than de­press­ing.

And if a coun­ter­weight to mus­ing on mor­tal­ity is needed, try “Some­thing to Love”, writ­ten for his and Shires’ baby daugh­ter, Mercy. “I hope you find some­thing to love/some­thing to do when you feel like giv­ing up/a song to sing, or a tale to tell/some­thing to love/it’ll serve you well.”

If your tastes run to the sort of heart­felt roots mu­sic so bril­liantly writ­ten and played by Is­bell, then set aside as much time as pos­si­ble for the South­ern Fork Amer­i­cana Fest at Auck­land’s Tun­ing Fork, which runs Oc­to­ber 7-15.

The fan­tas­tic line-up in­cludes Justin Townes Earle, whose gifts have moved him out of the con­sid­er­able shadow of his fa­ther, Steve Earle. Son Volt, one of the orig­i­nal alt- coun­try bands that re­cently re-formed with founder Jay Far­rar and re­leased a new al­bum Notes of Blue, will play, as will the quirky Rob­bie Fulks, who once wrote a song called “She Took a Lot of Pills and Died”.

A crit­ics’ favourite, Fulks is a ver­sa­tile singer whose mu­sic since he be­gan record­ing solo in the 1990s can swing from the folky feel of last year’s Up­land Sto­ries to – I’m not mak­ing this up – a sur­pris­ingly lis­ten­able al­bum of Michael Jack­son cov­ers. Called Happy, it in­cludes what amounts to a bluegrass break­down in “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough”. Fulks says he wanted to help make peo­ple hear that Jack­son was not just a tabloid head­line, but a hugely gifted song­writer.

Raised in North Carolina, but based for two decades in Chicago, Fulks has al­ways been too un­pre­dictable and drawn to of­ten-bril­liant-but-weird lyrics for main­stream suc­cess. When he plays it straight, he’s riv­et­ing. “I Just Want to Meet the Man”, in which the song’s nar­ra­tor con­fronts his es­tranged wife with ob­vi­ously mur­der­ous in­tent, would have been right at home on the dark, late- ca­reer al­bums Johnny Cash recorded with Rick Ru­bin.

If you can only see one per­former at this fes­ti­val, Fulks should be the one. +

Rob­bie Fulks once wrote a song called “She Took a Lot of Pills and Died”.

Ja­son Is­bell and his wife, Amanda Shires, per­form in Alabama in 2016.

Above left: Justin Townes Earle (son of Steve), and (right) Rob­bie Fulks – both com­ing to Auck­land for the South­ern Fork Amer­i­cana Fest, Oc­to­ber 7-15.

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