Ja­son Is­bell has been on the wagon five years, but that doesn’t stop him re­mem­ber­ing his Alabama roots or his per­sonal demons, writes Iain Shed­den

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - The Nashville Sound

It’s a lit­tle ironic that Ja­son Is­bell, a con­firmed tee­to­taller since 2012, got his first break as a mu­si­cian thanks to Alabama’s liquor laws. Back in the early 1990s, the teenage Is­bell, al­ready handy on sev­eral stringed in­stru­ments, was on a mis­sion to ab­sorb as much mu­sic as he could, ideally as per­formed by the host of gun mu­si­cians op­er­at­ing in and around the Mus­cle Shoals area of his home state, peo­ple such as Spooner Old­ham and David Hood, alumni of the famed Mus­cle Shoals Rhythm Sec­tion, or the Swampers as they were also known.

These mu­si­cians played on some of the clas­sic soul and R&B records of Aretha Franklin, Wil­son Pick­ett, Percy Sledge and many more.

“When I was a teenager the liquor laws in Alabama didn’t al­low for bars,” says Is­bell, now a Nashville na­tive. “Ev­ery­thing was restau­rants and you had to sell more food than al­co­hol and they would come in at the end of the month and check your re­ceipts to make sure you had. That was part of be­ing in the Amer­i­can Bible belt in the south. That was bad if you were try­ing to open a venue, but it was great if you were 15 years old be­cause they couldn’t kick you out.

“So I would go to these places on a Fri­day and Satur­day night and see all of the peo­ple who had played on all of those orig­i­nal great songs. They would get me up to play with the band once they knew that I could play.

“That was a huge thing for me, a huge part of my de­vel­op­ment.”

Leap for­ward a few decades and that ap­pren­tice­ship would ap­pear to have paid off in spades for the singer and song­writer.

Is­bell, whose new al­bum The Nashville Sound is re­leased next week, has es­tab­lished him­self in the past 10 years as one of the lead­ing ex­po­nents of Amer­i­cana mu­sic, win­ning two Gram­mys last year for his 2015 al­bum Some­thing More Than Free and a song from it, 24 Frames.

His dis­tinc­tive south­ern drawl and a song­writ­ing style that melds the per­sonal and the Amer­i­can malaise to an­gu­lar coun­try mu­sic and bursts of rock ’n’ roll have seen him likened to Townes Van Zandt, Ryan Adams and even Bruce Spring­steen.

The new al­bum, named af­ter the RCA Stu­dios in Nashville where it was recorded and that was home to a wealth of coun­try mu­sic artists in the 1960s and 70s, is the third of his records to be billed as Ja­son Is­bell and the 400 Unit, the band the singer has worked with since the be- gin­ning of his so-called solo ca­reer. It is also the third con­sec­u­tive Is­bell al­bum to be pro­duced by Nashville stu­dio whiz Dave Cobb.

“We en­joy each other’s com­pany and he brings a lot to the ta­ble,” says Is­bell. “I can bring in a set of songs and know he’s go­ing to treat him the right way. I don’t have to get too in­volved in the pro­duc­tion side of things.

“I used to have a pro­duc­tion credit on most things I did so it’s nice to hand it over and to find some­one you can trust.” The col­lec­tion of songs on The Nashville Sound once again mixes the per­sonal with the ob­ser­va­tional. Hope the High Road is a bluesy tale of be­ing pos­i­tive in the face of ad­ver­sity. The stri­dent rocker Cum­ber­land Gap pon­ders the hard­ship of the coalmin­ing heart­land in the south­east of the US, while the gen­tler acous­tic stroll of If We Were Vam­pires ex­plores the pos­i­tive side of mor­tal­ity.

Is­bell has wres­tled a few demons dur­ing his ca­reer on the way to this high point. Be­fore his solo out­put he was a mem­ber of the Athens, Ge­or­gia-based band Drive-By Truck­ers, a south­ern rock band with strong Alabama con­nec­tions in found­ing mem­bers Pat­ter­son Hood (David’s son) and Mike Coo­ley. For most of his six-year ten­ure, from 2001 to 2007, Is­bell’s first wife Shonna Tucker was the bassist in the band.

Dur­ing his time there, for which he wrote sev­eral of the Truck­ers’ most pop­u­lar songs, in­clud­ing Dec­o­ra­tion Day, the ti­tle track from their 2003 al­bum, Is­bell had prob­lems with al­co­hol and co­caine. His ad­dic­tion came to a head in 2012 when his se­cond wife, singer song­writer Amanda Shires, and their friend Adams and Is­bell’s man­ager Traci Thomas did an in­ter­ven­tion that re­sulted in the singer go­ing into re­hab in Nashville.

Although he has moved on from that and is sober, hap­pily mar­ried and with a two-year-old daugh­ter, Is­bell says it’s im­por­tant to look back on his for­mer self. “I have to be real fa­mil­iar with that guy,” he says. “I have to re­mem­ber ev­ery de­tail. That’s part of the process be­cause if I for­get I will go right back to be­ing him. It’s like re­mem­ber­ing where the holes are so you don’t step in them again.”

Is­bell, who toured Aus­tralia last year and hopes to be back early next year, cred­its hard work for his present lofty — and sober — sta­tus. He says song­writ­ing doesn’t come easy to him, and if it does, he’s not fin­ished.

“I’m grate­ful to be able to do this for a liv­ing so I work re­ally hard,” he says. “That’s the thing. It wasn’t easy to write these songs, but if it was easy I would keep on work­ing on them un­til it wasn’t easy. I’m not in­ter­ested in do­ing the easy thing. It wouldn’t be fin­ished un­less it hurt.” Caroline on June 16. is re­leased through Spunk!/


Ja­son Is­bell and the 400 Unit, main pic­ture; left, Is­bell at the Sil­ver Raven Fes­ti­val in Ta­nunda, South Aus­tralia

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