A BETTER ADDICTION
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
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!/
I’M NOT INTERESTED IN DOING THE EASY THING. IT WOULDN’T BE FINISHED UNLESS IT HURT
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, main picture; left, Isbell at the Silver Raven Festival in Tanunda, South Australia