No back­ing off from roots

On the heels of big hits, Ja­son Is­bell keeps up the mo­men­tum in his ‘Nashville Sound.’

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Randy Lewis

NASHVILLE — Two song­writ­ers get on a plane, and no, this isn’t a setup for a punch line.

The song­writ­ers in ques­tion are widely re­spected Amer­i­can mu­si­cians: Alabama-bred singer-song­writer and for­mer Drive-By Truck­ers vo­cal­ist Ja­son Is­bell and Louisiana-reared singer-song­writer Mary Gauthier. Their in-flight small-talk? Only how artists sur­vive in a shift­ing dig­i­tal­first land­scape.

“We were talk­ing on a plane — we just wound up next to each other re­cently — about the changes in the way peo­ple buy mu­sic and lis­ten to mu­sic,” Is­bell said while sit­ting back­stage on a re­cent spring day at the fa­bled Ry­man Au­di­to­rium, the so-called Mother Church of Coun­try Mu­sic and win­ter

home of the Grand Ole Opry.

“She said, ‘What if this is all just a blip, and hu­man­ity looks back one day and says, “Re­mem­ber when peo­ple used to record mu­sic and then you’d pay to lis­ten to it — wasn’t that weird?” ’

“And when you say it that way it does sound like kind of a strange thing to pay for,” said Is­bell, whose lanky frame, square jaw, un­blink­ing gaze and care­fully combed blond hair com­bine for the look of a ’50s TV western hero. “But I’m not go­ing to give it away for free un­til I ab­so­lutely have to.”

Lately he hasn’t had to, thanks to the run­away suc­cess of his two most re­cent solo al­bums, his 2013 com­mer­cial break­through, “South­east­ern,” and its 2015 suc­ces­sor, “Some­thing More Than Free,” both of which earned him al­bum of the year honors from the Amer­i­cana Mu­sic Assn.

The Record­ing Academy also be­stowed two Grammy Awards on him last year: Amer­i­cana al­bum (for “Some­thing More Than Free”) and Amer­i­cana roots song (for “24 Frames”).

Now the mu­si­cian reared in Mus­cle Shoals, Ala., is hop­ing to make it a solo hat trick with his lat­est, “The Nashville Sound,” recorded with his band, the 400 Unit, and re­leased this month.

It’s another im­pres­sively lit­er­ate col­lec­tion stoked with the kind of in­sight­ful songs that have made him one of the bright lights of roots mu­sic over the last decade.

With the band’s back­ing, “The Nashville Sound” rocks harder than its pre­de­ces­sor with songs that ex­plore themes of alien­ation, iso­la­tion, mor­tal­ity, the joys and bur­dens of par­ent­hood, fam­ily, home and hearth, draw­ing on Is­bell’s ar­se­nal of wit, com­pas­sion and his keen un­der­stand­ing of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence.

His songs of­ten touch on as­pects of life in ru­ral Amer­ica but never set­tle for su­per­fi­cial nos­tal­gia. That per­spec­tive sets him above the crowd, but also apart, some­thing he ru­mi­nates on in the al­bum’s open­ing track, “The Last of My Kind.”

“No­body here can dance like me,” he sings, “ev­ery­body clap­ping on the one and three,” a line that’s sure to draw smiles from mu­si­cally savvy lis­ten­ers.

“A lot of peo­ple have men­tioned that line,” Is­bell said. “My drum­mer laughed out loud the first time I played him that song. But of course, he would.”

That’s one of the lighter man­i­fes­ta­tions of the ways Is­bell pon­ders where he fits in, and by ex­ten­sion, how — or whether — the dis­parate strands of Amer­i­can life can still fit to­gether.

In “White Man’s World,” he ques­tions his cul­tural legacy: “I’m a white man look­ing in a black man’s eyes/ Wish­ing I’d never been one of the guys/ Who pre­tended not to hear another white man’s joke/ Old times ain’t for­got­ten.”

The fi­nal line quotes the Con­fed­er­ate an­them “Dixie” and, like many of Is­bell’s new songs, res­onates at a mo­ment in which a coun­try and its peo­ple are wrestling with is­sues of race re­la­tions, po­lit­i­cal po­lar­iza­tion and ba­sic hu­man kind­ness.

That song, Is­bell said, “was in­spired by the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. I feel like a lot of peo­ple are con­fus­ing fall­ing a cou­ple of rungs with fall­ing off the lad­der. I think as a so­ci­ety we’re still mak­ing a lot of progress. I think just as many peo­ple or more peo­ple were get­ting treated un­fairly by law en­force­ment 20, 30 or 40 years ago. We just find out more about it now.

“The gov­ern­ment was ly­ing to us an equal or greater amount in those days. Now we have more ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion,” he said. “When some­thing like this hap­pens, when some­body is put on this par­tic­u­lar pedestal that [Pres­i­dent] Trump has been put upon — par­tially by Amer­i­cans, par­tially by the process — it’s easy to look at it and say we’re fail­ing, and that this move­ment of com­pas­sion is los­ing to peo­ple who are so afraid it makes them self­ish.”

The al­bum also con­tains in­tensely per­sonal songs, in­clud­ing a re­flec­tion on mor­tal­ity ti­tled “If We Were Vam­pires,” in which he ob­serves, “If we were vam­pires and death was a joke/ We’d go out on the side­walk and smoke/ And laugh at all the lovers and their plans/ I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.”

As Is­bell sees it, “The Nashville Sound” emerged to be more di­rectly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal than “Some­thing More Than Free,” which “had some char­ac­ter sketches [and] a lot of un­trust­wor­thy nar­ra­tors.”

“There are a lot of things that were some­times dif­fi­cult to write about and re­veal and let out of the cage,” he said, “but I went ahead and did that on this al­bum out of a sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity. So in a lot of ways that points back to ‘South­east­ern,’ be­cause that’s re­ally the first time that I had done that in such and open and elab­o­rate way.”

Although he’d been praised for his song­writ­ing in three solo al­bums that pre­ceded “South­east­ern,” as well as for songs he con­trib­uted to the Truck­ers, which he left in 2007, the big­gest change in his life and ca­reer, he says, was get­ting sober in 2012.

“It made all the dif­fer­ence,” he said. “I had so much time and so much fo­cus that I didn’t have be­fore. That was re­ally the story. It gave me a story to tell, and it gave peo­ple a rea­son to root for me.

“And it gave me time, which is re­ally the most valu­able thing in the world to a writer of any type — to have the time and the fo­cus with­out be­ing pulled away by dark­ness or ad­dic­tion or any­thing else,” he said. “I could sit in one spot for eight or 10 hours and work on writ­ing. I was very for­tu­nate.”

In fact, he said the pres­sure he feels now doesn’t re­volve around the crit­i­cal or com­mer­cial suc­cess he found with “South­east­ern” and “Some­thing More Than Free,” but around “the cre­ative break­through I feel like I’ve made.”

“I’m not try­ing to sell X amount of records,” said Is­bell, who launched a tour this week in con­junc­tion with the re­lease of “The Nashville Sound,” a round of shows that brings him back to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia for a Sept. 17 stop at the Or­pheum Theatre in L.A.

“I’m try­ing to write a cer­tain amount of re­ally, re­ally strong songs ev­ery time,” he said.

“I feel like a lot of peo­ple made one great record, and very few peo­ple did it twice. Hardly any­body, as far as per­cent­ages go, has made three re­ally great al­bums. That was a big deal for me, and I re­ally wanted to do it again, just to chal­lenge my­self.”

Christo­pher Berkey For The Times

JA­SON IS­BELL scored run­away suc­cesses with two pre­vi­ous solo al­bums, and he may well re­peat him­self with his just-re­leased al­bum, “The Nashville Sound.”

Rick Di­a­mond Getty Im­ages

“THE NASHVILLE Sound,” Ja­son Is­bell’s lat­est al­bum, rocks hard with songs of alien­ation, iso­la­tion and mor­tal­ity that draw deeply on his wit and com­pas­sion.

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