Photo credit:Retna (Zoran Veselinovic)
Watching Jason Isbell play London's Electric Ballroom is a far cry from the pews of St Pancras Old Church where I saw him play to 100 people less than a year ago. A lot has changed for Isbell in the last 12 months; with the release of his critically acclaimed record Southeastern things are most definitely on the up. Southeastern struck a chord with many, the combination of fine lyricism and gorgeous melodies helped display Isbell's full potential as a songwriter.
Jason Isbell grew up in Green Hill, North Alabama and it was here at the age of 7 that he had his first introduction to music. "My granddad played a bunch of instruments so he taught me how to play guitar and mandolin. Playing bluegrass, old time music. The guitars he had were huge and I was small, I would play rhythm guitar and he would play fiddle or banjo or something like that."
This homespun musical education would prepare him well for what would come. By the time Jason was 16 he was watching Muscle Shoals session musicians play in bars and even sometimes playing with them. "I knew a lot of the people who had made music there in the sixties and seventies. When I was 15 or 16 I started going out and seeing these folks play. They were still playing in bands and bars. So I would go in, sit in and play with those guys. When I got to be 18 or 19 I really started studying the music that they made. It's a really big part of why I make music now" he tells me in his soft southern drawl.
The Muscle Shoals music scene has been rightly mythicized. Home to FAME studios and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, in the 1960s and 1970s everyone from Aretha Franklin to Otis Redding to The Rolling Stones recorded in Muscle Shoals. Playing on those records were the very session players that Isbell would later become friends with. "I got to be really good friends with David Hood, Spooner Oldham and a lot of those folks. I would sit in with them and they would be covering the songs that they had played on, R & B music from the 60s and 70s. That was I guess the first taste of music as a profession that I ever really got. Those folks seemed very happy you know, they had their nice house and a family that was taken care of. They weren't celebrities by any stretch so I thought maybe there's another way to do this that didn't involve being a pop singer, that was a good lesson to learn."
The Muscle Shoals session players not only provided Isbell with musical lessons but life lessons as well. David Hood gave Isbell a piece of advice that would stay with him for the rest of his life. "They had a lot of lessons to impart. Like with David Hood, I remember asking him 'how did you get all this work? What's the secret to all this?' and he just said 'show up on time, make sure all your gear works and don't be an asshole' and sure enough that's come in handy more than anything else."
Photo credit: Retna (Zoran Veselinovic)
After returning from university Jason heard of an opening to play with Drive-By Truckers. It was with the Truckers that he would get his first taste of real musical success as well as exposure to the darker side of the music business. Yet, in the early days everything was still novel and new. "They had a guitar player that wasn't in the band anymore and I had about 2 days notice. It was great fun, it was strange because I wasn't used to that but it was good strange. It was kind of a bit of a culture shock but I had a really great time." While in Drive-By Truckers Jason was exposed to a lot of music he'd never experienced before. "Patterson had grown up listening a lot of stuff that was coming out of Minneapolis. The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, a lot of that. That was stuff I started paying a lot of attention to and then bands from Athens, Georgia. I knew REM and I knew their hits, but when I got in that band, they all knew those guys. I really started digging into the back catalogue."
It was Isbell who would write some of Drive-By Truckers signature songs, Decoration Day, Goddamn Lonely Love and Outfit. Showing that he's always had a way with words, fan favourite Danko/Manuel hinted at the darker battle with drugs and alcohol that were beginning to develop. After reading This Wheels on Fire, the autobiography of Levon Helm from The Band, Isbell was struck by the similarities between the struggles that The Band had endured and his own life. As he tells me "that first chapter he starts out talking about how they had a pack where if somebody died on the road they'd put him on ice under the bus and bring him home. Then immediately cuts to Levon finding Richard in the hotel room dead. That had a big impact on me. The way it went from an in-joke between the members of The Band to something actually happening in the real world. I wrote that song because of that and the parallels between struggles they were having and the struggles I was having at the time."
In 2007 with his drinking having become particularly bad and marked musical differences becoming apparent, Isbell left Drive By Truckers. It was this decision that set him on the course to a solo career. After all what else was he going to do? Creating music was all that he has known. Albums Sirens of Death, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit and Here We Rest would follow in quick succession. Early tracks such as The Magician, Streetlights and Alabama Pines showed that despite a rough personal life Isbell hadn't lost his magic touch when it came to song writing.
Photo credit: Retna (Zoran Veselinovic)
Streetlights in particular is an interesting song. It tells the tale of a late night drunk with the peculiar line 'I blocked just a park away'. It's a line that doesn't really make sense grammatically, it should be 'I parked just a block away' but narratively it fits perfectly. As Isbell explains "I wrote that song the correct way, before I recorded it I played this show at The Bluebird in Nashville, I was sitting around with 3 other songwriters, it was the first time I'd ever played that song in public. I was drinking because when you do the Nashville rounds everyone would be sippin' and you play every forth song so you'd get toasted by the time you're 3 songs in. So I did that song and I was a little drunk and I got those lines reversed and I didn't even realise I'd done it. Then at the end of the night one of the other songwriters in the round with me said 'I just loved that part of the song', it makes sense, so I thought well I'll just leave it that way. I didn't even realise I'd done it! That was a happy accident."
Yet it was Southeastern that would really demonstrate Isbell's songwriting talents. In a good place when writing and recording the record, newly married and now sober, with a clear focus Southeastern is his most consistent record. Brutally honest, with a desperation that makes the record so vital, Southeastern is a truly special album. Produced by David Cobb and featuring Kim Richey and Amanda Shires on guest vocals, Southeastern was recorded live; a process that Isbell admits was a little frightening. "I'd never really sang vocals live before but we kept a lot of the live vocal takes on this record. It scared me to do that because I always set aside a couple of days at the end of the project to sing, I always dread those days, I hate them cos it's such tedium for me. Over and over again, trying to get everything exactly the way you want it. David Cobb talked me into keeping a lot of what I would normally use as pile up vocals. That worked out really well."
Great storytelling is really at the heart of what Jason Isbell does. Sometimes these stories can be based on real life and sometimes they can be complete fiction. Learning the lesson that not everything you write had to be true was an important one for Isbell. It was the songwriter John Prine who showed him this. For Isbell hearing the song Angel from Montgomery with its opening line 'I am an old woman named after my mother' was a pivotal moment in his life. "That was the first time I ever realised you could do that. I thought he's not a woman and then it clicked, it's like writing a book or a story or anything else." There's no silver bullet to his song writing process either as he explains "some songs I have to spend days or weeks or months on. I don't know which ones are better, there's usually something a bit special about some of the quicker songs, the ones that just sort of fall out, you kind of feel like a conduit. Elephant came out real quick. I'm not much for mystery I usually believe if you do the work, it's gotta be good work, but sometimes they just fall out and I don't know if that's because I've been storing things inside me for so long."
At the Electric Ballroom Jason plays a solid 2-hour set that spans his whole career taking in every important phase. While old Drive By Trucker songs remain favourites, it's clear that the new songs from Southeastern are the ones that go down best with fans. Not many people get a second chance and Jason Isbell is a man who knows this. Southeastern is his second chance and he's not letting it got to waste.
Jason Isbell: http://www.jasonisbell.com