Going south in any direction

Jason Isbell's roots show everywhere he plays

by Walter Tunis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

27 July 2009


LEXINGTON, Ky. — He is, in every sense of the shopworn rock ‘n’ roll term, a road warrior.

For example, Alabama rocker Jason Isbell was playing a gig two Saturdays ago “on top of a mountain in Utah.” Then, Isbell and his tour-tested, meat-and-potatoes band, The 400 Unit, were coming to Lexington.

“Isn’t that crazy?” Isbell mused via phone, having spent the afternoon driving through Wyoming.

Well, yes and no. A journey from Wyoming and Utah to Kentucky certainly constitutes a frightening amount of road time. But criss-crossing the country is nothing new for Isbell. He did it for years as a member of Drive-By Truckers. Then he got tired of working in a musical democracy and started giving his own name and his own music top priority.

“You get more used to touring like this,” Isbell said. “Maybe not completely. I don’t necessarily think touring like this is natural. But I don’t know if getting used to it makes it any easier or harder. In some ways, when you’re not used to it, it’s a little more fun. I actually like the traveling. It can be taxing. But it can be a lot easier than having a real job.”

Much like his 2007 debut album, “Sirens of the Ditch,” Isbell’s self-titled sophomore album is a joyride through the new musical South. Of course in Isbell’s hands, such sounds resemble Southern music from the ‘60s more than the later boogie-blues amalgamation known as Southern rock.

In fact, “Seven Mile Island,” the lead-off tune to “Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit,” winds multiple threads of dobro and steel guitar around a chant-style percussive groove. Later, “Cigarettes and Wine” simmers to the mood with a barroom meditation better suited to vintage R&B, with its colors of Rhodes-style electric piano, than to a more obvious country music canvas.

Such a scenario would seem to be a natural fit. Isbell grew up — and still lives — not far from one of the great ‘60s meccas of Southern soul music, Muscle Shoals, Ala. Isbell even recorded his new album at Alabama’s Fame Studios, the same place where Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Duane Allman, King Curtis, Betty LaVette and others have cut astounding soul music over the decades.

But Isbell said Muscle Shoals remains more of a community inspiration than a specific musical influence when it comes to the records he makes with The 400 Unit.

“It’s more the community than the products of that community,” Isbell said. “It’s more about the people who made the music than the music itself.

“Even though I’m a huge fan of what people would call soul music and a lot of the rock ‘n’ roll that came out of there, I probably got more from just getting to know the people that actually worked on those records,” he said. “I still see those people a lot, and they definitely still motivate me to keep my standards high.”

Topics: jason isbell
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