Jason Isbell’s songs sink into deep spaces, whether he’s musing about lonely love or a fallen soldier’s funeral. And they’re sung in a Southern drawl, a nod to Isbell’s roots in Alabama.
The level of detail and emotional punch in Isbell’s writing makes him one of the best singer-songwriters to emerge in the past few years. That’s no secret to fans of the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell’s former band. But he’s since gone solo, with an excellent album called “Sirens of the Ditch.”
“The most important thing is honesty from the writer to the audience,” says Isbell, in a phone call while traveling to Memphis, Tenn. “I think as long as you stay in the realm of things you know something about, it’s hard to go wrong. Melody is a big component. But there are a lot of songs I like, especially in the hip-hop world, that don’t have much of a melody at all. Most of my favorite songs have moments of tension and release, lyrically and melodically, that make the song for me.”
Isbell was raised near Muscle Shoals, Ala., and was surrounded by music. His father kept records by Merle Haggard and George Jones on the stereo, and many of his aunts and uncles were musicians.
Isbell was native to an area of Alabama that’s steeped in rich musical history. Artists ranging from the Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Otis Redding recorded at such area studios as Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and FAME Studios.
“I think it gets underrated more often than not,” says Isbell about Muscle Shoals. “There is a great deal of music that’s come out of there that’s had a huge influence on a lot of artists.”
In 2001 Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers, a band by way of Athens, Ga., and wrote some of the group’s signature tunes. “Never Gonna Change” was Isbell’s testament to the people of south Alabama and all their tenaciousness, while “Outfit” was a surefire sing-along at the group’s concerts:
“Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit/Don’t ever say your car is broke/Don’t worry about losing your accent/a Southern Man tells better jokes.”
All the while, Isbell recorded the songs that would make up “Sirens of the Ditch.” While his former band specialized in Southern rock with a sociological twist - something like Lynyrd Skynyrd in the age of job outsourcing - Isbell’s solo songs didn’t dwell so much on the rat race of American life. Such tracks as “Shotgun Wedding” and “Try” tackle the personal politics of relationships, and the sounds are rounded out with power-pop and touches of classic soul.
“It’s been something I’d been working on for the past 3 ½ to four years before it actually came out,” says Isbell, who split from Drive-By Truckers in 2007. “I’d spent so much time touring and recording with the Truckers that I didn’t have time to go and knock it out in the studio. I really tried to keep the songs separate. It really became kind of obvious that they fit a little better in this (solo) context than it would in (the Drive-By Truckers).”
One of the album’s most stunning songs is “Dress Blues,” a slow country-waltz that tells the story of a fallen soldier in the Iraq war. It’s a tear-jerker of a tune with lyrics that pinpoint the subtleties of sorrow: “Your very last tour would be up/But you won’t be back/They’re all dressing in black/Drinking sweet tea in Styrofoam cups.”
“It’s a pretty true story,” says Isbell. “It’s about a fellow that I went to high school with. He went over there and died right before he turned 22, right before his wife had a baby - all that horrible stuff really happened.”
Isbell’s now playing with a backing band called 400 Unit, which features musicians that Isbell’s known since before his Drive-By Truckers days. And they’ll spend the better part of the year on the road, though Isbell’s hoping to have a new album out by the year’s end.
But new album or not, you can be sure that Isbell will keep writing the kinds of songs that tug at your gut.
“As long as I can continue to do this and not go back to pushing shopping carts, I’ll be pretty happy,” he says.