Since parting ways with the Drive-By Truckers in 2007, Jason Isbell has had an uphill climb to regain the kind of footing he once had with his old band. Today, three records and a few hundred shows in, it seems clear that he’s found not only some solid ground, but the confidence to dance on it.
Steady touring and recording while breaking in a new band in the immediate aftermath of a broken marriage (to Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker) could take a lot out of even the most energetic among us, and Isbell’s first two records reflected a certain lack of commitment. They were scatter-shot affairs, displaying occasional bursts of brilliance—“Dress Blues”, from 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch remains the single best song to emerge from the Iraq War debacle—but too-frequent splotches of mediocrity.
Here We Rest
(Lightning Rod; US: 12 Apr 2011; UK: 18 Apr 2011)
At his best, Isbell is about as good a songwriter as you’ll ever hear. But, the consistency required of a solo artist just wasn’t there on those first two albums, and many fans—this one included—found they were stuck making iPod playlists out of the bright spots and relegating the other cuts to the dustbin. Thankfully, with the just-released Here We Rest, Isbell has crafted something that feels complete, full, true; it’s just about exactly what his fans have been waiting for.
I chatted with Isbell from his home in northern Alabama as he prepared to head back out on the road yet again. An easy conversationalist, obviously intelligent and kind-hearted, Isbell seemed genuinely excited to talk about what he figured was the best record he and his band had made yet.
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I reviewed your last record for PopMatters, and I criticized it for being too polished. And maybe that’s just a personal thing, but there it is. But this record feels a whole lot looser than your last. Was this a conscious thing for you and your band, to go for a more live feel?
No, I don’t think so. But it just served the songs better. We went on an individual song by song basis, and we sort of ignored any threads that might run through the entirety of the record. We just let things happen. But we’ve got a lot of songs on here that I felt would have sounded inappropriate if they were over-produced, or if they were too slick sounding. And a lot of it we just played live, or tried to make it sound like they were live in the studio. I think that just reflected the songs better for the most part. There’s some overdubbing on quite a few of the tracks, but there’s a couple of things that were done live, too. We never really do a whole album one certain way.
Funny, because this record sounds like it does have a real unifying theme running through it.
Yeah, well it was real easy to make. I feel like the band has been solid enough, we’ve been together for about three years now, we’ve had this drummer for about that long, and I think everybody got real familiar with the way each other played. We got real comfortable with each other. When we were done, that was the only thing I was really kind of concerned with, was shouldn’t we have spent more time hashing this thing out? But I don’t think that’s the case now. It turned out just right.
You’ve always been a powerful narrator of place. Your characters are rarely floating around, you know? They are rooted. And this album seems more focused on Alabama and that area than ever.
Yeah, I think that’s true. I guess it’s because I was home for so long. Last year we spent more time off the road than I have in the past ten years. There were some good sides to that and some bad sides to that. But one of the good things was that I was able to really spend time around the people who wound up combining to become the characters on this record. It’s very different to have one conversation with a person every six months and then have a conversation with them every day. You get to know the people, and they are the people I used to construct my characters. I got to know them better. And in that way I was able to tap into some more details.
Certainly the title of the record [Here We Rest], which references an old Reconstruction-era state motto, has something to say about Alabama. Are you being political here? That motto was eventually changed because they wanted something a little more “states’ rights”, right?
Yeah, the Republicans brought it in, and I guess a lot of people in the state thought that it was a little derogatory, in meaning, like it was about a sense of resignation.
And it was imposed by an outsider.
Right. Just like everything else in those days, it seemed, was being imposed by an outsider. And that’s just a really interesting thing to me, you know, that the actual constituency wasn’t given a choice.
So why this for the title? You a history buff, or was it politically-motivated in some way, some statement on “states’ rights”?
Nah. No. I guess we were just home for seven or eight months. It was about the kind of year we had and the kind of process we were going through, making the record. It was great to recuperate, and try to rebuild on a personal level. I mean, none of us are meant to be at home for very long. That’s just not how musicians are programmed. So, after awhile, it kind of felt like being home had been imposed on us. But, you know, I don’t put a whole lot of weight on the title of a record. One of my favourite records from my old band was [The Drive-By truckers’ 1999 album] Pizza Deliverance. That’s about as goofy a title for a record as you could possibly get. And it has songs like “Uncle Frank”, and songs about songwriters dying of AIDS, and all that, you know? It’s a really deep record but it’s called Pizza Deliverance. So, what you call a record is not that important, really.
You and your band the 400 Unit do a lot of touring. By my count you’ve done a few hundred shows since leaving the Truckers and heading out on your own – it’s been, what, five years?
Oh yeah, we’ve played a whole lot. It’s been three years with this drummer, and it was about a year and a half with another guy before that. And it’s gotten to be a really concise, really tight group of players. A lot of us had played together before that, too, when we were growing up. We’re all from here [northern Alabama], except for the keyboard player. It’s really worked itself into a nice group of co-workers. It’s easy when we go in and try to work out a song. It doesn’t take very long.
I figure one of your best songs for the Drive-By Truckers was “Danko/Manuel”, which I hear as a song about an apprehension about life on the road, and what it can do to you, what it did to those guys. Is it getting easier on the road for you?
You know, it goes in spells. Some parts have gotten easier. I’ve learned to pace myself. I take a little bit better care of myself when we’re travelling. But, at the same time we’re travelling in a van now. I got real spoiled travelling for four years with the Truckers in a bus. Hopefully that’ll come back sometime soon! I’m hoping that the level of comfort increases as my age increases. If that happens we should be fine. We’ll tour for a long time.
This new record is populated by some real hard luck cases. How hard hit was your hometown by the past few years? You in a particularly depressed area of Alabama?
I don’t know how it compares to the rest of the state, but it’s like saying “a depressed area of Michigan,” you know? I mean, we’re all depressed. We’re all kind of screwed right now. I think, I mean, everywhere in Alabama seems like it isn’t doing so well right now. Seems like the people I saw on a daily basis while I was working on the record were having some really hard times, you know, and in some ways I was too. Those things just kind of got mixed around in my head, and I started paying attention to some of the stories that I overheard, some of the conversations I had with folks, and that’s what came out.
Certainly “Save it for Sunday” has this real feel of, hey, we all got problems.
Yeah. Right. Well, three or four years ago if somebody came into the bar and they had lost their job, it was like “well, let’s buy this guy a drink and let’s hang out and try to console him a little bit.” Now, it’s like, well the guy next to him lost his wife a few days ago, and the guy next to him lost his job today, too. So, you’re just going to have to deal with it yourself. And that kind of takes away from the sense of community. It really starts to frustrate people, too. That frustration, that fear, can lead to a lot of depression, and a lot of violence for a community.
There’s nothing more dangerous for a community than the moment when depression because normal, commonplace. When it’s expected.
It’s true. It’s hard for someone who’s really bad off himself to help his neighbour, and gradually, over a period of time, you see that start tearing down the fundament of community.
It’s when you start to see the word “hope” disappear.
This is maybe part of what I find so attractive about the new record. You are dealing with all of this darkness, but your choruses are soaring, and lovely. Like you’re determined to find some beauty in this stuff.
Well, that’s in a lot of ways the purpose of making blues music. Which is what permeates everything I do and, I think, everything most honest country or rock musicians are doing. And I think that’s kind of the point of it, to find something redemptive in those stories, and to somehow exorcise those demons for yourself and for your listeners, too.
And then you toss in this amazing cover of “Heart on a String” which breaks all that tension because it feels like it’s just for fun.
Yeah, it is. Oh, it’s such a great song, you know? And we actually recorded it without the intention to put it on the album, and then when we saw how it turned out we said, well, this’d probably be a good one to throw in there and… you know, I’d never put a cover song on a record before. But, a friend of mine, Mickey Buckins from Muscle Shoals, was one of the writers on that song, and I just really loved that song, and that record. And it’s something not enough people have heard. It’s from a Candi Staton record from the early 1970s, out of Muscle Shoals. I believe it was self-titled. It’s just such an incredible record! It’s been re-released in the past few years, but it never made it into a big printing. It’s just a ridiculously good record.
I didn’t know the song. I’ll admit that, in my notes, I had written “Delaney and Bonnie or something, circa 1970?”
Oh, yeah, [laughs]. Yeah, it’s similar to that, but it’s a real black person. [laughing]. Much as I love Bonnie, this was by a real black person.
With “Dress Blues”, and now “Tour of Duty”, you seem to suggest that you can’t go home again, even though home is the only thing that feels real while you’re gone. What’s the role of the war for the folks you’re writing about here?
I think there are a large percentage of people from small towns like this that wind up overseas for different reasons. So, yeah, I do know a lot of people who are over there. But, you know, I’m not, so I’m not able to write about the war as it happens. I do think I am fairly familiar with the effect the war has on these kids of communities, and the effect it has on a lot of those folks when they get home, and how it affects their families when they don’t. But… it surprises me when people ask me why the war is such a big deal to me. You know what I mean? It’s like people have gotten so desensitized to the fact that we’re still involved in these conflicts that it surprises them when somebody writes a song about it, or even a book about it. I don’t know if it’s just oversaturation. I don’t know if it’s because CNN is just one channel away from The Real Housewives of Atlanta. I don’t know if people start lumping these together into the same category in their minds.
Like they’re both just entertainments? Or, like, noise?
Yeah, that’s kind of what it has become, and it’s not. It’s a serious thing we should be thinking about on a day to day basis. And I just try to write about the effect that it has on me, and on people around me, because there are a lot of kids from small towns and rural areas across the country that’ll wind up going over there.
It’s no secret that the Army draws disproportionately from rural and lower-income families.
In a lot of ways people think of it as their way out. It’s a way to travel, make some money, get an education paid for. Make something of themselves. That’s a good thing for a lot of kids. But, at the same time, it can have a big impact when everyone in town knows you and you come home with your leg blown off, or you don’t come home at all. That’s going to affect everyone in town. So, you know, when somebody asks me “why write about it”? I mean… why not?