Music

Musician Jason Isbell: I’m 'a lot more comfortable in my own skin'

Chris Riemenschneider
Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Jason Isbell is releasing Something More Than Free, his fifth solo album since being ousted from stalwart country-rock unit the Drive-by Truckers in 2007.

For anyone who saw the recent Rolling Stone magazine headline where Jason Isbell himself declared his new album “celebratory,” the Alabama singer/songwriter now admits you probably should put that description in perspective with the record that came before it.

“Maybe ‘comfortable’ is a better way of putting it than ‘celebratory’?” he said with a slight laugh last week.

“I had become a lot more comfortable in my own skin. It’s written from the perspective of a person who feels like they’re doing a lot better.”

Isbell is releasing “Something More Than Free,” his fifth solo album since being ousted from stalwart country-rock unit the Drive-by Truckers in 2007. It’s the follow-up to an emotionally guttural record that became Isbell’s all-time career high, 2013’s “Southeastern.”

Written while Isbell was still licking the wounds from a hard fight toward sobriety, “Southeastern” not only doled out songs about alcoholism, but also cancer, divorce, sexual abuse and a nearly fatal night at a Super 8 motel. It was as heavy as albums can get without the use of death-metal riffs.

Talking by phone as his tour rolled through Mississippi, the 36-year-old Muscle Shoals area native — who hung around the legendary FAME studio while still in his teens — said there’s no way he could have dipped into the same artistic well as “Southeastern” even if he wanted to.

“I wasn’t in the same place psychologically this time around,” he said.

“When I wrote ‘Southeastern,’ I wasn’t very comfortable with the world at that point. I really didn’t know what to do with myself. It had a lot of that in it — a lot of questioning and desperation. I think that’s one of the reasons it resonated with people the way it did.”

Two years later, Isbell is indeed doing much better. He virtually swept last year’s Americana Music Awards and sold out venues throughout his busy 2013-14 tour schedule. His personal life appears to be moving along even more swimmingly than his career.

In 2013, Isbell married Texan singer/violinist Amanda Shires, who also became a key part of his sturdy band the 400 Unit. She’s due with their first child in early September.

“I’m ready for it,” Isbell said of parenthood. “I’ve been wanting kids for a long time, and I’m especially ready now. I figure if you’re not ready to have a kid when you’re 36 years old — if you don’t have your [stuff] together by then — you’re in trouble.”

That thought plays into one of the more moving songs on Isbell’s new record, a ’70s-folky-sounding tune called “Children of Children,” actually written before he knew he was going to be a dad. In it, he sings, “I was riding on my mother’s hip, she was shorter than the corn / All the years I took from her just by being born.”

“It’s about my parents and my wife’s parents,” Isbell explained. “They had similar situations, where they became parents when they were very young. I always think about the opportunities my parents may have missed because they were just kids when I came into the world.”

It’s a theme that goes back to one of Isbell’s best-known songs, “Outfit.” Recorded for the Drive-by Truckers’ 2003 album, “Decoration Day,” it recounts his dad selling his Ford Mustang 302: “Me and your mama made you in the back, and I sold it to buy her a ring.”

“As hard an adjustment as it might be for Amanda and I,” Isbell added, “I know having kids will be a lot easier for us than it was for our parents.”

“Children of Children” also exemplifies how — even if it’s not the personal salvo that the last record was — “Something More Than Free” is still loaded with dramatic moments and stories inspired by real life. Whether he’s writing about a dying state trooper (“Speed Trap Town”), his hardworking dad (the title track) or the defunct Texas group Centro-matic (“To a Band That I Loved”), Isbell still has a way of making the songs sound personal.

“I wind up in all my songs, whether I mean to be or not,” he admitted. “I do try to distinctly write about other people. I try hard to think a lot about people that may not have the same lifestyle that I do, or may not have the same kind of rewards I have.

“There are also songs on this record that are narrative-driven from an untrustworthy narrator’s point of view. I still find myself in those songs, and I still write those songs to try to answer questions that I myself have.”

One of the most autobiographical-sounding tracks is the album’s first single, “24 Frames,” seemingly about making amends and appreciating those who stood by him through his most difficult phases. When it comes to writing songs and performing them on tour, though, Isbell marveled over how much easier that part of his life is since he gave up the clichéd version of a rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.

“More than anything else, I have so much more time to work now,” he said of living sober.

“I can sit and focus for seven or eight hours working on a song and not have that urge at the back of my mind to start drinking. That’s a great thing. And when I wake up, I don’t have to spend a couple hours getting over a hangover. I can go straight to work.”

And for the next two months at least — until that baby arrives — this schedule should hold solid.

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