20 Questions: Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Lightening Rod

Jason Isbell as a solo artist is “brimming with talent and blessed with a killer voice”, says PopMatters’ Stuart Henderson. Formerly with the Drive-By Truckers and now working on a new album, “Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Lightning Rod, February 17) with The 400 Unit, this singer, songwriter, and guitarist is as comfortable in Burberry and Italian leather slippers as he is living in small-town Alabama where he “don’t scare easily,” he tells PopMatters 20 Questions. Just be wary should he invite you to a game of pool – you’re likely to lose your shirt.

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

Probably In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster. It’s about a post-apocalyptic city, probably New York, and a young girl trying to find her journalist brother. Serious stuff, and very well done.

2. The fictional character most like you?

Probably Newman’s Eddie Felson from The Hustler. I drink a lot and I play a lot of pool, and it’s interesting to note the similarities between a road player and a traveling musician. I also sympathize with the idea of chasing a singular, seemingly unattainable goal, only to realize the costs once you’ve accomplished that goal.

3. The greatest album, ever?

The one that impacted me the most as a teenager would have to be Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos. I guess if I have to pick a favorite, that would be the one. I spent years poring over every aspect of that album.

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Star Trek. Kirk got laid, often by strangely-colored women.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Almonds and O.J. When I was in school, I had a government teacher named Guy McCombs who advocated a handful of almonds and a glass of orange juice before big tests, and I really think it worked. I’m kind of allergic to O.J., though, so I have to really want it. Guy was a great teacher, and an interesting character. I think he’s an Alabama lawyer now.

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

If you mean the accomplishment of having a great job, then yes, I am proud. I spent my early years in a single-wide trailer in my grandmother’s front yard, and I’m now able to pay all my bills with work I’d do for free. I need an infomercial.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

At least a week. It’ll take that long to gather up all my stuff.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

Kurt Vonnegut. Dr. King, of course. Folks like Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison. Inventors amaze me. When I’m on tour, I find myself often stopping to consider how much has been built by man. Just when you think you’ve accomplished something, you flip a light switch…

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I think that’s my favorite novel. There’s so much going on in that one, and it sparked my interest in a part of the world that I’d never really considered before.

10. Your hidden talents…?

I’m a halfway-decent pool player, and I could’ve been a great lawyer. I can argue with the best of them.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

“Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race”. — Calvin Coolidge

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

The Ford Econoline E350 passenger van. I’ve bought and I’ve borrowed. Maybe the finest automobile ever made.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

Levis are hard to beat, but I have to admit, there is something about tailored clothes that make a man feel purposeful and confident. I’m a big fan of Burberry and Italian leather slippers. Betcha didn’t know that.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

A beautiful woman. That maybe the only reason to eat dinner, or do anything else, for that matter.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I’d love to see my family as they were when they were young. I dream about it. There would be a lifetime of insight found in one day with my grandparents when they were 25, or my father at 17… just as long as he didn’t kick my ass.

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

A 9-ball race to 25 on a nine-foot Gold Crown with Xiaoting Pan or Jasmin Ouschan, though I know I would lose horribly.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

Coffee, cigarettes, Tennessee whiskey, and Goody’s powder. If it worked for Richard Petty, it works for me.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

I like living in small-town Alabama, even though she has a long way to go. If I had kids, I might go somewhere more diverse, but my family’s here, the cost of living is low, and I don’t scare easily.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Since today is the 22nd of January, I’d congratulate the man on rejuvenating the relationship between people and politics in America. I would also ask that he try not to remind me of Tony Blair by pulling the old bait-and-switch and letting down the young and hopeful who gave him his job. I would tell him that I have faith in him.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

We’re getting ready to release our new record on February 17. Rehearsing starts soon, and we’re trying to expand on the show a bit. I’m attempting to move away from the standard bar band performance (although there’s not a damn thing wrong with that), and make the whole experience a bit bigger and more singular.

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit