Jason Isbell doesn’t mince words while discussing his battle with the bottle.
“Man, I’m an alcoholic,” the Alabama singer-songwriter said of his addiction that involved a dangerously close friendship with Mr. Jack Daniel’s. “So I drank all the time. I used to think I didn’t drink in the morning, but my wife pointed out to me that I didn’t usually wake up in the morning.”
Isbell laughed, yet knows there’s nothing funny about the damage he caused.
Sober since February 2012 right around his 33rd birthday, the thinking-man’s rocker with a soulful sound and a few folk-them-all tendencies hopes that positive turn means he’s not kidding around.
In a confluence of events on his way to adulthood, the former guitarist and valuable member of the Drive-By Truckers seemed relaxed talking on the phone from his Nashville home about his progression. It was just days before resuming the life of a touring musician as he awaits the June 11 release of Southeastern, his first solo project since 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch.
Isbell finished the album in late February, the day before his wedding to Amanda Shires, another stirring singer-songwriter whose fabulous touch on the fiddle makes her a true triple threat.
Asked what effect these recent changes have had on him, Isbell said, “You know what, I think it’s too soon to tell. It’s a lot of things to process all at once. But it seems like they’ve all been really good things, so I don’t have any complaints about that. I do, I guess, in some ways feel like I’m actually becoming an adult for the first time in my life. Which is pretty important.”
A fan of Roger Ebert, Isbell was enthralled with a remark the late, great film critic made about the bond he and his future wife Chaz would eventually develop.
“He felt like he actually began his life as an adult or as a contributing citizen,” Isbell recalled.
“I think a lot of these events for me have culminated in the same thing. I’ve spent a lot of time in a rock ‘n’ roll band trying to fight off the fact that I was old enough to rent a car. And it’s all sort of rushed in at once now. And I like it. I don’t mind it a bit. I definitely don’t feel like 34 is middle age quite yet. I think I still qualify as young, especially these days. But, you know, I feel more like a contributing member of society rather than a hooligan.” (laughs)
Isbell still looks back fondly at those early halcyon days with the Truckers, when he went on the road seemingly forever at the age of 22.
Raised in and around Green Hill, Alabama, which he describes as “very Bible Belt” and “a place that was really small and sheltered,” Isbell made the most of his rock-around-the-clock lifestyle. “I had to do a bit of that,” he said. “I might have done a little bit more than I needed to, but some of it was good.”
If only his memory were clearer. That unfulfilled wish to fill in the blanks led to Isbell’s “gradual decision” to give up his drinking-without-blinking behavior.
“When I was playing with the Truckers, a lot of really good things happened,” he said. “And we had a good trajectory for a long time. For that kind of a band, for the kind of music that I’ve always made, we had a lot of success, I think. Just being able to play for a lot of people and not having to get a second job is a lot of success for the kind of music that we all make. And I noticed that a lot of those things I didn’t remember.”
As his recovery continues, Isbell added, “I feel like I’m back on a path that’s a lot of fun. I didn’t want to go through that and not remember it again.”
Isbell needed to fight his personal demons and credits Shires, along with Traci Thomas, his manager at Thirty Tigers, and Ryan Adams for helping him make it through the process.
“The first three or four months I think is the hardest,” Isbell said of his recovery. “When you don’t have a pattern of behavior, you don’t really know what to do with yourself. But after that it got a whole lot easier. You know, you get a lot more hours out of the day. (While drinking), I was operating on probably 12 hours at the most. The rest of the time was spent either sleeping it off or trying to work off hangovers. ...
“I’ve never been someone who’s very prone to boredom. I don’t know, boredom seems like something you should grow out of at about 15 or 16. There’s so much that needs to be done.”
He found more than a musical kinship with Adams, and joined the alt-country artist, himself in recovery after a period of substance abuse, on tour shortly after deciding to quit. “He was a good example and had a lot of plans to keep us both occupied while we were on the road,” Isbell said. “It was nice to talk to him about it.”
Of course, the priority list also included a wedding to plan and a record to cut, not necessarily in that order. Isbell said he basically put this finishing touches on Southeastern at Nashville’s Falling Rock Studio on February 22, 2013, less than 24 hours before he and Shires got married in Nashville.
The day after the wedding, Isbell did some overdubs, then couldn’t approve the masters until, “in the middle of nowhere” during his honeymoon in Costa Rica, he tracked down a pair of headphones that started falling apart as soon as he discovered a Wi-Fi hotspot closer to civilization.
Making Southeastern wasn’t nearly as difficult.
The album title has nothing to do with the region Isbell knows so well, though. He actually named it after a tool and die plant in Alabama that once employed his father Mike, who would often come home to tell his 5-year-old son horrifying stories about his day on the job.
“Somebody would get a piece of iron in their eye and rather than file a workman’s comp claim, one of the supervisors would scratch it out with a credit card,” Isbell recalled hearing as a petrified country boy.
Tales of terror like that would be enough to fill a double album, but Isbell believed he had more than enough stuff to draw from just in the past year.
“It had me at a more introspective point,” he said, pointing out that he never goes into a project with a constant theme in mind (that’s “for other people to find,” he said).
“I’ll take a certain concern of my own or a situation and try to frame it around a fictional story, but sometimes just straight-up autobiographical songs work well and sometimes a story is better. I like stories. I like to hear them. I don’t think there are enough of them in songs anymore.”
Because of “the personal nature of the songs,” Isbell initially set out to make a record with only himself and an acoustic guitar. “And then Dave (Cobb), the producer, and me both sort of got bored with that idea.”
So while gentle but profound tunes such as “Relatively Easy,” and “Songs That She Sang In The Shower” are there, working with Derry deBorja (keyboards) and Chad Gamble (drums) of the 400 Unit (Isbell’s band that includes bassist Jimbo Hart will add Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ guitarist Sadler Vaden on tour) also led to a couple of explosive alternative rockers. With electric guitars blazing, “Flying Over Water” and “Super 8” (with the wickedly outrageous line “I don't wanna die in a Super 8 motel/Just because somebody's evening didn't go so well”) are guaranteed to be crowd favorites on this summer’s setlist.
“Yeah, I didn’t want to bore everybody to tears,” Isbell added. “I still like to play rock ‘n’ roll and still consider myself to be a guy in a rock ‘n’ roll band. So that was fun for me. ... I think it’s bad when somebody takes a song that sounds like it should be a rock song and tries to fit it in with a project that they’re working on by turning it into something different.”
Isbell’s decision to hire an outside producer for the first time (he and Patterson Hood co-produced Sirens of the Ditch) primarily had to do with his refusal to repeat himself.
“I have a lot of friends who make great records but they won’t turn loose of the reins,” Isbell said. “And they wind up making the same record over and over. ... I understand you want to keep those things close to your chest, but after going through the process of recovering from alcoholism, I think I was able to ... a little bit more familiar with that idea of turning over control to somebody else.
“That’s really the foundation of (Alcoholics Anonymous). I’m not a practicing AA guy by any means, but to get rid of a burden like that, you have to turn over some control because you’ve lost it yourself. And that, I think, prepared me a little bit for this process in a whole lot of ways.”
Featured guests include Kim Richey (vocals on “Stockholm” and “Relatively Easy”) and Shires (fiddle and vocals on “Traveling Alone,” his favorite track that an exhausted Isbell conceived during another endless wait in an airport). That lovely, simple song indirectly speaks to the loneliness of a touring musician.
Pain in the outside lane, I'm tired of answering to myself
Heart like a rebuilt part, I don't know how much it's got left
His marriage to Shires should ease some of that pain. He remembers first trying to meet the Lubbock, Texas native while she was playing with Billy Joe Shaver at the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2003. Now he thinks their first encounter was in 2004, when he “stumbled” into the Caledonia Lounge in Athens, Georgia, where she and the Thrift Store Cowboys were performing.
“We met then and talked some through the years,” Isbell said. “Not a whole lot but we knew each other and we were fairly good friends, I think, for a long time and then a couple of years ago ... you know how things work out with that sometimes.”
Citing a quote by American painter Chuck Close — “I always thought inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work” — Isbell believes everyday life situations are enough to stir those creative impulses. But being married to a writer who’s serious enough about her craft that she’s on her way to earning a Master of Fine Arts from the Sewanee School of Letters can’t hurt either.
Spending the past two summers in an intensive program while her then-boyfriend often sat in the back listening “to the poetry professors tear the kids apart,” Shires this year is contemplating studying the works of Irish literary legend James Joyce. The syllabus alone, Isbell said, “is one of the most frightening things I’ve ever seen in my life.” And if being a student and newlywed weren’t challenging enough, she is scheduled to release her fourth solo album in August.
Not that the man behind “Alabama Pines,” 2012’s Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year, needs schooling, but perhaps his symbiotic relationship with Shires provided the impetus to write “Live Oak,” with the opening verse:
There's a man who walks beside me he is who I used to be,
and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me
And I wonder who she's pining for on nights I'm not around
Could it be the man who did the things I'm living down
“I was thinking about there being two separate incarnations of myself and how different would they wind up being and which one would be the easier to love,” Isbell explained about the identity crisis he faced and addressed in “Live Oak.”
Asked if he has his answer yet, Isbell laughed.
“Somewhat. Yeah, it’s always gonna be tough for that kind of stuff. But somewhat. I feel fairly confident that I’m a more realized version of myself now.”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (along with Amanda Shires) are scheduled to perform at 6:30 p.m. May 19 on the BMI Stage at the 2013 Hangout Festival. (From left, Chad Gamble, drums; Jason Isbell, guitars, vocals; Jimbo Hart, bass; and Derry deBorja, keyboards.)
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post. Jason Isbell publicity photo by Michael Wilson. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit photo courtesy of the Hangout Festival.
Alabama Getaway: Jason Isbell on the Hangout, festivals and more
How familiar are you with Gulf Shores?
“I’ve been down there a lot. We used to go on family vacations. I’ve got an uncle that lives down there. ... It’s a place that reminds me of being a little kid.”
Having spent time with your family there, what was your most memorable trip to Gulf Shores?
“There was a vacation we went on (probably in 1991) with my grandparents before they died that was really nice. They’d never really been to the ocean before, I don’t think. That was probably the first time and last time for them. ... That was one of the last family vacations we went on before (his parents Mike and Angelia) got divorced. (Granddad) didn’t own a pair of shorts. The only T-shirts he had were undershirts. So he spent all of his time on the beach in long sleeves and slacks.” (laughs)
What’s your best or worst festival experience?
“I really love Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival in San Francisco. I think Warren Hellman was a really great person and a bit of a visionary for starting that festival. I’ve always had a great time there. (In October 2012), I saw the last U.S. shows of Broken Social Scene. .... I think Warren, who organized the festival, had died right before that. Everybody had a tribute to him. He was a big deal. He did a lot of really good things for that city. That festival’s free and there aren’t any corporate sponsorships so you don’t have to play on a Bud Light stage or any of that shit. ... About halfway through (a set with Justin Townes Earle), I heard over my shoulder, ‘Give me that guitar, boy.’ I turned around, I told Justin, ‘I think my guitar just got stolen by a Muslim.’ (laughs) But it was Steve (Justin’s Big Daddy).”
What’s your favorite song about Alabama, other than your own? Or you can name one of your own if you want.
(laughs) “Well, I’m not gonna do that. I like the old ‘Alabama Rag.’ ‘Oh! Susanna’ is a good song. It’s not necessarily the most politically correct material these days. But I like that. I think ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is a good song. I don’t see anything wrong with that one at all.”
Have you covered that yet?
“No, I haven’t. That’s one of those that I’ve managed to avoid. I’ve heard plenty of bands cover that over the years. Especially where I’m from.”
What’s your favorite song to cover and why? (Isbell and The Civil Wars' John Paul White recently recorded "Old Flame," which will appear on a tribute album to country group Alabama.)
“I’ve always wanted to pull off ‘No One is to Blame’ by Howard Jones. I’ve done that a couple times in solo shows but I can’t figure out how to do that with a full band and make it work. I love Howard Jones. I like a lot of the ’80s pop. I think it’s interesting when bands like ours cover ’80s pop songs. ... We did a version of ‘Overkill’ by Men at Work for a little while that was way slowed down. There were some beautiful songs, some beautiful melodies from that time period that were getting played on the radio.”
And how about your favorite musician from Alabama?
“Hank Williams. Yeah, that’s the one. If you gotta pick, that’s the one for sure.”