Boozing it up as a musician is one of those rites of passage that creative types are supposed to partake in and for Jason Isbell, it’s one of those duties he was more than willing to execute throughout a career dating back to his time in y’alternative southern rockers The Drive-By Truckers. That is until future wife Amanda Shires took him up on one of his many offers to go to rehab. It’s a choice he embraced back in January 2012 and it has already yielded musical fruit in the form of the dozen songs that make up 2013’s Southeastern.
The Alabama native’s fourth solo album has struck quite a chord thanks to Isbell’s rich, character-driven mini-sagas embraced by predominantly acoustic arrangements. It’s deservedly wound up on numerous Best of 2013 lists and many are saying this may be his best solo outing to date. And while the idea of making music without knocking a few back might have been cause for concern, Isbell was pleased with how abstaining from alcohol affected his first post-rehab recording.
“[Sobriety] gave me more time to work. I didn’t feel like I was spending hours a day recovering from the night before or spending a lot of time out at bars,” he explained. “When the sun went down when I was drinking, I always felt like I should be out somewhere socializing and having a few drinks, which usually turned into a lot. The next day it took me a few hours to get moving, so I didn’t have to worry about that and [making music] became a whole lot easier.”
With the only hiccup being the fact that new buddy Ryan Adams wound up begging off producing Southeastern due to scheduling conflicts, the newly-minted teetotaler tapped Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings, Jamey Johnson) to slide into Adams’ slot.
Without missing a beat, Isbell came away with a number of introspective songs. Among them are “Elephant” and “Yvette,” moving ruminations framed in quasi-acoustic arrangements about cancer and sexual abuse respectively. And while they may seem semi-autobiographical, Isbell explains that’s simply not the case.
“These are not singular stories. They come from stories I gleaned from a few different people’s experiences,” he pointed out. “[These songs do] have elements of truth and things that actually happened because I think good fiction has to. But it’s not one person’s individual story. I try to shy away from that. It feels a little more creative and a little less personally damaging if I combine stories together. The thing is about a song is that you don’t really have to categorize songs by their true stories.”
The Alabama native grew up in the northern part of the state not too far from Florence, where the storied Muscle Shoals or Rick Hall’s FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) studios are located. This was where the quartet of Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood were the session musicians behind seminal recordings by an enormous array of artists including Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Tom Jones, Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.
It was here where Isbell hooked up with David Hood’s son Patterson, who had founded the band Drive-By Truckers. After meeting up with the younger Hood around town and playing a few shows together as a duo, Isbell joined the band right after college when a slot opened up in the group.
Isbell brought then-spouse Shonna Tucker into the band to play bass, but within a few years, Isbell’s relations had deteriorated with both his wife and other members of the Truckers. When asked about that, the 34-year-old singer-songwriter is refreshingly candid about why he left.
“We just didn’t get along any more. We’re all fine now. I’ve actually been in contact with Patterson quite a bit. But I was getting divorced and we were both still in the band,” he explained. “Plus there was a lot of s— going on at the time. I was drinking way too much. I mean we all were. I know for a fact that I was drinking too much. We just didn’t like being around each other anymore. It’s just like having a bunch of roommates that you sometimes you just get tired of having.”
Regardless of how relations wound up, Isbell’s musical education lasted five years and one he marvels at pointing out how ahead of his time he felt Patterson Hood was.
“Before crowdsourcing was a way to do things, that’s what Patterson [Hood] had come up with. Before Kickstarter was around, they were putting out Southern Rock Opera. It was a model where they sold 20,000 copies of that out of the back of the van themselves. And they had investors to make a record and wound up paying everybody back,” Isbell recalled.
“We’d play 250 shows a year as an average. I don’t think I’ll ever work that hard again in my life and I don’t think I’ll ever want to. [But] it was a good work ethic and it showed me what it takes to actually make a living and to do it making the kind of music that you actually want to make. That’s the hard part. A lot of people can make a living writing songs, but they would have to write songs for financial purposes, and I’ve never had to do that. I think that might have gone differently had I not been in that band.”
Jason Isbell will be appearing with Craig Finn of The Hold Steady on May 19 at The Space at Westbury, 250 Post Ave. For more information, please call 516-283-5566 or visit www.thespaceatwestbury.com.