FOR FIVE YEARS, Alabama native Jason Isbell held down a spot at the front of the stage in Athens, Ga.’s Drive By Truckers.
An accomplished guitarist, singer and lyricist in his own right, Isbell found his contributions to the band’s 2003 LP Decoration Day lauded at least as much as those of the band’s founding songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.
Over the course of that stint in what many consider one of the premiere examples of “New Southern Rock,” Isbell saw the band go from headlining decent-sized bars to opening for some of the biggest names in hard and roots rock, and drawing massive crowds on their own.
However, this past April, Isbell surprised fans by leaving the group (a move which has been described by both sides as amicable). He subsequently released a debut album under his own name, Sirens Of The Ditch, and formed a new road band to tour behind the record. The record, which prominently features several members of the Truckers —including Savannah native John Neff— leans in a slightly more pop direction than DBT loyalists might have expected, but has received high marks from critics as well as the buying public.
Having downshifted a bit from the rock star tour buses favored by his former bandmates, Isbell and his Alabama-based backing band The 400 Unit now make their living by playing medium-sized bars and clubs as well as small theaters — working their way back up the ladder he had only recently climbed.
I caught up with the songwriter by phone in Colorado, and we spoke about the making of this record, his elation at the public’s reaction to the new disc and band, and his upcoming show at Locos.
How’s the tour been going so far?
Jason Isbell: It’s been good. We’ve been really busy this year — especially since the record came out in July. We’ve been touring steadily since. We’ve played a lot of good shows in front of good-sized crowds.
Is their any aspect of life on the road and audience reactions to your solo material since leaving the Truckers that has caught you by surprise?
Jason Isbell: It’s probably a little bit of a surprise that things have picked up so quickly and so many people have come to the shows right off the bat. Other than that, I kinda knew what to expect, you know?
What do you mean exactly?
Jason Isbell: Well, I knew what it would be like to be living out of a van again, and all that stuff. I figured a lotta people who had been responsive to the Truckers stuff would like this record and this band, but I think it’s been surprising there’s so many of ‘em! (laughs) There’ve been quite a few that I don’t believe were Truckers fans who are only now getting turned onto what I do.
Sirens Of The Ditch has been out for a few months now. Do you think it’s been judged fairly on its own merits, or do you worry that folks may still view you through the prism of your last band, rather than looking at this as completely separate?
Jason Isbell: Well, either way, it doesn’t really bother me if they do or not. I feel we did a lot of great work with the last band and I feel I’m capable of doing a lot of great work now. It’s always gonna be something that... Well, maybe not always, but they’re certainly gonna compare at least this record to the Truckers. For one thing, I made it at the exact same time I made a lot of records with them. I mean, they all play on it. I got a lot of help from Patterson, Shonna (Tucker) and John Neff, so I can see how people would make comparisons between that group and this particular record. It never really started out as a side project, but it’s wound up getting a lot more attention than I initially planned on.
Had these tracks been around a while?
Jason Isbell: Oh yeah. This is stuff I had to do whenever I wasn’t out on the road or recording with the Truckers. It took probably close to three years to finish. I don’t plan on doing it that way again (laughs), but that’s what it took to get this CD made.
You’ve been around the Muscle Shoals, Alabama thing for all your life. How much of the magic still remains in that area, and in those players, and how much of it vanished in the air when that studio shut down?
Jason Isbell: I was born right across the river from Muscle Shoals, so I grew up with those folks and that sound all around me. The FAME Studio, the one that is located where the original place was, it’s still there. It had been on a downward slope with the business that was coming through there. But you know, the players themselves are as good as they ever were, and they’re still working to this day!
You’re now playing smaller rooms than you did toward the end of your time in the Truckers. What are some of the best things about playing smaller venues, and what attributes could you easily do without?
Jason Isbell: I was just about to say, don’t just ask me about the good things! (laughs) As long as the monitors work and I can pretty much hear myself, I can make do with everything else. I like being in a closer environment with the crowd. It helps to translate what I’m doing. I do really enjoy playing rooms with good PA’s. That’s really important to me. For the amount of shows we do, you have to be able to hear well on stage. I don’t want to have to scream just to get my voice over the band. It’s a lot more fun when you can relax and listen to everyone else play.
What aspects can’t you stand?
Jason Isbell: Shitty monitors is definitely number one. A bad PA can totally affect your performance. You can’t get into it, and you wind up giving a band show. I could definitely do without venues that don’t have any sort of a green room. I mean, hell, even if it’s a broom closet! (laughs) Someplace to hide out and have a couple of drinks. Then there’s the bathrooms. There’s got to be a private bathroom. If I were ever to build a rock & roll club, the very first thing I would do is build a nice, clean, private bathroom for the bands. You can’t imagine how important something like that is to a band on the road. I can’t believe some of these places that don’t consider things like that.
Where are we playing down there? Is it Joel Solomon’s place Café Loco?
No, you’re at Locos restaurant downtown.
Jason Isbell: That’s cool. We play all sorts of different kinds of places.
I’m sure that particular element of surprise keeps touring interesting.
Jason Isbell: Yeah. (laughs) “Interesting” is a good word for that, I guess. Sometimes that can be a real pain in the ass. Most of the time we’ve been real lucky. A lot of the time, the closer to home you get the smaller the rooms you play. I don’t know why that is. You know, we’re in Colorado now, and pretty much every town out here has a great, 800-seat music theater, and they’re all identical! It’s wild. They’re all really great rooms. Live music fans in Colorado have got it made! (laughs) There’s some good rooms in Atlanta and Athens as well.
Will you start on another solo album anytime soon, or are you more devoted to live shows these days?
Jason Isbell: We’ve got a lot of shows booked right now. We’re doing a tour with Will Hoge in January and February and then we do Warren Haynes’ big Christmas Jam in December in Asheville for charity. I did that a few years ago solo, but now I’m bringing the band. Jackson Browne’s gonna be there, and Bruce Hornsby and G Love & Special Sauce. We’re heading overseas in March and then we’ll be back in May. Sometime after that I’ll probably start working on the next album.
What can folks in Savannah expect from your set? Will there be any new songs?
Jason Isbell: Well, I still do the songs I wrote for the Truckers. They have different arrangements, but we still play ‘em. It’s a full, five-piece band. It’s loud, you know? It’s rock & roll. We’ll pull out some stuff people haven’t heard before. We don’t use a set list, so I don’t know exactly what’ll happen. We just depend on the atmosphere in the room to be our guide.Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit play Locos (downtown) Saturday. Turtle Folk opens at 10 pm. Advance tix to this 18+ show are $15 at www.wagatailpresents.com.