Alabama's joys and troubles inspire Jason Isbell's songs
Being from Alabama certainly has its benefits, one being the fact that you can really put your heart into it when you sing the chorus of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s biggest hit. But for Jason Isbell, one of the joys of growing up in northern Alabama was being close to the country- and soul-tinged rock of the Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, the group of unparalleled session players from the famed Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. Also known as “The Swampers”, they’re the backing band on classic works by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, and Bob Seger.
“We grew up listening to that stuff,” says Isbell from a tour stop in Dallas, “and I know most of those guys real well that worked on those records. I spent a lot of time with them when I was a teenager, and it was my first experience with professional musicians, so I learned a lot from those guys.”
While being a budding musician soaking up those soulful southern sounds was a joy for Isbell, he admits that calling Alabama home in 2011 has its drawbacks. The state was hit particularly hard by the recent recession, which is why the character studies that inhabit his latest album, Here We Rest, tend toward the dark side.
“It definitely is not the best time for folks down here right now,” he points out, “but writin’ songs about it, that’s how you settle those things. That’s how you come to terms with it, so that really kinda helps, for me.”
The self-produced Here We Rest is the second album Isbell has recorded with the 400 Unit, the alt-country group he formed after amicably leaving the Drive-By Truckers—which included his ex-wife, bassist Shonna Tucker—in 2007.
“We’re still trying to make good songs and produce them in a way that reflects the song and doesn’t fight against what the song wants to be,” states Isbell of the 400 Unit’s latest effort. “This one probably has more country elements, some more acoustic instruments, and it’s a little bit more live-sounding, I think.
“ ”˜Alabama Pines’ has been workin’ really well with people,” he adds, “and I’m pretty proud of the melody of that and the way the words work. And ”˜Codeine’ is another song on the album that people seem to react really well to. It’s not necessarily an uplifting song as far as the subject matter goes, but I think the music kinda makes up for that.”
During his five years or so with the DBTs Isbell wrote and sang a number of their finest songs, including “Danko/Manuel”, “Outfit”, “When the Well Runs Dry”, and the title track of the 2003 album Decoration Day. But hard-core Truckers fans shouldn’t hold their breath for a reunion with that band’s other stellar tunesmiths, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley.
“Yeah, I don’t see that happening,” says Isbell. “I think it was a good thing, but it sorta ran its course. I’m happy to be doin’ what I’m doin’ now, and as far as I can tell they’re happy too, so I don’t really see a reason for that to pick back up. Sometimes, when something’s over with, it’s best just to leave it.”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit play the Biltmore Cabaret on Monday (June 13).