Jason Isbell: A lone Trucker hears the Siren call

It was bound to happen.  For three consecutive albums, The Drive-By Truckers provided listeners with a three-pronged songwriting attack that resulted in a triptych that garnered them widespread acclaim and staked their spot in the rock history books.

Between original Truckers Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and the “new guy” Jason Isbell, Decoration Day (2002), The Dirty South (2003) and A Blessing And A Curse (2005) featured a barrage of well-crafted tales, both poignant and rebellious.  After all, when you have three top-notch songwriters on board and only a dozen or so slots to fill per album, you’re bound to get everybody’s best work.  And with these guys, that’s saying something.

But for songwriters like these, their work extends far beyond a few songs per year.  In fact, you don’t get songwriting chops like that by doing anything other than writing songs, writing some more songs and writing even more songs.  All the time.

So it came as no real surprise when Isbell recently announced his departure from the group, an announcement that coincided with the release of his very first solo album, Sirens Of The Ditch.  As it turns out, he just had too much music in him to keep it to himself.

 “I just write pretty frequently,” he says. “So I almost always have a glut of songs to pick from.”

 

The Siren Call

While it may seem that the split and the new album were a coordinated effort, Isbell says Sirens of The Ditch has been a long time coming.

“I’ve been working on it, off and on, for a couple of years,” says Isbell.  “I had started conceptualizing the record even before I joined the [Truckers].  So it’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.  It just sort of happened as a coincidence that it’s coming out now.”

But Isbell also felt it was time to step out on his own.  He was growing tired of being just one of three spokes in the wheel.  He was ready to have more control over which of his songs were being recorded and which he was able to play live.

“[The Truckers] worked really, really well while it was working,” he says.  “But at some point, you just don’t want to be part of a big democracy anymore. It’s kind of nice to call the shots a little bit, especially if you have a backlog of songs that you want to get out and you’re putting out three or four songs a record.  That can get a little bit frustrating sometimes.  Even though I felt like the quality of the Trucker’s records was really, really high and I think we all had a great time recording them and loved each others songs, the nature of the beast prevented anybody from completely expressing themselves in some situations.”

So piece by piece, Isbell assembled Sirens Of The Ditch, recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with a group of lifelong friends, including members of the Truckers and Muscle Shoals legends like Spooner Oldham and David Hood (Patterson’s father).  The album shows a much wider range than Isbell has displayed in his role with the Truckers. 

Along with brooding, crunchy rockers like “Try,” there’s the New Orleans piano blues of “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades,” touches of soul and the type of powerful ballads that he was also known for with the Truckers.  And while the Truckers always put the emphasis on the "rock" side of the Country Rock equation, Isbell lands squarely in Nashville with a pair of damn-near radio ready toe-tappers in “Grown” and “Shotgun Wedding.”

“Most of the time when we’re making a Truckers record I’ll wind up with anywhere from two to four songs on the record,” Isbell says.  “At the same time, when I was writing songs I would write them first and then decide if they were better for the Truckers or not.  It was obvious to me what songs belonged with that band and what songs didn’t.  When I have a full record to work with and 10 or 11 songs to work with as opposed to three or four, it’s going to wind up being all over the place stylistically because I have a lot of influences.”

 

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Stranger Than Fiction

Isbell credits his stylistically divergent taste to his upbringing in a musical family.  “Dozens of people in my extended family played some sort of musical instrument” he explains.  “Most of them did, almost all of them did and still do.  For some reason that seems like the family orientation of people in this part of the country probably had more to do with [my songwriting] than anything else for me.  I listen to whole lots of different kinds of music but for me to create something that is my own, it’s going to have to be as honest as I can make it and its gonna come out sounding like the South.  I’ve always been pretty interested in anything intelligent that has a southern accent to it.  Because people just don’t expect that.”

Isbell has always been as lethal with a literary ballad as with the balls-to-the wall rockers. The title track of Decoration Day, “Outfit,” and “Goddamned Lonely Love” all are tightly focused narratives that pack an emotional wallop.

He continues in that vein on Sirens of The Ditch with “Dress Blues,” a tale of an American soldier killed in Iraq.  It was based on a true event, says Isbell.

“It’s a guy I went to high school with.  He was a little bit younger than me.  But his name was Matt Conley," Isbell states.  "He graduated high school and went and joined up in the Marine Corps and went overseas and wound up, he was actually training his replacement one day when a roadside bomb got him.  He was about to come back home.

"But I find that if you just get down to the basis of people and pay attention to them, they are stranger than fiction, you know.”

 

Jason Isbell 

“It’s just a really sad story and I just tried to tell it as closely as I could to what I understood happened.  It was a hard song to write as far as dealing with that and I guess just coming to terms with the story itself.  But it was easy in the fact that it didn’t take very long because it was all laid out like that.  I think in a lot of those situations, not all of them, but a large part of those …when somebody is killed in the military these days, it seems like they come from small towns somewhere in the South or in a rural area in general.  They don’t do this much anymore but when they used to scroll the names of the people who had died that week or that month there were just so many from places like Valdosta and Chattanooga and Florence, Alabama and all over the smaller towns in the South. 

"And I tried to point out a lot of the details in that song that deal with that and that maybe point toward that.  But I didn’t really have to try to tell that story any differently than it happened.”

It’s a typical MO for Isbell, who uses the experiences and characteristics of people he knows in real life to populate his stories.

“A lot of [the characters] are certain incarnations of people I’ve known growing up over the years and people who kind of stand out as characters.  I guess just the way my mind and my perception of those folks sometimes makes them a little more interesting.  But I find that if you just get down to the basis of people and pay attention to them, they are stranger than fiction, you know.”

 

Ain’t Never Gonna Change

So, armed with an album full of new material, and a new freedom, what does Isbell plan to do with his newly minted solo career? 

In a word:  Tour.

“In a lot ways [leaving the Truckers] had to do with the fact that I wanted to work on the road a whole lot in the next year, and Patterson and Cooley, especially now, have different priorities now than they did 10 or 15 years ago.  And they have families now and they are older than they were and being on the road can be really difficult when you have a couple of kids at home.  I wasn’t going to ask them to leave their kids at home and go tour all the time. They weren’t going to ask me to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs all the time while I was waiting to go out on tour to sell records.  So that had a lot to do with it.”

The Truckers have since enlisted long time compatriot John Neff to fill out their sound on stage and on their upcoming studio album.  But despite all of this genial talk of parting ways, one can’t help but think that Isbell and his former band mates might cross paths again.

“It was a lot of fun,” Isbell adds of playing with The Truckers.  “I’m definitely not saying that we won’t do it again at some point.  But right now, it just makes sense for me to do this and for them to do what they’re doing.”

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