Jason Isbell established that he would be a force to be reckoned with during his tenure with Drive-by Truckers, but it is with the release of his second solo record, the eponymous Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, that he has firmly seized his place as the new voice of Southern Americana.
Isbell and his mates have produced a record that is excitingly fresh and diverse, covering enough territory that the 400 Unit is nearly impossible to pigeonhole. The disc opener, “Seven Mile Island,” ripples with acoustic overtones, “Good” is straight forward guitar rock, “No Choice In The Matter” hints at the retro soul of Muscle Shoals, and “Cigarettes and Wine” is a prop-yourself-on-the-bar, cry-in-your-beer tear jerker.
Honest Tune recently caught Jason during a stop in New York City to chat about the new record.
Honest Tune – This is your second solo record, but considering you recorded this one with the guys in the 400 Unit, is there the sense that this is a second debut?
Jason Isbell – I think so. It definitely is for them and for this band in a lot of ways. It sounds a lot more like a band project. It sounds more like a record we made together that contributed on. But for me, the debut thing, I don’t know. I try to put out a record every year or so. For me, it’s not new to be going through the cycle again.
HT – Though you are the principle songwriter, you’ve made it known that this is the band’s record. How did your songs evolve when you brought them to the band?
JI – Well, most of the songs were written either just before we began recording or while we were in the studio. I definitely wrote these songs with this band, or these players, in mind. I don’t know if the compositions of the songs were changed, as I came in with an arranged lyric and melody, but there was certainly an open atmosphere as far as the guys bringing new ideas for their parts or harmony vocals or instrumentation. Rather than sit around think, “Well, we need another guitar for this tune,” we would try to search a little bit deeper and find what tonal range we needed or what sort of range of pitch we needed to cover to make a song feel full. I think everybody contributed very much to that.
HT – Was there a moment during your recording sessions where you realized you were on to something special with this group of guys?
JI – Yeah, definitely. I knew that going in because we had been playing together a long time before we recorded, but there certainly was a feeling within a couple of days that it was going to be something really good, something that I would enjoy listening to.
HT – There’s an eclectic feel to the record. Is there a particular song that you think most personifies the band?
JI – You know, I really don’t want to narrow it down like that. These guys are all so extremely capable. Starting off with “Seven Mile Island,” which was the first song we recorded and is first on the track list, that was a really good place to start. That song set the tone for the recording. But these guys can play anything you imagine.
HT – That has to keep things fresh.
JI – It does. It is really nice to play with people that you can communicate with and who play so well.
HT – Much is being made of your connection to the “Muscle Shoals Sound.” Is there any pressure, real or conceived, at being the next face for that sound?
JI – The pressure lies more in trying to keep the place relevant and keeping it from falling into nostalgia. I think it is more of a community feeling, more of a family, for all of the musicians that come out of that place. The goal is to remind people that there is still good music coming out of Muscle Shoals. I don’t really feel like I am shouldering any sort of responsibility for anybody other than my band, but it is a nice place to come from. I was definitely influenced a lot by those musicians from the 60s, 70s, and 80s. It’s a good thing to be able to say you come out of that tradition.
HT – I just kept wondering if you embrace something like that legacy or do you fear being typecast by it.
JI – I embrace it wholeheartedly. I still live there. I still have a whole bunch of friends working in that scene. I don’t mind it a bit. Some of the best soul music on Earth came out of that area.
HT – You delve into the life of the soldier on both records, with “Dress Blues” on your last album and “Soldier Gets Strange” on this one. What keeps bringing that up?
JI – Well, we’re at war and nothing keeps people’s attention more than war. I know a lot of people who have been overseas and fought and come home, a lot of people who are still over there, and some people who didn’t come home at all. It’s a really important thing to a lot of the people I know right now. During a war, I feel like culture normally reflects what is going on and how people react when they are in the middle of it.
HT – I found the perspective you take in “Soldier Gets Strange,” delving in the mind of a solder home from war, pretty unusual. I’ve not heard that viewpoint in many songs.
JI – I’m surprised that people haven’t written more songs like that. There is a pretty big need for a lot of different kinds of treatment and rehabilitation for people who have experienced war. I don’t think our last administration put nearly enough attention or funding into that. I’m not saying I’m trying to get things done, but it is definitely on my mind. I don’t think those folks are getting taken care of as well as they should be.
HT – The last song on the record is titled, “The Last Song I Will Write.” You are kidding, right?
JI – Yeah, probably so. I don’t always write from a first person narrator. Sometimes the song has nothing to do with me at all. You know, when directors make movies, the viewers don’t question, “Is that guy Batman?” With a song, folks think it’s always about you and it’s not, necessarily.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit are currently touring support of the new record. Check out www.jasonisbell.com to find out when you can catch them live.