Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell Lets the Songs Serve Themselves

Concert Preview

Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell was a member of the Drive-by Truckers when they played in Cleveland several years ago and guitarist Mike Cooley took out his frustrations on the Beachland Tavern stage. He maintains he was just an innocent bystander.

“That had nothing to do with me whatsoever,” laughs Isbell, who left the band and embarked on a solo career six years ago. “I just stood up there and played, man. [Mike] Cooley was pissed because [singer-guitarist] Patterson [Hood] had canceled the show the night before. Cooley had too much to drink. He started smashing his guitar and knocked a good hole in the stage from what I recall.”

You can imagine it wasn’t easy to venture out as a solo artist after being in a band with such larger-than-life personalities as the Truckers. But Isbell has done just fine on his own. He’s just announced that his new album, Something More than Free, is set to come out in July. In advance of the release, he’s currently playing some shows with singer-songwriter Craig Finn (of the Hold Steady) — the tour comes to House of Blues on May 27.

The album’s first single, “24 Frames,” is a contemplative tune that sounds a bit like it could be a Ryan Adams ballad as Isbell croons, “You thought God was an architect and now you know/he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.” Isbell’s mix of country, rock and pop is unique, and he’s said he wouldn’t be the musician he is if he hadn’t grown up in Northern Alabama.

“My family played,” he says. “My parents didn’t but my grandparents did and my aunts and uncles did. It was a natural thing for me. Instead of daycare, they would take me to my grandparents house and my granddad played a bunch of instruments. He would get me to play rhythm guitar while he played banjo or fiddle. I spent a lot of hours learning how to play that way.”

He picked up the mandolin at age 6, though he jokes he still doesn’t feel confident on the instrument.

“I don’t know if I ever really learned how to play but I got one when I was that age and messed with some before my hands were big enough to handle a guitar.”

Isbell recorded his new album at Sound Emporium in Nashville with Dave Cobb, who also produced his previous effort, Southeastern. He tried to record as much of it live as he could.

“It’s a big enough room that we could bring the whole band in,” he says. “We don’t work on songs before we go into the studio. That’s a bit of a luxury. Many people can’t afford that much studio time. But the band is really good. They’re good listeners and quick listeners it didn’t take us very long.”

He recorded the disc in about three weeks.

“I would come in and play it for the band for the first time and we’d work on the arrangement,” he says. “Dave Cobb would help us with that. We’d sit down and start recording before we got it right. It’s a good way to work. It’s not too mentally exhausting because you don’t spend too much time on every little detail. What you get at the end of the day sounds like a band playing together in the same room at the same time. There’s no way to replicate that. You have to do that authentically. I’m really happy with it. I had to come terms with not being so picky about vocal takes and specific pitch issues and things like that. Usually nobody is hearing that but me but it’s still driving me crazy. I can’t stand to hear myself sing on a record.”

The album is more sonically diverse, but Isbell says that’s not intentional.

“I don’t really aim for that,” he says. “It’s a matter of listening to each individual song and serving that and recording it the way they want to be recorded. I don’t sit down with that much of a concept. I just try to write the best song I can and not screw it up when I get into the studio.”

Isbell says that Craig Finn, the frontman for the rowdy indie rock act the Hold Steady, has proven to be a good match for the tour.

“Craig’s a great songwriter and a great storyteller,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve seen him play solo. It’s really good. It’s engaging in a different way than the Hold Steady shows are. He writes specifically about regions, about the Midwest often. I like that. I like people who write about what they know. He’s a really smart guy. He can turn a phrase really well and make you stop and think about what he said. We’re lucky to have him with us. We’ve only done one show so far. The Hold Steady shows I’ve seen they were rowdy in the right way. I’ve never seen any trouble. It’s just people getting excited about good songs. I’m all for that.”

Jason Isbell, Craig Finn, 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 27, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $27-$35,
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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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