Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell says his upbringing has lots to do with ability to mix country, rock and pop. He wouldn’t be the musician he is if he hadn’t grown up in Northern Alabama.
When he was a kid, his “daycare” consisted of going to his grandparents’ house and learning to play various instruments.
“My granddad was a Pentecostal preacher,” says Isbell via phone from his Nashville home. In support of their terrific new album, The Nashville Sound
, he and his band, the 400 Unit, perform on Wednesday, Aug. 30, at the Goodyear Theatre. “When I was really little, we spent our days with them before we went to school. I would stay with them often during the summers too. He was a musician who played all sorts of different instruments. He could play fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin. He taught me how to play all of those but mostly guitar because he would play lead on an instrument like banjo, and I would play rhythm guitar. We did that for hours at a time.”
Isbell would eventually find success with Drive-by Truckers, a band that came across as the thinking man’s Southern rock group. He joined the ensemble after its fourth album but then departed in 2007 after three albums. That same year, he issued his first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch
“It was kind of difficult to get the first solo album together since I was still touring with the Truckers when I started it,” he says. “I would just work on it for a couple of days at a time. At the time that we made that record, I wasn’t planning on having a solo career, but it was really convenient when I found myself on my own to be able to go out and tour in support of something. It’s a lot different when you’re making a record as a side project than when it’s your main creative output.”
For his last three solo albums, Isbell worked with Dave Cobb, a guy who generated a reputation as a quality country producer after moving to Nashville in 2011 and producing acts such as Sturgill Simpson, Anderson East and Chris Stapleton.
“We met at a show in Nashville,” says Isbell when asked about he first met Cobb. “I played a show at a small bar and he had recently moved to town. I had heard some of the work he had done on a Secret Sisters record. I grew up with those girls. They’re from the same town that I am. I’ve known them since they were born pretty much. They’ve been singing beautiful together since they were 5 and 6 years old.”
While working on a song for the Squidbillies
soundtrack, Isbell heard a track Cobb had produced with George Jones. Impressed with Cobb’s production, he knew then that he wanted him to record his next solo album, 2013’s Southeastern
“The song Dave did with George Jones went through the entirety of George’s career,” he says. “Sonically, he only had few minutes to work with. But every few seconds, the sound shifted from George’s early work to the work he did in the ’80s and ’90s. It represented all his different periods. I just thought that was brilliant. I figured if he could do that, he must be a good person to work with.”
Since Cobb hadn’t set up a proper studio and Isbell was in the process of marrying singer Amanda Shires, recording Southeastern
proved to be a challenge.
“It was a very hectic time,” says Isbell. “I was getting married while we were making that album. We wrapped up the tracking at Thursday night at midnight and we had a rehearsal dinner on Friday, and I got married Saturday and Sunday I went in and finished a few things up before leaving for our honeymoon. It was a busy time. The record was made at Dave’s house. A lot of the vocals and guitars were recorded in his dining room, which is a big open room with one of those raised ceilings designed to make your family sound bigger and happier than they really are. It made a good room for vocals. It was a great experience. Dave helps you get the best out of the songs.”
For The Nashville Sound
, the band recorded at RCA Studio A, and for the first time since 2011's Here We Rest
, Isbell's backing band, the 400 Unit, receives co-billing on the album.
“The attitude and purpose is the same but the success of each album gave us a little bit of room on the next record, so we could get better equipment and sit in the same room more while we were recording,” says Isbell. “For this album, everyone could play at the same time instead of in isolation.”
The album opens with the somber “Last of My Kind.” Isbell wonders, “Am I the last of my kind?” over a bit of gently strummed acoustic guitar and a touch of piano.
“Sometimes, people think it’s me narrating that song,” says Isbell. “I took some of it from my own experience. You have to do that. But it’s not entirely me. I’m certainly not that person but I can remember feeling alienated like the main character is. I called on memories of the people I grew up with. I came from a small town in Alabama. I know people who went off to college and didn’t make it or tried to move to bigger cities for more opportunity but didn’t quite find a place. I was trying to explain what that’s like.”
On the hard-rocking “Cumberland Gap,” a tune with only a hint of twang to it (think Green
-era R.E.M.), Isbell uses the “Cumberland Gap” as a metaphor for getting stuck in a small American town.
“[Singer-songwriter] Dave Rawlings also has a song called ‘Cumberland Gap,’” says Isbell. “I’ve heard it, and it’s not very similar to mine, but it’s a really good song. It’s funny the two would come out so close to one another, but everyone is thinking about that stuff right now.”
In the simmering, Neil Young-like “White Man’s World,” Isbell sings “I’m a white man living in white man’s world” over a bit of fiddle and rattling percussion. It comes off as a haunting ballad.
“The political climate motivated me to talk more openly about that sort of thing,” Isbell says. “I think people have a responsibility to speak their minds in this day and age. My awareness grows every day if I do it right. I always thought I came from nothing and started at the bottom. But when I realized what the bottom really was, I realized that was something I never had to see. There were a lot of doors that were open for me automatically just because I was a white American male. The best thing to do is recognize that and realize that I’ve been given a lot of opportunities that other people haven’t been given.”
In the shimmering “Anxiety,” he muses about how anxiety always gets the “best of him” to the point that he “can’t enjoy a goddamn thing.” It’s an extremely personal, confessional tune.
“I was driving one day and that chorus popped into my head,” says Isbell when asked about the tune. “When I got home, I got my wife to help me write that. The anxiety that I have is more of a day-to-day kind of thing than a real problem. I think anxiety has become a catch-all these days, but I didn’t want to look at it that way. I wanted to look at it from the perspective of someone who has anxiety attacks that makes it impossible to function sometimes.”
Drive-By Truckers relentlessly toured, and Isbell and his backing band are constantly on the road as well. And yet, Isbell says he still enjoys the time he spends on stage.
“Nowadays, it’s a lot easier to tour,” he says. “I can take my daughter and sometimes my wife joins us when she’s not playing her own shows. If I have my family there, that’s great. The time on stage is so different from everything else in my life and I think it should be. That’s important to me. I don’t want to walk around feeling the same way about myself as I do when I’m standing there in front of 2,000 people, but it’s a beautiful thing still, and I enjoy singing those songs as much as ever, even the ones I wrote 15 years ago. There are things there that I need to be reminded of.”
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Amanda Shires, 8 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 30, Goodyear Theater, 1201 East Market St, Akron, 330-690-2307. Tickets: $30-$85, goodyeartheater.com.