How the former Drive-By Trucker, newly sober, dug deep on the songs of Southeastern
dozen years ago, Jason Isbell showed up at a house party, ran into the Drive-By Truckers, and left in their van. Before the end of the week, he was performing with them onstage, and by the time they asked him to leave, six years and three albums later, he'd written some of their signature songs, including "Decoration Day" and "Goddamn Lonely Love."
Since then, his writing has only gotten stronger. Sirens of the Ditch (2007), which used the Truckers as his backup band, found Isbell edging away from Southern-rock swagger, and with Here We Rest (2011), recorded with his own band, the 400 Unit, the transition was nearly complete. The new songs probed a darker, deeper vein of melancholy, rooted in the struggles of the people around him in Northern Alabama, from the returning vet of "Tour of Duty" to the abandoned daughter of "Stopping By" and the strung-out addict of "Codeine." The album opener, "Alabama Pines," earned Isbell the Americana Music Association's award for song of the year. But along the way he also was gaining a reputation as a drunk, capable of downing a fifth of Jack Daniels over the course of a gig.
In February 2012, with help from fiddler and singer-songwriter Amanda Shires (who's since become his wife), Isbell entered rehab in Nashville. He came out two weeks later and quickly began writing the songs that became Southeastern. There's no shortage of great lines, like "Girl, leave your boots by the bed, we ain't leaving this room / Till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom," from "Cover Me Up," or "There's a man who walks beside her, he is who I used to be / And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me," from "Live Oak," or "Had a girl back home and we shared her single bed / When I whispered in her ear, she believed every word I said," from "Different Days."
At the same time, his guitar playing has never sounded better. It ranges from gentle fingerpicking to blistering slide and from country confessional to populist rock, backed by the punch of Brian Allen on bass, Chad Gamble on drums, Derry DeBorja on keys, and producer Dave Cobb on percussion. To offset the painful directness of the lyrics, Isbell's melodies have taken on a new, surprising sweetness, and his singing has become more vulnerable. In songs about strippers with nothing to sell but benzodiazepine, women unable to leave the men who beat them, and passed-out drunks bleeding to death on the floor of a Super 8 motel, Isbell has found a path to tell his own story, revisiting old mistakes to emerge unsparing, unsentimental, and unquestionably stronger. Here, talking from his home in Nashville, Isbell reflects on his journey as a drinker, songwriter, and guitarist.
Was it a good decision to join the Drive-By Truckers?
Of course. If you ever get a chance to be in a band that good, you take that chance. You know, most bands are terrible. But those guys were writing great songs and playing really, really good rock 'n' roll, trying as hard as they possibly could to stay alive and still manage to entertain everybody for three hours a night.
Three members of your band are playing on this album. So why isn't it credited to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit?
Because I really felt like this album was about me. It's a very personal record, and if you're gonna write a bunch of songs about yourself, you should just put your name on it. Springsteen did it. Petty did it.
On many of these songs, you're writing from someone else's point of view.
I do that a lot. It's a good way for me to explain things to myself. Like on "Live Oak," I started out with this fear that my life would be different in ways both better and worse after I cleaned up and became an adult. I was afraid of losing aspects of myself, afraid of losing the entirety of the person I used to be. Had I known then what I know now, I probably wouldn't have been able to write that song, so I'm glad it came along when it did. I made a fictional story out of a problem that I was having, something that I was coming to terms with, thinking, "What is it that my partner wants? What is it that my audience likes about me? Will I be ineffective as a person, if I decide to be an adult now?" And I think all those worries have proven false. I feel as potent as I ever was as a guitarist in a rock 'n' roll band, but I think I'm more in control now.
How does the guitar fit into your process as a songwriter?
I still consider myself to be a guitar player first and foremost, and I can't write a song without one. I've written a couple of songs on piano, but even if a song starts that way, it usually winds up being finished on a guitar. That's just the best way for me to communicate with people, and I'm way more able to express myself on that particular instrument than I am on anything else. Sometimes I feel like my guitar playing is way ahead of my writing, and I think that's still the thing that I do best.
Do you get an idea and then reach for a guitar, or do you play the guitar until you get an idea?
It's different. "Traveling Alone" came to me in an airport. I wound up singing it into my voicemail, and when I got home, I picked up the guitar and finished it. Honestly, I'll take it however I can get it, you know? But for this particular record, writing was usually a scheduled thing, where I would just sit down and clock in. There are four or five songs where I just sat down with the guitar and made myself work, saying, "I'm going to write a song today." My wife and I were doing this thing together where two or three days a week, we'd get up in the morning, drink some coffee, go into separate rooms, and not come out till we'd finished a song, or at least the complete first draft of a song.
Why do you think that works for you? It helps me avoid what other people call writer's block. Very often, people feel like they're blocked from writing, when, in fact, they're just blocked from enjoying what they write. I find if I push through that and write anyway, if I can turn off the part that judges me while I'm writing, I can just be creative and let it happen. If you try it, at worst you'll get some practice about what not to do, and at best, you'll get some great songs.
Once you finish that first draft, do you share it with your wife or let it sit?
We'll play them for each other and then start editing on our own. It's the kind of process where over the course of the next few days or weeks, we'll each go back to those songs and hack away at them with the red pen. But, yeah, it's a little intimidating, because I think she's a really great songwriter, so for both of us to play a song after just working on it for a few hours was a good exercise in bravery.
What does she do as a songwriter that you wish you could do?
She's better at being non-narrative, non-linear. I've come from a tradition that relies on that narrative structure. For some reason, that's just always what I've been drawn to. But Amanda is really good at painting pictures and images that are a little bit more abstract, that explain an emotion rather than having to build a narrative.
Were some of your new songs harder to write than others?
Yeah, technically. "Relatively Easy" was not an easy song to write, because the melody moves around a lot. There's a bridge, and it wasn't the simplest song to write or to record, because you've got to find the right tempo for something with that many words. On a personal level, "Cover Me Up" was difficult. That's such a personal song that I'd written to Amanda. I got the idea because we were at a wedding. This guy who used to run sound for me was getting married, and he'd written a song for his wife and played it there at the wedding. You know, he's choking back his tears when he was doing it, and I thought, "I should do that." So that's where that song came from. It was difficult to play it and even harder to play it and sing it for her right when I finished it, but that's what we were doing on those writing days.
Is there a song on this album that fee Is like the essence of who you are as a songwriter? I hadn't thought of that, but, yeah, I like what "Stockholm" does because it's a rock 'n' roll song-a power-pop song really-but the melody comes from a very old style of music. When I first wrote it on just an acoustic guitar, it sounded more like mountain music, with that kind of tenor that stays on the same major third. It reminded me of bluegrass, the way that melody moves around. And I think I do that a lot, taking melodies that have that sort of repetition and some of the same melodic structures as old mountain music or gospel music, and I'll try to throw it into a rock 'n' roll setting. I mean, Ray Charles started rewriting gospel songs, and it worked for him, that's for damn sure.
How did being sober affect your writing process?
It gave me a whole lot more time to work. For me, that's the most important difference. You know, when you drink as much as I did, there's always this lingering need to go out and get started doing nothing. Usually for me, that was about the time the sun started setting, and I'd be thinking, "OK, it's time to go drink now." I was spending five or six hours drinking, then four or five hours recovering, plus seven or eight hours of fitful sleep. That doesn't leave you a whole lot of time. Nowadays, I sleep seven hours a night and the rest of the day is mine to do whatever I want. If I'm working, I have that time to focus. I don't think it's taken away anything from me creatively. I'm glad things went the way they did, and if I'd never made the mistakes I made, I might not have enough experience to write the kind of music I write. But as long as youVe got a good concept of what it is to look over the edge, that should be enough to fuel your imagination.
What did the edge look like?
Like the same sort of problems a decade from now or two decades from now. I firmly believe that as long as your problems change, as long as you don't have to deal with the same problems at 60 that you had at 30, you should be able to tolerate your existence, at the very least, and possibly enjoy it.
Do you think sobriety made the songs different from what you would have written two years ago?
They're more concise, because 1 put more work into them. And I was better at saying exactly what I meant to say. More focused sty- listically, too. Really, I've just gotten more practice as a songwriter. Man, that extra time really makes a big difference. I kept going back and going back and editing and trying to make sure the songs were more concise, and I think that served me real well.
When you go back to a song, what do you change?
Sometimes, it's everything. Sometimes, I'll keep a melody and throw every other piece of the song out, write a whole new set of lyrics. Sometimes, I'll look for new places to go in a chord progression, especially on a bridge-I'll work on a bridge numerous times, because I feel they're very important. There aren't a whole lot of bridges anymore-when I hear a good one, I always notice. But usually it's lyrics, making sure I've said things in the clearest, most concise way possible. When it comes to words, I'm all about economy.
How does this album feel different from the one that came before it?
People like this one a whole lot more. I think this one won't age the same way the last record did, and the records before it. I don't know for sure, but I feel like when I'm looking back on all the records, 20 years from now, I'll probably find less cringe-worthy about this one, and that's really about the best I can hope for.
What have you learned from cringing through your older albums?
That I don't need to produce my own material-that's a big one. That was a hard one to wrap my head around, because I enjoyed doing that particular job. So it was hard to let go and allow Dave Cobb to have that kind of control, but I trusted the guy. If I hadn't gone through the process of sobering up and admitting that I was not in control of everything, I might have just kept on making the same record over and over. You know, I would love to just play rock 'n' roll music all the time, write rock 'n' roll songs, even if some of them were a little more boneheaded than the stuff I write now.
Why don't you?
Because I've never been able to do boneheaded real well. 1 just can't do it. You know, I would love to write a stupid AC/DC or Queens of the Stone Age song. Man, some of that stuff sounds like it was written by a monkey, and I think it's perfect, absolutely perfect. But for me, when I start writing a song, I just can't get it that simple. I've wanted to-I've tried to-but it never comes out that way.
What was great about working with Dave Cobb?
He knows a lot about the same kind of music that I know a lot about. Before we got started on the record, he sent me home with a remastered copy of Bridge Over 7Youbled Water and a documentary about making the album. I listened to that album about 20 times, watched the documentary twice, and came in ready to go.
What were you listening to? The songs? The guitars? The production?
All of it. That's the way I listen to everything. What works? What doesn't work? And on that particular album, the only thing that doesn't work is all those handclaps on the Everly Brothers cover ["Bye Bye Love"]. I listened to the drumming, the doubled guitars, the way they kind of tangle with each other, all of it. To me, Paul Simon's lyrics hinge on these moments of tension and release that can come from just the vocal lick or from a phrasing of maybe three or four words, and that can really make the whole song special. Those things are allowed to breathe, allowed to exist.
What do the songs on Southeastern have in common?
I just don't think it does me any good to think about that, but if I had to pick something, 1 would say that there's a weight to all of them. They're all about very serious things, but I don't feel they're necessarily sad songs. It bothers me when people say the album is depressing or the individual songs are depressing. I understand "Elephant" is depressing-how can it not be? [It's about helping a drinking buddy who's dying of cancer, which is the elephant in the room.] But I think on most of the songs on the record, there's a kind of hope, some sort of redemption that the narrator hasn't quite given up yet. And sometimes I think that's the best that we can hope for.
Well, there's always a chance that things will get better. For me, that's been made pretty obvious over the last couple of years. Once I started making better decisions, my life got a whole lot easier and a whole lot more fun. It's not going to be that way for everybody-some people can do their best and still just get a bad deal. But I think most of the folks you hear complaining could make things a little bit better. I didn't realize how much of my life was my own damn fault until I started making better decisions. AG
WHAT HE PLAYS
ACOUSTIC GUITARS: Most of the songs on Southeastern were written and recorded on a recent Martin D-4i Special. The recording sessions also feature a Martin D-28 Retro, a Martin D-35, and a borrowed Martin nylonstring and D-28.
AMPLIFICATION: Fishman Aura+ onboard preamp, Fishman Blender, LR. Baggs preamp.
ACCESSORIES: Martin SP Lifespan medium-gauge strings. Mr. B's bottleneck slides.
ELECTRIC GUITARS: Gretsch White Penguin and Gibson ES-335 with a Sommatone amp and Digitech pedals.
I still consider myself to be a guitar player first and foremost, and I can't write a song without one.
GUITARS IN THE FAMILY Jason Isbeil comes from a long line of Alabama musicians who have always favored Martin acoustic guitars. "They're loud, you know?" he says. "Growing up, my granddad and his brothers all played Martins. That was the holy grail for them, just because of that sheer volume.
"Playability was never the issue for those old guys. They were macho guitar players with .013s or .014s on them, and whoever had the loudest guitar won. My great uncle had this HD-28 that I lusted over from the time I was about ten years old-he'd come visit and bring that guitar with him."
Isbell's grandfather also played a Takamine that looks just like a Martin. "He left it to me, along with quite a few other instruments," Isbeil recalls. "More than anything else, that's the guitar I learned to play, that old Tak."
Very often, people feel like they're blocked from writing, when, in fact, they're just blocked from enjoying what they write.
KENNY BERKOWITZ has been a frequent contributor to Acoustic Guitar since 1996. He lives in Ithaca, New York.
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