Alabama memories

Jason Isbell stops trucking, takes break to rediscover his roots

Chris Parker | Boulder Weekly

You might say Jason Isbell’s third studio album Here We Rest began at his grandparents’ house in Alabama. It’s there that he first learned his love of music, and it’s to that area that he returned to recharge his batteries. It’s reflected in the album’s quiet, oft reflective tone and largely acoustic instrumentation. It was truly a back-to-the-roots album.

“[Growing up] we couldn’t afford to pay for day care so I just spent all my time with my grandparents. Luckily they were musicians, and to keep me occupied we either watched baseball games or played. So I spent hours every day playing old-time country and gospel songs,” says Isbell. “[Prior to recording Here We Rest] I spent a lot of time with the remaining members of the family, and thought about those days and what I learned and why I started playing in the first place.”

While his band, the 400 Unit, took nearly all of 2010 off, Isbell used the time to reconnect, after spending a dozen years on the road with the Drive-By Truckers and on his own. He’s not convinced this lower key, country-folk/rock approach they took for the album will hold for the next, but it carried the moment.

“It just felt like the right place to be.

The whole band has spent a lot of time in Alabama, and I think we all wanted to do something that reflected that,” he says.

The year they took off in 2010 was a perhaps needed mental break. Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers in 2001 just as they were becoming one of the under- ground’s most well-regarded guitar rock acts.

A half-dozen years later, he left the band and divorced his wife, DBT bassist Shonna Tucker (who left the band last month), embarking on a solo career. He quickly released two albums of well-crafted and eclectic rootsy rock/pop, hitting the road with a vengeance.

His experience with the Truckers gave him a chance to grow as a songwriter and learn some of the pitfalls of being a touring band.

“I think we hit almost all of them.

But back in those days we got along. It was before money had come along and caused everybody to bicker about things,” Isbell says. “I definitely fell into a good spot because I didn’t have to lead my own band at that point, didn’t have to be in control of the whole pace of the show, and didn’t have to take a whole lot of weight on my own shoulders. But sometimes I wish I had just done it myself the whole time.”

It’s not that he’s ungrateful. “It helped me out when I went out and tried to find my own audience. There were already some folks built in, so that was a really nice thing,” he continues. “But you never know what would’ve happened.”

While some of this might come off as brashness, Isbell wears it well. He’s a passionate performer who really cares about music and his connection with the audience. Indeed it’s sort of the subject of one of the album’s best songs, “Codeine.” The fiddle-driven track is ostensibly about a woman who runs from herself and the narrator into drugs.

“I guess that’s the way to keep on smiling where you are,” Isbell dryly opines. Interestingly, the song opens with a cover band going through the motions, seemingly a misdemeanor, but in this context and Isbell’s opinion, a symbol of selling yourself short — or out.

“It really pisses me off when people think ‘I’m just playing at this bar in my hometown or I’m playing for 10 people in Buffalo at the Mohawk on a Tuesday night, so I don’t have to really put myself into it.’ I see that so much,” he says. “Yet I hear people all the time, ‘Why am I still stuck in this town? I work so hard. I play five, six nights a week.’ Yeah but every time I see you, you’re just sitting there going through the motions.”

It’s something you won’t catch Isbell doing. He’s all about plainspoken honesty and authenticity. Even the conversational tone of his songs sounds like something overheard or confessed moments earlier. It’s about the fact that the most complex truths sometimes are best described with but a few simple words.

“The people that I’m around most of the time,” Isbell says, “although they may be very intelligent people, their poignancy doesn’t come from decoration.”

The same thing goes for songwriting, as Isbell’s clearly aware.


On the Bill Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit plays the Fox Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 5. Doors at 7:30 p.m. Band of Heathens opens. Tickets are $17 in advance, $20 day of show, plus $2 for under-21. 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.