Photo Credit: Michael Wilson
When I reach him by telephone, Jason Isbell is relaxing at the Nashville, TN home he shares with his wife, musician Amanda Shires. The songwriter is soaking up a few increasingly rare hours of down time before he has to hop on a plane to New York City, where he is set to play "The Late Show with David Letterman" the following day.
Isbell comes across as a man who has gotten used to the attention that has come his way—attention that mandates things like NPR appearances, Wall Street Journal and New York Times Magazine profiles, and, of course, "Letterman" performances—but who has not been quite altered by it. He still speaks in that familiar drawl, quiet and confident and quick with a correction, gentle though it may be.
The attention has come (on a grander scale, anyway) relatively suddenly. It has come because of Southeastern, Isbell's third and finest solo record, which he released earlier this year. Mostly, it has come because of what the record represents: redemption, sacrifice, change.
Since Isbell, known during his days with the Athens-based Drive-By Truckers as the group's hardest-living member, quit the bottle and entered rehab early last year on the urging of Shires and several other friends, including musician Ryan Adams, who underwent a similar transformation several years ago, he says he has grown braver, more willing to give himself to the world.
"I'm not afraid of being embarrassed," Isbell says. "I've heard people say about quitting drinking, and also about my relationship, 'If you talk too much about these private things in public, it's a good way to be embarrassed.' But I don't think any of those people have ever been through the recovery process," he chuckles. "It's pretty much impossible to embarrass a recovering [alcoholic]. We've all been embarrassed plenty enough."
The songs on Southeastern reflect Isbell's newfound openness. The opener, a gorgeous acoustic ballad called "Cover Me Up," is an unabashed thank-you note to Shires wherein Isbell sings openly about how she saved him from his doomed life.
"Girl, leave your boots by the bed/ We ain't leavin' this room," he belts during the chorus, the surest and strongest his road-worn voice has ever sounded. "'Til someone needs medical help/ Or the magnolias bloom."
Southeastern is not all hyper-personal balladry and intimate reveal, though even its most ostensibly detached moments owe, on some level, to Isbell's lifestyle shift. On "Elephant," the album's most poignant track, Isbell speaks from the perspective of one broken barfly to another, the latter of whom is dying.
"When she was drunk she made cancer jokes/ Made up her own doctor's notes," the song goes. "Surrounded by her family/ I saw that she was dying alone."
In an interview with "Fresh Air" host Terri Gross in July, Isbell explained that the characters in "Elephant" are fictional, but admitted that the song's premise was drawn from the songwriter's experience sitting around in various Alabama dive bars.
"Gradually, the regulars would start to disappear," he told Gross. "Almost always, it was cancer-related. Over time, there were probably eight or nine people who just would sort of vanish almost right before your very eyes." The implication is that this was Isbell, too—succumbing quietly to his illness, vanishing before his very own eyes.
Indeed, this is one of the most captivating aspects of Southeastern: though it is obviously Isbell's most personal effort to date, his songs are also more character-driven than ever.
"When I quit drinking, I started reading a whole lot," he says. "I always read quite a bit, but I had way more time to do it. I was really moved by Denis Johnson's work, and Peter Matthiessen's work. [And] of course Cormac McCarthy. I think there's a lot to be taken from that whole world if you spend enough time with it."
Of course, all fiction is based in truth; like his literary heroes, Isbell understands that experience is the seed from which good writing grows.
"I think if you keep enough good stuff coming in, and spend enough time working on what you're writing, and think of it as a job, like the way novelists treat their job, you're gonna end up writing something good," he says. "And, to me, melodrama's not necessarily very good. I don't wanna come off like Nicholas Sparks. I don't think any good songwriter does."
At the heart of Isbell's new album—in its title, even—is the geographic area where Isbell was born and raised and where he still chooses to reside. There's no doubt Southeastern is a Southern record, specked as it is with dirt, twang and that slippery mix of glinting irony and dead-set honesty native to the region. The South—and, more specifically, Alabama—has been at the center of Isbell's songwriting since the beginning, since his unexpected first days with the Truckers (perhaps the most Southern band in the whole damn world).
But while the Truckers' other two principal songwriters, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, push their homeland to the forefront, often making it the starring character (see: "Lookout Mountain," "Space City," anything on Southern Rock Opera), Isbell has always approached the matter in a subtler way. In his songs, the South is atmospheric, a steadfast but largely tacit backdrop for his intricate, interpersonal tales. He is certainly aware of, and indebted to, the complex mythos involved, but not, as his country-rocking colleagues so often seem to be, hung up on it. Simply put, Isbell has spent his whole life here, and it's here that informs his music.
Southeastern is bound to place, although place is rarely mentioned. (The rare but glaring exception is "Stockholm," the album's second track. Isbell sings of time spent in the titular Scandinavian burg and how it rendered him lonely and lost: "A thousand years from my home/ In this frozen old city of silver and stone.")
On "Live Oak," Isbell juxtaposes the main character's former rough-and-tumble self with his current, seemingly reformed one. The result is a gripping exploration of how we hide our true identities from one another, even in the smallest of towns; Isbell approaches the subject matter with deep concern. "Rumors of my wickedness/ Had reached our little town," he sings on the track. "Soon she'd heard about the boys/ I used to hang around."
On album closer "Relatively Easy," Isbell delivers a particularly striking first chorus: "You should know, compared to people on a global scale/ Our kind has had it relatively easy/ Here with you, there's always something to look forward to/ My angry heart beats relatively easy." It nods to the album's key themes—love, place, grace—while avoiding either melodrama or insularity.
For Isbell, even the title of Southeastern represents more than strictly geography.
"I stay away from the word 'heritage,' Isbell says. "I think that's ridiculous. I see a lot of bumper stickers, and it's just white people trying to stand up for themselves… [The South is] where I'm from, and I write about where I'm from, because I know the place so well. For me, growing up in this part of the country, I was close to my family out of necessity, and I probably wouldn't have started playing music as early as I did if I had grown up in a city."
Indeed, according to Isbell, if there is a great divide in America, it's not between North and South but rather between city and country. ("People in Michigan, or upstate New York, or Northern California, even, are very similar to the rednecks we have down here," he posits.) In person and on record he scoffs at the notion that Southernness is inherently more special than any alternative—except, of course, in one aspect.
"I was in Australia with some friends a few years ago," he says, "and every time I would have a conversation with my friends who were from here, within a few minutes I would look up and there would be a crowd of people just listening to our accents.
"People love the Southern accent," he continues. "Especially if you're not saying boneheaded shit."
The day following our conversation, and after the perennial "Stupid Human Tricks" segment, during which a venture capitalist named Dan eats Goldfish crackers off a moving treadmill, there stands Isbell onstage at the Ed Sullivan Theater, an imposing presence in his all-black suit. He is playing and singing and shouting along with some of his fellow Southeasterners.
Soul maven Candi Staton is there; The Civil Wars' John Paul White is, too. The legendary Swampers rhythm section, a North Alabama treasure, backs up the three vocalists, who sing "I Ain't Easy to Love," a tune from the recent Muscle Shoals documentary.
"I ain't easy to love," Staton croons. "Scars have made me black and blue/ But I feel a lot less broken/ Every day I spend with you." Isbell appears locked into the song's easy groove, swaying softly side to side, content to let his guitar do the talking until the second verse, when his voice explodes through like a sunburst:
"Right beside me through the bad times/ When anybody else would run/ I thank the Lord for you each morning/ 'Cause I ain't easy to love."
He didn't pen the tune, but it's hard not to read Isbell's own story into its redemptive message. Then again, the best songs are universal, for better or worse, honest and aching documents of the lives we all lead. It's why people can feel so deeply affected by music: it's the ultimate shared experience.
Isbell remains willing to share. "I feel like, if somewhere, somebody's listening to the record and a little spark happens where they say, 'Well, maybe I need to clean my shit up a little bit'—if that happens, it's worth me risking my own little private embarrassments," Isbell says of Southeastern.
"Sometimes it's uncomfortable," he continues. "But I don't think songwriters are supposed to be particularly comfortable. You have to be scared to be brave. If you're not afraid to put everything out there and let everybody know anything about yourself, you're not being brave when you finally do."
WHO: Jason Isbell, St. Paul and the Broken Bones
WHERE: Georgia Theatre
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 9, 8 p.m.
HOW MUCH: $15