June 24, 2013
Jason Isbell put down the bottle and picked up his muse, and now the former singer-songwriter with Drive-By Truckers is fronting his own band, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, and writing some of the best music of his career. (Michael Wilson)
Jason Isbell, who first achieved notoriety singing and writing in Drive-By Truckers, had a problem and knew it.
The eighth-generation Alabamian with the sweet, plaintive voice and touching songs was headed down the same road as another 'Bama boy with a sweet, plaintive voice and touching songs -- a fellow named Hank Williams Sr.
Something was going to end for Isbell, either his life or his drinking. Fortunately for music fans, it was the booze. The result is that Isbell, who now fronts Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (a name taken from the nickname of the psychiatric unit at an Alabama hospital), cleaned up his act. His singing and his songwriting are better than ever.
That's evident in "Southeastern," a poignant and sometimes painfully revealing album that hit stores earlier this month.
"The album is the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of changes in my life," said Isbell, who brings his band to Akron's Musica on Tuesday. "It's not the kind of album I could've written five or 10 years ago. I had to be a functioning adult to say a lot of things I wanted to say in this album."
Though it's not literally so, a lot of the disc sounds like a diary, with none of the ugly spots whitewashed. Facing up to your past, especially in such a public way as songwriting, can sometimes lead to a revisitation of it, but Isbell was able to avoid that.
"I really don't think that communicating is the kind of thing that makes me want to drink," said Isbell in a call to his Nashville home. "It's probably the opposite. Most of the time if I find myself wanting to fall back into my old ways, the best way to prevent it is to communicate that. That's what I'm doing in this record."
In no song is that more evident than in the haunting, "Live Oak."
It's not 100 percent autobiographical, since even in his boozing days, Isbell never robbed a Great Lakes freighter or bumped off a couple of enemies. But it's easy enough to read between the lines.There's a man who walks beside me
It is who I used to be
And I wonder if she sees him
And confuses him with me.
Some people might be wary of revealing that much of themselves. Not Isbell.
"All of my favorite writers do that," he said. "I grew up appreciating people like Neil Young and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, who do that. They let people know who they are."
With just a smidge of poetic license, the man in Jason Isbell's songs IS Jason Isbell.
"You've got to give the audience pieces of yourself and as you go along, you allow them to see what you're really like," he said. "You're never going to reach a time when they turn their backs on you for saying something personal."
The result is a relationship of kindred spirits between artist and audience, Isbell said, and for that he's grateful.
"It's a strange thing to buy a ticket and go to a concert," Isbell said. "I do it a lot, and I appreciate people who do it, too. It doesn't put food on the table and it doesn't lead you to procreate (although sometimes it does). It's not helping your day to go home and have a life."
The fan doesn't buy just a ticket, then; he or she is also buying ownership in a relationship with the artist. And that's what the sober Isbell has realized.
Just in time.