A lot has changed since Jason Isbell’s last headlining show in Madison.
His Feb. 7 show at the Barrymore Theatre will follow a string of 15 consecutive sold-out shows on the east coast. He’ll play songs new and old, including some from his most recent album, “Southeastern,” which has topped critics’ and bestsellers’ lists since its June 2013 release.
Travel has gotten more comfortable, and there are a lot more people at the shows, Isbell says on a day between stops in Ohio and Indiana, as he works his way toward the Midwest.
“It’s good stuff,” he says, his voice softer than his songs let on. “Really exciting.”
But it’s not just the size of the venues or the reach of his records that have changed.
He’s been sober for about two years, now, and married for a little less than one. His wife, fiddle player Amanda Shires, tours with him. They share the stage with his band, the 400 Unit — named for the psychiatric ward of a hospital in his home state of Alabama.
“Southeastern” is Isbell’s first solo effort since 2007’s “Sirens of the Ditch.” His last headlining show in Madison was just a month after the release of 2011’s “Here We Rest,” one of two albums that carried the 400 Unit name. He played the Barrymore in April 2013, with Todd Snider. Those shows and albums came after Isbell’s time with the Drive-By Truckers.
“I had a whole lot more time and focus to work on this album,” Isbell says. “I was home, and I wasn’t going out and drinking every night. I wasn’t spending most of the day recovering from a hangover. I was able to put a lot more work into the words and the melody. I think it helped, and made the album a lot more consistent. It made it possible for me to express myself a lot better than I had in the past.”
He says his shows are also better, as a result.
He still plays the old songs. Some of the staples from his days with the Truckers — including “Decoration Day” and “Outfit” make their way into his performances. Nothing is off limits, he says.
Even with a new perspective on his own life, the old songs remain the same.
“I wrote ‘em all for a very specific purpose,” he says. “I still remember, or try to — I remember the place I was in, the situation I was in when I wrote ‘em initially. That’s my way of really delivering them honestly to the audience. Why did I write this song to start with — what was I feeling, thinking, what was going on with my life?”
Some songs can take a day to write, while others take a year, Isbell says. It’s no surprise when he says he likes to listen to 'story songs.' He appreciates songwriters who can open up to their audience and write things that are personal — and he tries to write to his own tastes.
The result is songs like “Live Oak,” in which Isbell lays his own fears bare in the guise of a murderer’s tale. “There's a man who walks beside me, he is who I used to be / and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me,” the song begins, with only his rich, haunted voice.
As it goes on — “I was rougher than the timber shipping out of Fond du Lac / When I headed south at 17, the sheriff on my back” — it sounds like the killer might be from Wisconsin.
“He is,” Isbell says.
Where did the story come from?
“I made it up,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t know, really. I don’t know why I chose that location for it. That was a little bit of allegory. I was worried about when I cleaned my life up and got on the straight and narrow, I was wondering about how effective I’d be as an artist, as a partner in my relationship and as a friend to people. I was wondering about what parts of myself would be different on the other side. Looking back, it was something I had to get down at that point in time, because I don’t have those concerns anymore.”
Isbell is a chameleon as a narrator, singing of his own experiences and others’ with a shared level of honesty. He fits the nuances of a novel into the length of a song, and sets the stories to music.
“I think being honest with folks really goes a long way,” Isbell says. “To start out, you really have to have a pretty good understanding of how words work, how to phrase things and make ‘em sound musical — but I think the most important part of what’s worked for me is just being really honest with people, and trying to make them feel like they’re not alone.”