(originally published 6/4/12)
There’s probably no better time for Hartford to land a visit from singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, who’s performing at the Wadsworth Atheneum with Amanda Shires on June 8.
Isbell’s star is on the rise. He and his band, the 400 Unit, just scored four award nominations from the Americana Music Association for their excellent 2011 album, Here We Rest. Isbell’s song, “Alabama Pines,” is up for song of the year. He’s personally up for best artist, the Unit for best duo or group, and Here We Rest for best album. He’s definitely someone to watch right now, and fans of Steve Earle, Ray LaMontagne, even Alabama Shakes, Dawes or Carolina Chocolate Drops should take notice.
Not that it hasn’t been a long journey. Isbell, 33, grew up in the Muscle Shoals, Ala. area, home to Muscle Shoals Sound Studios and Rick Hall’s legendary FAME Studios, and an all-around southern-soul mecca, right up there with Memphis, Tenn. and Macon, Ga. Isbell began writing lyrics at 13, taking in his parents’ record collection — mostly ’70s arena rock — and what he heard on the radio, Nirvana and the like, as inspiration. From 2001 to 2007, Isbell toured and recorded with the Drive-By Truckers (co-founder, Patterson Hood, was also from the area), appearing on three of their post-Southern Rock Opera albums before deciding to leave, around the time he and bassist Shonna Tucker were getting divorced. Isbell subsequently wrote and recorded an album on his own, 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch, before working with the 400 Unit on their eponymous first album and later Here We Rest.
Unlike Patterson Hood, who’s the son of Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section bassist David Hood, Isbell wasn’t related to any professional musicians. “I knew folks who were playing music in the [Muscle Shoals] area,” Isbell said by phone from a tour stop in Calgary, Alberta. “But through playing in public I started running into a lot of these folks… There’s never been a good live scene there. It’s definitely a recording town… The laws were never conducive to live music.”
He began playing at the town’s limited venues, where he met David Hood, songwriter and organist Spooner Oldham and other local legends. “They showed us the ropes,” Isbell said. “I didn’t know when I had initially started spending time with them what kind of music they made, and when I started doing some research, it was mind-boggling to think that people playing in bars down the street were also playing on Paul Simon and Aretha Franklin records and those sort of things.”
Isbell’s Wadsworth show is a continuation of his solo tour, which has taken him all over the world, including a number of shows with fellow singer-songwriter Ryan Adams. “I did a lot of shows with [Adams],” he said. “I had a great time. He just called me. We may have met a decade ago or so. I don’t know if we were in the same places, but he got hold of the record after it came out and he told me how much he liked it and asked me if I wanted to do some shows.” Isbell said he enjoyed playing in front of larger audiences, most of whom were there to pay attention to the songs, and loved traveling on Adams’ tour bus. “We tried to write together,” he said. “We’ll probably do some work together in the future.”
Playing solo shows, Isbell said, offers an intimacy with audiences that’s elusive if you play with a band. “I like [solo shows] if [they are] in the right setting,” he said. “I don’t care for banging and screaming or trying to win people over. With a band you have at least three or four people in the band paying attention. By yourself it’s easy to feel like you are being ignored.” Isbell prefers listening rooms first and foremost, and bars are okay if it’s early enough in the day, before people get too drunk to be civil.
“I get to focus on the songs a little bit more and not worry about whether the band remembers the song,” Isbell said. But 400 Unit, he’s quick to point out, are all good listeners who play dynamically. “They really pay attention to what we are trying to deliver. They aren’t the kind of players who are going to cover anything up, really. But the experience is intensified if you are playing solo.”
Lately, Isbell’s been writing songs for a future record, but he plans to release a live recording before he gets back in the studio. As for leaving Drive-By Truckers, it was a painful time, but clearly he’s managed to put it all behind him.
“There were a lot factors involved,” Isbell said. “I had just divorced the bass player, so it was not going to be a lot of fun to be on a bus together. It was just time to move on… All the stock answers probably apply.”