(This story appears in our September/October issue. Pick it up here.)
A dozen years ago, Jason Isbell shuffled downstairs and watched as the Drive-By Truckers loaded their instruments and guitar amps into his home in Green Hill, Alabama. Isbell had been living there for several months, sharing the space with local scenesters like Shonna Tucker and Dick Cooper. He was 22 years old, a college dropout with a killer voice, solid guitar chops and no real plans beyond the house party that was scheduled for that evening.
The Truckers had agreed to play the party, hoping to work out some last-minute kinks before kicking off a national tour in support of Southern Rock Opera. When showtime rolled around, though, guitarist Rob Malone still hadn’t shown up. To prove a point, the rest of the band started playing without him, leaving an empty chair in the place he would’ve occupied.
“Those guys had a rule at that time, which was, ‘If you don’t show up for a gig, don’t bother showing up for the next one,’” Isbell explains from the living room of his new home, a cozy townhouse on the outskirts of Nashville. “I don’t know if Rob purposely chose not to come to the party because he didn’t think the band was going anywhere, or if they were trying to edge him out … but I do know they set up an empty chair and got about halfway through their set before I walked up to Patterson [Hood] and said, ‘Well, if you’re just gonna leave the chair there, I’m gonna take it and play guitar on all these songs.’”
It was a ballsy move … but it worked. By the time the party wrapped up, Isbell had permanently replaced Malone as the band’s third guitarist. The next morning, he found himself standing up to his chest in ice-cold creek water, shivering his way through an outdoors photo shoot with the Truckers and Spin magazine. One day after that, he hit the road with the band, barreling toward Oklahoma for the first show of the Southern Rock Opera tour. And two days after that, Isbell wrote “Decoration Day,” a seething rock-and-roll waltz about family, daddy issues and blood feuds (similar to the Grangerford/Shepherdson battle in The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, with less antebellum accents and more guitar solos). It quickly became one of the band’s signature tunes. In less than a week, the 22-year-old rookie had learned how to hold his own in a group of seasoned, road-ragged 30somethings.
“I remember him being open-minded to all ideas, which was unusual,” says David Barbe, who produced Isbell’s three records with the Truckers before mixing his solo debut, 2007’s Sirens Of The Ditch. “It’s pretty understandable that young, talented people think they’ve got it all figured out, because the world is theirs and the future is right in front of them, and they don’t necessarily need your advice. But Jason was wise beyond his years. He seemed to value the fact that he had jumped a couple spaces on the game board by joining a band with two very experienced songwriters – Patterson and [Mike]Cooley – and he listened to every suggestion we had. And once we started recording his song “TVA” in the studio, I thought, ‘This guy has really got something going.’”
“Everything was great in those days,” Isbell remembers. “Seemed like it was gonna go on forever. I guess it could have. I guess it has, in some way. But I bounced back a lot quicker back then. Now, it would take me a week to get over some of those one-day hangovers. We drank a whole lot.”
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Isbell doesn’t drink anymore. His last night as an active alcoholic was in Richmond, Virginia, where he played a private show and got thoroughly trashed on Franklin County Moonshine. He mentions that evening in “Cover Me Up,” the kickoff track from his new solo album, Southeastern. Like most of the record, the song deals with Isbell’s demons in raw, frank detail, keeping his frayed croon at the forefront while filling out the background with acoustic guitar and a few slide solos. Isbell wrote it for his wife, Amanda Shires, who helped him kick his whiskey habit back in early 2012.
“Amanda wasn’t gonna marry someone who got drunk every day,” he says with a self-deprecating smile. “A quality girl won’t put up with that. When I was with the Truckers, we played some great places and made some great albums, but when it was all over with, I couldn’t remember as much as I wanted to. I didn’t want that to happen again. I could feel a similar trajectory building with my solo career, and most people don’t get to do that once, much less less twice. I wanted to be present for it this time.”
Some unexpected help arrived in the form of Ryan Adams. No stranger to addiction, Adams had recently cleaned himself up, settled down with a girl (musician/actress Mandy Moore) and recorded an album of mellow singer-songwriter tunes. He encouraged his friend to do the same. The timing couldn’t have been better. Days earlier, a drunken Isbell had logged onto Twitter and lashed out at Dierks Bentley, blasting the country star for co-writing a song, “Home,” that sounded eerily similar to Isbell’s “In A Razor Town.” Fingers were pointed, expletives were used, musicologists were hired … and Bentley was urged to “eat a bag of dierks” in a follow-up tweet from Isbell. Once he slept off the alcohol, he knew it was time to dry out. With Shires’ and Adams’ help, he checked into rehab for two weeks, emerging with a slimmer physique and a clearer head. Almost immediately, Isbell and Adams left town for an international acoustic tour. They stayed on the road for months, playing shows on three continents and politely turning down all complimentary drinks that came their way. Performing in large venues without a backing band or a good whiskey buzz was terrifying at first, but Isbell settled into his sobriety. His voice started sounding better. His guitar playing became cleaner. Shires tagged along for some of the shows, providing moral (and sometimes musical)
support, and Adams made sure the tour never lapsed into predictability.
“One time, I hired two amateur exotic dancers to go onstage dressed in corpse-paint and capes with candles during the last song of Jason’s set,” Adams remembers, “and he did not know what to do. Also, Jason could never, ever, ever tell it was me when I’d call his hotel room with an English accent.” It was a good summer. By the time fall came along, Isbell had proposed to Shires, written a bunch of new songs, played some homecoming shows with his full band, the 400 Unit, and recorded a loud, loose-limbed live album called Live From Alabama. What was next? The mellow singer-songwriter album, of course.
At least that was the plan.
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