“A record is what it is. You can’t make it sound like something else, or fabricate it, or think it’s gonna wind up being exactly like the thing you originally thought it would be. It just happens, and this record came out naturally, the way it had to be.”
Dave Cobb is sitting in the control room of his small home studio, where he produced Southeastern earlier this year. It wasn’t a leisurely process. Hell-bent on finishing the record before his wedding, Isbell had come to Cobb at the last minute, looking for a replacement after the album’s original producer, Ryan Adams, backed out.
“Things with Ryan fell apart at the 11th hour,” Cobb explains, “so they called me instead. We were working out the budget for the record, and I told them, “I don’t care; I’ll do it for fucking free.” In my opinion, he’s the best singer-songwriter going right now, and I felt like it was important to make a record that really showed that off. There’s nothing clouding him on these songs. There’s no big production, no walls of guitars, no symphony. It’s just him, and everything else kinda sits around him.”
That’s true, but Southeastern isn’t nearly as quiet as Isbell originally hoped. After recording a trio of stripped-down tunes – “Cover Me Up,” “Elephant” and “Live Oak” – in Cobb’s kitchen, he decided to switch gears by summoning the rest of his band, looking to beef up the remaining songs with some country-rock horsepower. Bassist Jimbo Hart couldn’t make it, but keyboardist Derry BeBorja and Chad Gamble showed up the next day. No one knew the songs, but that didn’t stop the group from recording as many as three of them per day. They finished everything in two weeks, wrapping up the last tune on the day Isbell left for his honeymoon.
“I think it’s best to hear something for the first time,” Cobb continues, “then have an immediate reaction to it. If you’ve been listening to a lot of demos before you make a record, you wind up getting used to those arrangements. They make sense to you, just because you’re familiar with them. So we didn’t do it that way. Jason would sit on the couch with his guitar and play the song for the band, and we’d work out the changes and arrangements on the spot. It was so quick. All my favorite records – Neil Young’s Harvest, the Stones’ Exile On Main Street – were done that way, just getting people into a room together and messing around. The first time they got it right, it was captured.”
The only song that took several days to capture was “Traveling Alone,” a shuffling, mid-tempo duet with Shires. “It just wasn’t happening,” says Cobb. “We tried different grooves, different feels, even a halftime thing…and it just would not come together. Then Amanda came in the day before they got married, and they were in booths directly across from each other, and it just clicked. The song is about her, you know? The mood was right, and it came together after the first or second take. Whereas before, we’d probably tried it 20 different ways. I think it was her. She put him at ease.”
* * * * *
Back at the Isbell household, Jason stubs out a cigarette – his preferred vice these days – and ducks into the back room to check the score of the Atlanta Braves game. While he’s gone, I take a look around the room. Amanda’s bridal bouquet hangs on the wall, along with a piece of folk art that Wes Freed created for The Dirty South, Isbell’s second album with the Drive-By Truckers. Beneath those two items are piles and piles of books. When Isbell comes back into the room, we start talking about one of his favorite subjects: storytelling.
Man, you guys have a lot of books.
That’s something a songwriter needs to do: read. The best ones always do. Always. Even the fucking punk rock kids who don’t wanna admit it. They’re reading the Russians.
Do you circle things or write notes in the margins?
Most of the time, I just read the book. Then I read another one, then I read another one, then I read another one. I treat it like food, like nutrition. Your body will keep what it needs and shit out the rest.
So you’re hoping for some kind of cumulative effect.
“If I read a lot of quality stuff, it’ll find its way into my own writing.”
Is that the idea?
Yeah. It just teaches you how to tell a story, as long as you’re reading good shit. I don’t know if it’s gonna help if you read Twilight and 50 Shades Of Grey, but if you’ve got a lot of good stuff coming in – movies, books, even TV shows like Mad Men,which can weave a story as well as any Scorsese film from the ’70s – then good stuff is gonna come back out. That’s just how it works. You get to the point where you just understand how a good story is told, and how the best storytellers do it.
During “Yvette,” your protagonist levels his shotgun and gets ready to shoot a child abuser. Where’d that story come from?
I usually create characters, then allow them to behave the way they normally would. Sometime it’s a real person; sometimes it’s a combination of people that I know. “Yvette” is kind of a companion to “Daisy Mae,” off the last record. It still amazes me how many people were sexually abused when they were kids. I didn’t grow up in a dangerous place; my parents got divorced when I was really young, and we went through the usual struggles associated with that, but it wasn’t a dangerous home at all. That’s the anomaly now. The older I get, the more I realize that the anomaly is not the trauma. It’s the other way around. Most people have dealt with it. I’m not a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist or anything, so I don’t have any way of helping people deal with that … other than by telling a few stories once in awhile.
The song ends before the character pulls the trigger. He might not even go through with it. Did you want your listeners to draw their own conclusions?
The story happens before the trigger gets pulled. You know what happens after the gun goes off, because it’s the same every time: someone dies, someone gets in trouble for it. But the things that lead up to it, that’s where your real story is.
You do something similar with “Elephant,” where one of the main characters struggles with cancer. The song never tells us if she winds up dying.
She might. She might not. I think she probably does, but the story happens before the trigger gets pulled on that one, too. It’s the lead-up. It’s not the action or the event; it’s what happens before it.
Did you meet a lot of people like her, back in your drinking days?
I’ve spent a lot of time at little bars in Alabama, getting to know a lot of people who’d eventually disappear. It’s kinda like that scene in Rent, when everyone starts vanishing. It was that way in this particular bar. I was dating the bartender, who was young, real sweet and kindhearted, and I said, “You know, these people aren’t gonna be around forever. You’re gonna get connected to these old drunks, and they’re just gonna vanish. Every few months, another one’s gonna be gone.” The song just came from that place – from having that connection with someone whose ship is going down, and allowing the relationship to mature in spite of that. Two people are sitting on barstools for a long period of time, and one person gets sick, and the other rises to the occasion.
There’s a particular line – “If I fucked her before she got sick, I’d never hear the end of it” – that really jarred me the first time I heard it. It almost pulled me out of the song.
It hits you pretty hard, doesn’t it? But I couldn’t think of a better way to say it. That’s just how that character would’ve phrased it, so I had to say it that way.
Also, you use this word – “elephant” – that doesn’t appear in many songs nowadays.
Yeah, but it’s a beautiful word, isn’t it? Whenever I’m writing songs, I try to be as conversational as I can. I think about people like James McMurtry or Randy Newman, people who are really poignant, but still very conversational and linear. You could overhear some of their lyrics in a bar or a grocery store. That’s what really gets me. It’s simple language, but people hear it and think, “Wow, you just said way more things that you realize.”
Do you have certain words that you’ll never use in a song?
I don’t really have a list, not even an unwritten one. I’ll avoid stuff like “soul” and “rain,” although some people do great stuff with rain. I don’t mind it when Ryan Adams is doing it, but that might be the delivery, too. He’s got some great rain songs.
You’re more explicit with your imagery than he is.
Probably. Some of my favorite writers aren’t that explicit, though. Like Jay Farrar. I don’t have a fucking clue what he’s talking about most of the time, but I love it. It’s great. That’s just not where my wheelhouse is. I can’t get all metaphysical with it. I have to say “I saw this” or “I heard that” or “This happened, and then this happened.”
Are you worried that your audience won’t understand the songs otherwise?
I think they’re pretty smart. I try to keep the idea of an “intelligent stranger” in mind. That’s my ideal audience member, and that’s who I write for. People are very different, and they all connect with things indifferent ways, but part of my job is knowing what they’ll get, and what they won’t. It’s similar to making a joke on Twitter. You know the jokes that people aren’t gonna get. You think, “Man, I think this is hilarious, but the general public is NOT gonna laugh.”
What about “Super 8?” If anyone’s gonna listen to this album and laugh, it’ll be during that song. Did those things happen during your time with the Truckers?
That’s a combination of four or five different stories that all took place when I was in the band. I did wind up in a lot of hotel rooms thinking, “How did I get here? Who are these people?” If you’re fucked up enough, sometimes you wake up and realize that everyone you know has gone home, and you’re still in this room with strangers. For all you know, they might wanna kill you.
Whoa. Like another tune on Southeastern says, “Those were different days.”
They certainly were.
* * * * *
Months later, Derry DeBorja gives me a call from his home in East Nashville. Southeastern has been out for five weeks, and the response has been overwhelming. At Grimey’s New & Preloved Music, an independent record shop on the other side of the Cumberland River, it’s the best-selling album of the summer. On a national level, the album debuted in the Top 40, a place normally reserved for the likes of Taylor Swift and Maroon 5. DeBorja and the rest of the 400 Unit – now a larger, louder band, thanks to the addition of Shires on fiddle and Drivin’ N Cryin’s Sadler Vaden on lead guitar –have been busy with musical festivals, club dates and the usual hoopla that goes along with promoting the biggest Americana album of the year.
“We’ve expanded things,” DeBorja explains. “Sadler is playing guitar. Amanda is playing fiddle. For me, the big addition is a digital mellotron, which provides a lot of the strings and pads that you hear on the recording. The B3 organ has been a big part of our sound for a number of years now, but you don’t hear much Hammond on these songs. I think we were just looking for a different texture.”
Different textures. Different directions. Different days. Southeastern is a harbinger of all three, sporting a 47-minute track list that covers the expected bases – heartland rock and roll, soft-spoken folk, blue collar boogie, Alabama country-soul – while shining a brighter light on the changes in Isbell’s life. It’s an album about reflection and redemption, about carrying the weight of your past while you move forward.
The record is called Southeastern. But this compass points north.