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Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Redemption Songs: Jason Isbell's Latest Work Tells a New Story

Posted By on Wed, Feb 11, 2015 at 4:28 AM

Jason Isbell will perform at Peabody Opera House on February 14. - MICHAEL WILSON
  • Michael Wilson
  • Jason Isbell will perform at Peabody Opera House on February 14.

Back in the day, Jason Isbell was as likely to pack a pool cue as a guitar when he hit the road. If you ran into him on the street, in a bar or at a show, or maybe for a late-night community-radio session, he might ask where the nearest billiards hall was and if you wanted to join him. Back in the day, you'd have been crazy not to take him up on the offer.

"I'm not sure how much pool I played," he admits. "In those days I'd go out under the auspices of playing pool and would just go out drinking."

That should go without irony or regret in the saying. After all, Isbell was a Drive-By Trucker (a band not known for sobriety), a young songwriter and guitarist of the first disorderly order. But those nights drinking — around a velvet table or onstage, in the back of a bus or in an alley — could have killed him. They probably should have.


"Damn near strangled by my appetites," he sings on "Traveling Alone," one of a dozen redemption songs on his most recent album, Southeastern, a record that's as potent and poignant as anything his ex-bandmates or peers have recorded. "Ybor City on a Friday night, couldn't even stand up right." Through those songs you get to know Isbell, as sure as if you had shot pool with him till dawn, and it's the unmasked honesty of his stories that makes the archetype of the self-destructive rocker reborn ring true. These are the songs of a born storyteller, a born musician.

"That was always the plan, from as far back as I can remember," he says while on the road in Michigan. "I always wanted to be a musician, but I didn't realize when I was a kid that people made a living at it. My grandfather played and my uncles played as a hobby, or in church, but I guess by twelve or thirteen I realized that that was the same thing people were doing on the radio. I always read a lot, and my mother listened to a lot of songwriter albums, so the words were a big part of it from day one. Sitting around playing guitar and reading books, those were my two favorite things to do."

As a young man, Isbell joined his fellow Southern-traveling musicians in Drive-By Truckers, contributing unforgettable songs — "Decoration Day," "Outfit" and "Danko/Manuel" for starters — to the band's best albums. When he was dismissed from the Truckers in 2007 (the drinking was out of control and relationships were disintegrating), he took some lessons with him.

"I learned that it was a whole lot of work," Isbell says of songwriting. "If you want to get better at it, you have to do it over and over. Patterson [Hood] had written probably a thousand songs by the time I had joined. And the Truckers made all their decisions, and that stuck with me. Patterson was booking all the shows on the one cell phone we had to share. Even after we signed with a label, we kept a very close eye on everything. That's certainly something I've taken with me."

Continue to page two for more.

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