When the Drive-By Truckers camp announced earlier this year that they were losing one-third of their three-pronged attack of songwriting frontmen, fans of the left-leaning, deep-thinking, and hard-drinking country-rock group were understandably surprised and dismayed. Jason Isbell, the youngest of the triumvirat and the latest to join the band, was regarded as a spiritually invigorating force, foiling humanely against bandleader Patterson Hood's wry life-lesson theorizing and Mike Cooley's hard-bitten tall tales from the dark side.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit With J. Tillman and Conrad Ford. Crocodile Cafe, 2200 Second Ave., 441-5611, www.thecrocodile.com. $12 adv./$14 DOS. Wed., Aug. 1.
As hard as the departure of Isbell may have been for fans to swallow, the reality is that it was a thoughtful, amicable parting that was difficult but essential for Isbell to go to the next level as an artist. "There was nothing plain and simple about it, really," says Isbell, chatting from the road while out on tour in support of his new solo record, Sirens of the Ditch. "We discussed it for a while as a group and decided it was time to move on." He's also obviously grateful for the education he received during his six-year tenure with the Truckers, a band known for a tireless work ethic and a backbreaking touring schedule. "I learned about the music business, for better or for worse," he continues. "I also learned a lot about touring, pacing myself on the road, and giving everything at every show. To tell the truth, I learned a lot about life in general."
Those lessons show up throughout Sirens, a strong, if occasionally uneven, solo debut that highlights Isbell's extraordinary gifts—an effortless sense of compassion for his songs' downtrodden protagonists, a searing insight into human foibles that belies his 28 years, and a warm, richly expressive voice that lies somewhere between a dustier Jackson Browne and less embittered Paul Westerberg. The historic setting of Muscle Shoals, Ala.s' FAME Studios imbues several of the record's 11 tracks with classic blues tones, a trait that is linked directly to Isbell's upbringing. "I was trying to do a record that paid tribute to some of the music that was made in Muscle Shoals in the '60s and '70s," he explains. "Those songs and the people who made them are still a very big part of my life."
Reverent homage is touching, but doesn't always work to his advantage, such as on "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades," a blues-by-the-numbers chestnut that trots out far too many tired lyrical and musical clichés (excessive drinking-to-forget-the-bad-woman references, overwrought guitar solos) for a young man clearly armed with his own fresh vision. Much more successful are the moments that show off Isbell's emphasis on memorable, colorful details, be they observing "scripture on grocery store signs" or copping to "dancing to Purple Rain" as a kid. Politics make for a sweetly sorrowful centerpiece on "Dress Blues," a vivid reflection on the untimely death of an old classmate of Isbell's who lost his life to a roadside bomb in Iraq a few weeks before his 22nd birthday. "He was a few years younger than me, but I knew him and his family," says Isbell. "His wife, Nichole, was in the late stages of her pregnancy, and he was scheduled to come home for good."
Isbell's former bandmates are all over the record, from drummer Brad Morgan to bassist (and Isbell's now ex-wife) Shonna Tucker and Hood himself, who shows up as both player and producer on several tracks. Such friendly collaboration is both the result of the record's long-running production time (it was recorded over the course of the past four years, while Isbell was still with the Truckers) and the enduring mutual respect and admiration at play, as evidenced by what Hood has to say when asked about Isbell's artistic aptitude. "He has literally limitless talent and ability," says Hood with obvious affection. "I don't think there's anything he couldn't do if he set his mind to it. [He has] an amazing vocal range and guitar dexterity, yet he doesn't let that get in the way of being soulful. When he joined the Truckers, it was going to be temporary, and he was so incredible that within two weeks he was a partner and all that, but people grow and artists have to choose the path that best works for them."
The path carved out for Isbell now is a rigorous stretch of promotional touring, though he does have his eye on his sophomore effort. "I do have some of it written, but I won't get around to recording until this record has been exhausted on the road. A few weeks ago, a fan told me he was 'looking forward to the future.' I am too."