Soldiers, sex and suicide. Jason Isbell is a storyteller. From his days as a member of the Drive-By Truckers to his presently successful endeavor, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, Isbell’s protagonists have embodied a reckless and rueful bunch of characters. When he’s not touching upon the demise of American manufacturing, he’s reflecting through the eyes of the sellout politician or delivering the real-life story of a good high school friend who passed away serving in Iraq. Besides his songwriting chops, the critically-acclaimed Isbell is widely considered to be a talented guitarist. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Jason a few months back, who graciously took time out of his hectic touring schedule to chat with us.
Favorite type of whiskey?
Yeah, I drink Jack [Daniel’s]. I don’t know exactly how much of it I can drink without getting too crazy.
One thing you could change about yourself?
Financial status. Everything else I’m pretty OK with.
Any place you would like to live someday?
Let’s see, I’d like to live in New York but I would have to change my financial status first.
That’s quite the change of scenery from the South.
Yeah, but I’m not usually at home. I spend most of my time traveling so, you know, it doesn’t bother me being in the city anymore. It might have when I was 20, 21 years old, but I’ve gotten used to it now.
Favorite venue or city to play in?
I don’t really have a particular favorite. There’s a lot of them that I like a whole lot. I love playing in New York, Chicago and Austin. I like Asheville, North Carolina and I like the West Coast. I like San Francisco, Seattle, Portland a whole lot.
Sounds like you’re more of a city person then?
Well, most people out in the sticks don’t know who the hell I am. If you don’t have the record stores or any type of college radio you’re going to have a hard time hearing about me.
A hometown question — best place to grab a bite in Muscle Shoals (AL)?
That’s a good question. I would think barbecue would be your best bet. There’s a place called Bunyan’s, that’s my favorite barbecue in town.
Favorite real-life hero?
I’m going to go with my dad on that. He’s a good guy. He works real hard and he’s a smart guy.
From what I’ve read — although he didn’t play — it seems like your dad was a huge fan and a big music aficionado.
Oh yeah, he went to a lot of concerts in the 70s. He enjoys rock ‘n’ roll a whole lot. But no, he never really learned to play anything. He can a play a couple chords, but that’s it.
Favorite person to follow on Twitter?
Roger Ebert is really good. He’s really smart and insightful. I like his opinions on things.
If you could have whatever job you wanted, what would you choose?
If I could any job that I wanted, I’d probably play baseball.
Yeah, I’m a Braves fan.
I wouldn’t say I have a favorite because I read a whole lot. I’m really partial to Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I’ve read that one a few times. That’s probably the one I’ve gone back to the most.
Do you have any favorite albums of the past year?
I like Justin Townes Earle’s record a lot. I played on that so I’m kinda partial to it, but the songs are great. He’s really good. There’s a band from Portland called Mimicking Birds that I think is a really good band. They’re really quiet but they’re really good. And a new Centro-Matic record just came out a little while ago and that’s a real great one.
Who’s influenced you musically?
Neil Young is a great songwriter. Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, all the standard folks that you have to list. But I’m also into a lot of 80s pop bands. Squeeze, Crowded House and ‘Til Tuesday — those are good bands. But lately, I’m definitely into James McMurtry. He’s a really greater singer and songwriter. His lyrics are as good as anyone’s.
Favorite band to tour with?
I’ve toured a lot with Centro-Matic. I really get along with those guys. I’ve known them for a few years now and enjoyed their company a lot. They’re a really good band.
Best guitarists you’ve had a chance to witness or play with?
I really like Redd Volkeart a whole lot. I’ve never played with the guy, but he plays with Merle Haggard. He’s a really incredible player. Dan Baird who used to be in the Georgia Satellites and I played on a tour he was on. I really like Luther Dickinson’s playing a whole lot from the North Mississippi All-Stars. And Derrick Trucks is just a wizard. He does some crazy shit.
Favorite guitar you own?
The one I’ve been playing the most is a Duesenberg Starplayer, German-made guitar. And I’ve been playing it a whole lot for the last year. I’ve also got a Gibson ES-335 that I like a lot too and that one’s been lost for a little while, but I’m supposed to get it back this week so I’ve got my fingers crossed.
How exactly did that happen?
It went on a cruise ship playing and it accidentally got given away as part of a raffle contest, but it’s been located. I think it’s gonna get back to me pretty soon.
I thought you were going to say it fell in the ocean.
Nah, I wouldn’t need it back if that happened [laughs].
Your new record, Here We Rest, seems to be a bit of a departure from the self-titled album, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. It seems more upbeat and happier. Do you also feel this way?
I think musically it probably is. I don’t know about the lyrical content. There’s dark, depressing stuff on there, but I tend to lean towards those. I do like having a good time playing sad songs so there’s a lot of uptempo and lighter feeling music on this record.
“Daisy Mae” is one of the standouts and different from a lot of your past work in the sense that it’s a stripped-down acoustic guitar track. Is there a story behind “Daisy Mae?”
Yeah, there’s a story behind all of them [laughs]. That one was originally supposed to just be a demo. I just went in and played it once and sang it. I didn’t try it anymore than that. And that was what wound up on the record because it turned out pretty well. I think it turned out good.
Were there any changes in the record process between Here We Rest and prior records?
Not other than just the band. I think that was probably the biggest difference. We had our band, but a different drummer on the self-titled album and on this one we had all of us together for the first time. We just hired Chad — our drummer — about 3 years ago right around when we finished recording the second album so it’s been really good to play together for that amount of time and then go into the studio and record.
“Codeine” is pretty distinctive. It’s pretty poppy and accessible. The fiddle is awesome. What’s the background behind it?
I woke up with that song completely in my head one morning and got up and wrote it in about the amount of time it took to write it down. It didn’t take very long to work on at all. It was stuck in my head so I figured that it would be catchy enough to stick in other people’s heads too. It came out like a country song and I couldn’t really make it sound like anything other than that. I went ahead and got Amanda Shires to play fiddle on it and just let it be a country song. I think that was a good idea. Sometimes I hate it when a band will take a song that should be one style and force it to be another. I think they should go ahead and let it be what it wants to be.
Several of your songs deal with the plight of soldiers and veterans, such as “Tour of Duty” and “Dress Blues.” Is that something that’s really hit home for you?
Yeah, I come from a part of the country that’s had a lot of people enlist and go overseas so I know a lot of people who have fought. A lot of people who’ve come back and some who haven’t. Obviously I don’t know what it’s like to be over there — to be in the middle of a conflict — but I do know what sort of effect it has on a community so I try to write about that as much as I can. I feel that it’s something I think about a lot and other people think about a lot, or at least they should.
Are you trying to bring light to the side effects of war that a lot of people don’t see like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Yeah, I don’t think those guys are taken care of as well as they could be — still. And I can’t think of a whole lot of songs about PTSD. There’s a couple of them out there, but there aren’t as many as there are, just straight-up jingoist “I love America” songs. And you know, I love America too but it goes a little bit deeper than that.
You guys played South by Southwest (SxSW) this year. What was that experience like and how does it compare to playing your typical small venues?
SxSW is a lot of small venues, actually. It’s not a festival as much as its a conference. So you travel around town playing different places two or three times a day. It’s a lot of work and it’s really exhausting. I do it because I need it to do it and it’s great to see people that I haven’t seen in a while and get back in touch with some of the friends that I’ve toured with over the years and that kinda thing. But it’s a lot of work. I think we played 5 or 6 shows in 2 days there so it was kinda rough.
What’s next on Jason Isbell’s platter?
Right now, I’m just going to tour. We have a big tour planned so I’m going to be on tour for the next couple of months so that’s really all that I’m focusing on for now.
Note: Jason Isbell, who just finished up a tour with Ryan Adams, will be on the road during the months of November and December. See tour dates here.