Alabama-raised Jason Isbell has pretty much met, if not exceeded, the expectations of just about any interested party following his departure from the beloved band of southern-rock story-tellers, The Drive By Truckers.
Each of Isbell's three albums since leaving his former band in 2007 has progressed in quality. His solo debut, Sirens of the Ditch, boasts what might be the greatest, yet most sorrowful, song of the current era of war with "Dress Blues." His second, self-titled album was nominated for the Americana Music Association's Album of the Year prize while his latest record, the country-tinged Here We Rest, by many accounts (including ours), is the most cohesive, solid-from-beginning-to-end effort he has produced yet.
Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit are making their way through a tour with Texas treasure James McMurtry. They hit Dan's Silverleaf in Denton a few days ago and will swing back tonight for a stop in Dallas at the Granada Theater. Isbell was kind enough to take a few minutes to speak with us over the phone as he and his mates made their way down the road toward the last couple of stops on their tour with McMurtry. Check out our Q&A after the jump.
The tour you're finishing up with James McMurtry is a really great bill. What's it been like to tour with an artist like that? It's been great. I love James' songs, and he's such a nice guy. We have a lot of fun, and I get to listen to him every night, so it's been a very good thing. I think he's about as good of a songwriter as anyone these days, so it's been a great opportunity for me, really.
Your latest album has a more distinct country and roots vibe than your two previous albums. Was that an intentional shift? You know, that's just how the songs presented themselves to me this time. I think that being home as much as I was at the time, and reconnecting with some people and some relationships, probably subconsciously affected what I was listening to and what I was writing at that time. When we went into the studio, an individual song was what it was. We didn't want to take a country song and chop it up and turn it into a rock song. We really didn't have a set plan on what kind of record we wanted to make before that.
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You've had some recent late-night television exposure on Letterman. You played guitar for Justin Townes Earle, and then you were the main attraction recently. What's that experience like when you're trying to perform? It was really fun, and Dave's a nice guy. I've done a few of those shows with the Truckers, so I knew what to expect. The only hard part for me was trying to cut the time of the song to fit into the time limit the show gave me, really.
You're a fan of Centro-matic, and you've had Matt Pence tour with you as a drummer before. I know that Patterson Hood [of Drive by Truckers] has been a vocal advocate for the Centro-matic. Did you get to know those guys through your affiliation with Drive by Truckers? Yes. We had been booked to play a gig at North Texas University by Dan Mojica of Dan's Bar, before it was Dan's Silverleaf. It was a show that took place before a football game, and we were in a tent with all these families and kids all dressed up in their football uniforms. Before we started, Dan went up to Patterson and said, "You know, we've got a lot of families here. Just do me one favor and not play 'Buttholeville.'" Well, of course, Patterson starts the set with that song because Dan said that. Maybe 15 seconds after the song started, I looked up and what had been a tent full of people was empty, except for two people: Will Johnson and Scott Danbom. That's how I met those guys, 10 years ago this month, actually.
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Another artist that has made her stamp here in Texas is Amanda Shires. You two have become buddies and collaborators in the last few years. How did that come about? I saw her at Austin City Limits in either 2003 or 2004, and then I ran into her again in Athens, Georgia, a year later when she was playing with the Thrift Store Cowboys. We've just gotten to be really good friends and over the years; we've spent more and more time together. She played fiddle for us on the new album, and on Letterman. She's played the last six or seven shows with us, but she won't be at the Dallas show. She's been great.
In the DBT documentary The Secret To a Happy Ending, you have a memorable quote about how the formula that made up the Truckers during your stint (multiple singers, multiple songwriters, married band-members, etc ...) was one that really shouldn't work, yet it was going well at that time, regardless. Looking back, were you on borrowed time during the length of your time with them, considering how unique the band's dynamic was? I don't think so. Those guys aren't really the kind of guys to make plans, and I'm not either. We just took what we had and ran with it and tried to make the best we could with it. I don't think that's something that we expected to end, and I don't think we expected it to continue forever, either. We were just trying to get up in the morning and get to the gig most of the time we were all together.
You're a frequent and funny Twitter user. What is it about Twitter that appeals to you? I like the fact that you can participate in the conversation however much or however little you feel like participating. You can listen to everyone around you, then sit up and say one thing, or you can really talk to those folks if you want to. It's not like being in a conversation in a bar where you have to participate; you can pretty much be antisocial. It also gives me a chance to edit what I have to say.