MUSIC

JASON ISBELL'S WORKMANLIKE GENIUS

The celebrated singer/songwriter rides the highs and lows to meld rich country-rock narrative and nuanced folk tradition

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Jason Isbell has endured more ups and downs in 36 years than most musicians do in a lifetime. As a teenager in rural North Alabama’s Green Hill, he learned his guitar licks from the mythical session musicians of Muscle Shoals. He studied creative writing at the University of Memphis but dropped out one credit short of his diploma to return home for a $250-a-week songwriting contract at FAME Recording Studios. In 2001, Isbell fell in with Southern rock icons Drive-By Truckers after their third guitarist failed to show for an important gig; within a month, he’d written “Decoration Day” and “Outfit,” two of the band’s most famous songs that memorialize everyday life in the modern, downtrodden South. Isbell’s wife, Shonna Tucker, joined the Truckers in 2003, but the intrapersonal tension was too high and, four years later, he was quietly forced out of the band.

In 2007 and 2011, Isbell delivered two solid solo albums that allowed him to further find his niche as a nuanced storyteller, while his Muscle Shoals-based backing band, The 400 Unit, morphed into a crackerjack unit that rivaled the swampy blast of the Truckers. But alcoholism waged an intense war on Isbell’s body, mind, and career until 2012, when his girlfriend (now wife) Amanda Shires organized an intervention with help from Isbell’s family and professional inner circle. After two weeks at Nashville’s Cumberland Heights, Isbell cleared his head, cleaned out his body (losing 40 pounds almost overnight) and, with 2013’s album Southeastern, claimed his rightful place on the throne as one of America’s most nuanced, emotionally impactful singer/songwriters.

“Songwriting is not easier for me now,” Isbell told Folio Weekly last week. “I think it is easier to find material now, just because I’m more aware. Being sober and feeling all right during the day allows me pay closer attention to what’s going on around me. That makes it easier to find things to talk about — explain my own feelings to myself in a lot of ways. But I’m always finding new ways to refine and edit.”

Turns out it’s the perfect time to pick Isbell’s brain about that craft — he just wrapped a new album, Something More Than Free, that will be released on July 17. Describing it as a more “celebratory” affair than Southeastern, which documented his personal rise from the ashes of addiction, Isbell is audibly excited discussing it, perhaps because he called after a relaxing few days on the road with his wife opening for Lee Ann Womack.

“I actually went back and listened to it on our drive [last week], and I’m very proud of the songs,” Isbell says. “The production sets a certain kind of mood and puts you in a distinct place, which good production should do. The band played great, and we had enough time to work. That’s important to me. I had it with Southeastern, too — a few months at home to actually get up in the morning, make some coffee and write songs all day.”

Given the trajectory of his career — way up with the Truckers, down some when he went solo, down further as he struggled with addiction, then way up again with Southeastern, which swept the 2014 Americana Music Awards — Isbell appreciates that hard-won flexibility. “Early in your career, when you need to have the best songs possible, you don’t have time to write ’em because you have to tour just to keep the lights on,” he says in his amicable Alabama drawl. “Luckily, I’ve gotten to a point where I’m able to spend time getting down to the nuts and bolts of what I want to say to people. And I think it works on the new record.”

Isbell expects to include two, maybe three new songs in his live set on May 12, when he plays The Florida Theatre, which is a bigger venue than his last Duval stop at Mojo Kitchen in Jax Beach. “It’s great because we can hear ourselves and the audience can hear us, which makes the show better and certainly makes me have a better time,” he says. “But there is something you miss about playing small venues like Mojo Kitchen, where people would cook us food and bring us desserts. I’ve always had good shows in Jacksonville — never got into any trouble I can remember.”

The kind of trouble he documented so poignantly on the first album’s deep cut “Super 8 Motel” is far in Isbell’s rearview at this point; he and Shires are expecting their first child in September, they appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman last week, and after a long national tour, he’s got a four-night sold-out stand at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium planned for October. But you never get the feeling that Isbell takes any of it for granted, treating his craft with the workmanlike humility required to last another 36 years.

“This is the job that I’ve chosen for myself,” he says. “It’s never going to be the most popular thing in the world; honestly, I’m surprised it’s gotten to the level that it has. I’m just really grateful that so many people want to hear these types of songs. Writing them is the thing that doesn’t bore me, so it’s the thing I do.”

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