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Sobriety Becomes Jason Isbell

Feb. 5, 2014
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Boozing it up is one of those rites of passage that some creative types are almost expected to go through. For Jason Isbell, it was a duty he was more than willing to execute during his time with Southern alt-rockers Drive-By Truckers.

At least, it was until future wife Amanda Shires took him up on one of his many offers to go to rehab. It’s a choice he embraced back in January 2012 and it has already yielded musical fruit in the form of the dozen songs that make up last year’s studio album, Southeastern.

Isbell’s primarily acoustic fourth solo album has struck quite a chord thanks to the songwriter’s rich, character-driven mini-sages. It deservedly wound up on numerous best-of-2013 album lists, with many critics citing it as his best solo outing to date. And while the idea of making music without knocking a few back might have been cause for concern, Isbell was pleased with how abstaining from alcohol affected his first post-rehab recording.

“[Sobriety] gave me more time to work,” Isbell said. “I didn’t feel like I was spending hours a day recovering from the night before or spending a lot of time out at bars. When the sun went down when I was drinking, I always felt like I should be out somewhere socializing and having a few drinks, which usually turned into a lot. The next day it took me a few hours to get moving, so I didn’t have to worry about that and [making music] became a whole lot easier.”

With the only hiccup being the fact that new buddy Ryan Adams wound up begging off of producing Southeastern due to scheduling conflicts, the newly-minted teetotaler tapped Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings, Jamey Johnson) to slide into Adams’ slot.

Without missing a beat, Isbell came away with a number of introspective songs. Among them are “Elephant” and “Yvette,” moving ruminations about cancer and sexual abuse, respectively. And while they may seem semi-autobiographical, Isbell explains that’s simply not the case.

“These are not singular stories. They come from stories I gleaned from a few different people’s experiences,” he pointed out. “They do have elements of truth and things that actually happened because I think good fiction has to, but it’s not one person’s individual story. I try to shy away from that. It feels a little more creative and a little less personally damaging if I combine stories together. The thing about a song is that you don’t really have to categorize songs by their true stories.”

An Alabama native, Isbell grew up in the northern part of the state not too far from Florence, where the storied Muscle Shoals and Rick Hall’s FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) studios are located. Here, the quartet of Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson and David Hood were the session musicians behind seminal recordings by an enormous array of artists including Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Tom Jones, Wilson Pickett, The Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.

It was here that Isbell hooked up with Hood’s son, Patterson, who had founded the band Drive-By Truckers. After meeting up with the younger Hood around town and playing a few shows together as a duo, Isbell joined the band after college.

Isbell brought then-spouse Shonna Tucker into the band to play bass in time to record with the group on its fourth album, 2003’s Decoration Day, and for a while, the Truckers were a good fit for Isbell. He remained in the band for two more albums, 2004’s The Dirty South and 2006’s A Blessing and a Curse.

But as time went on, Isbell’s relations had deteriorated with both his wife and other members of the Truckers. When asked about that, the 34-year-old singer-songwriter is refreshingly candid about why he left the group in 2007.

“We just didn’t get along anymore,” Isbell said. “We’re all fine now. I’ve actually been in contact with Patterson quite a bit. But I was getting divorced and we were both still in the band. Plus there was a lot of shit going on at the time. I was drinking way too much. I mean, we all were. I know for a fact that I was drinking too much. We just didn’t like being around each other anymore. It’s just like having a bunch of roommates that you sometimes just get tired of having.”

Jason Isbell headlines the Pabst Theater Thursday, Feb. 6, with opener Robert Ellis. Doors open at 7 p.m.

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