From 2001 to 2007 Jason Isbell was a member of the Drive by Truckers. He began his tenure while the band was touring in support of the Trucker’s breakthrough album Southern Rock Opera. Isbell joined Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley as the third writer, guitar player and vocalist in the band. When I was a deejay in Wilmington, NC on 98.3 The Penguin I used to refer to the Truckers as “the triple threat from Athens, Ga, (though in fact the band is part Athens, part Muscle Shoals, Alabama).”
The Truckers next two albumsDecoration Day and The Dirty South are some of Southern Rock’s greatest records. Isbell contributed several tunes to both efforts – “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” to the former and “The Day John Henry Died,” “Danko/Manuel,” “Never Gonna Change” and “Goddamn Lonely Love” to the latter. All of those songs showcased Isbell’s power as a songwriter and a vocalist. Thematically, they blended perfectly with the Truckers signature Southern Gothic imagery – trailer parks, the civil war, family feuds, bodies buried in shallow graves, broken hearts and shattered dreams.
2006’s A Blessing and a Curse featured two Isbell tracks, “Easy on Yourself” and “Daylight,” good songs, but not quite the caliber of his work on Decoration Day and The Dirty South. The same could be said of the record. Instead of hitting a home run, the Truckers delivered a stand up double.
While the Drive By Truckers were at an apex musically, the band was fracturing internally. Isbell was married to Truckers bass player Shonna Tucker and Isbell and Tucker’s rocky relationship was becoming untenable. In 2007, Isbell left the band and immediately released his first solo record Sirens of the Ditch, which he followed in 2009 with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.These records were overall run of the mill singer-songwriter fare. In 2011 he released Here We Rest, where he began to find his stride as a solo artist. “Alabama Pines” and “Codeine” harkened back to his best work with the Truckers.
In 2013, Isbell released Southeastern, where he continued to lead his listeners along a journey of chopping wood, benzothiadiazine, Super 8 Motels and “a drunk daddy with a white man’s point of view.” The hauntingly beautiful song “Live Oak” refers to the material out of which a serial killer carves a cross for a casket occupied by his true love. “Elephant” tells the story of a woman ravaged by cancer.
But spread amidst the pain and suffering are several songs about love – “Cover Me Up”, “Stockholm,” and “Traveling Alone.” “Different Days” conjures images of growing into middle age and leaving strippers behind.
The softer side of Isbell that emerged in Southeastern no doubt is due to his relationship with violinist and singer Amanda Shires. The two met in 2011 and Shires helped Isbell confront his substantial problem with alcohol. In fact, Isbell has said that he can hardly remember his stint with the Truckers due to the drunken haze that plagued him during those years. After a stint in rehab, Isbell and Shires married last year. They are also musical collaborators. Shires and Isbell sat down with NPR last year and discussed their journey together http://www.npr.org/2013/06/10/190372187/jason-isbell-a-southeastern-songwriters-path-to-sobriety
Clean, sober and in love, Isbell’s Southeastern is the best album of his career. There may be a contemporary songwriter who can write poetic, evocative and powerful lyrics as Isbell, but none better. “Jesus loves a sinner but the highway loves a sin.” Isbell writes in “Different days.” That lyric could easily come from a Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson or Bob Dylan song. Isbell has a tattoo on his arm of Dylan lyrics. If you told me he can channel Dylan, I would believe you. Isbell is now floating in rarified air.
The Drive By Truckers continue to be one of the hardest rocking bands when they perform live, but their studio efforts since Isbell left the band have not risen to the level of those released during "the triple threat" era.
The Truckers new record English Oceans comes out in March. Isbell has set the bar high for his former bandmates, It will be interesting to see if they can deliver something even in the same zip code at Southeastern.
R&R | Jason Isbell’s Hauntingly Beautiful 'Southeastern'