If anyone can wring a song from the downfall of former CIA Director David Petraeus, it’s Jason Isbell. The ex-guitarist from the seminal Southern rock act Drive-By Truckers, now well-established as a solo artist, has written a song or two about war, sex, and regret.
“Maybe when we get the story, if we ever get the whole story, I’ll think about writing a song about that,” Isbell says. He’s speaking on the phone from Chase Park Studio in Athens, Ga., where he has been helping with the recording and guitars on his fiancée Amanda Shires’ latest album. Working in a populist vernacular that splits the difference between Bruce Springsteen and Lucero, Isbell writes songs about barroom encounters, the return home for emotionally wounded veterans, and — as he says in the chorus of one song — “goddamn lonely love.” He picks up stories where he can get them, often from friends’ recollections, sometimes from his own life.
“Recently, I’ve been writing a lot about myself, but I think that’s harder to do with any kind of quality until you’ve got some years on you,” says Isbell, 33. “You get a little bit older, you start figuring out who you are a little bit more, and you get more objective on that subject.” It’s been a big year for Isbell personally. He got engaged, and he quit drinking nine months ago. There was no rock-bottom moment with the alcohol, he says, just a series of bleary mornings. “I think I just got tired of feeling like shit, really, and I got tired of treating people poorly.”
“So,” he explains with his understated Alabama candor, “all of those things were pretty serious issues.”
Serious issues are the stuff of his songwriting, whether with the Truckers or with his own backing band, the 400 Unit. The concerns in his songs, whether for himself or his characters, are the concerns of the modern Southern man. There’s no false cowboy posturing to be found, just a humble, workmanly blues sweetened with a little good humor. On the song “TVA,” his narrative travels backward in time, from a 15-year-old boy in the present taking his girl down to a Tennessee Valley Authority dam to his sharecropper grandfather finding work building that same dam. In the course of the song, that boy rejoices, “She let me put my hand up her shirt / I wanted her to want me so bad it hurt,” and prays, “Thank God for the TVA / When Roosevelt let us all work for an honest day’s pay.”
Musically, Isbell wears his country-rock badge loud and proud, skipping the twee trappings of alt-country in favor of rocking the hell out. His latest recording, the concert album Live from Alabama, shows off his sublime rasp and his killer backing band of keyboardist Derry DeBorja, bassist Jimbo Hart, and drummer Chad Gamble. In Charleston, fiancée Amanda Shires will join the band on fiddle.
If you go to the concert at the Pour House, expect to hear some diehard Drive-By Truckers fans requesting the song “Outfit,” which Isbell wrote for his old band in 2001. The lyrics, based on advice from his father, are a sort of instruction manual for staying true to your roots, starting with never calling your clothes an “outfit” and never singing with a fake British accent. “Have fun, but stay clear of the needle / Call home on your sister’s birthday / Don’t tell ’em you’re bigger than Jesus / Don’t give it away,” Isbell sings.
He likes to think he has succeeded in those areas. He’s living sober now, he’s still got a droll sense of humor like his daddy, and he certainly hasn’t lost his accent. He’s still an Alabama boy, even as he negotiates manhood in song.
“I’m figuring out who I am gradually,” Isbell says. “Hopefully, I’ll figure it out one of these days.”