If you’re a fan of Americana music, you’ve likely seen Charleston scene veteran and Leslie frontman Sadler Vaden on television a good bit over the past couple of years.
As the guitarist for singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, whose level of fame and commercial success has skyrocketed since his 2013 album Southeastern, Vaden has moved quickly from playing in cover bands on King Street to the bright lights of late-night television performances and Austin City Limits. The guitarist joined up with Isbell’s backing band the 400 Unit shortly after the release of the bandleader’s breakthrough album and has maintained a heavy touring schedule ever since.
So when, exactly, did Vaden find time to write and record a solo album?
“I still have a very busy schedule playing guitar for Jason, so I did it when I could,” Vaden says from a brief sojourn at his home in Nashville, the town he moved to from Charleston a little less than five years ago. “Some people are amazed that I was able to do that. For me, the way my brain works, I’m like ‘Well, it should have been done a long time ago.'”
Vaden makes it clear that the album is not intended to supplant his gig with Isbell & the 400 Unit. Instead, this self-titled effort is really about asserting his own creative identity, something that might have become a bit lost in his years leading the hard-charging and riff-heavy garage rockers Leslie here in Charleston.
“We ended up being this almost hard rock, Southern-rock thing by the end of it, but that wasn’t what I really intended to do starting out,” says Vaden. “When you’re inside of something like that for so long, it’s hard to see what other people are seeing. It was only years after we broke up that I realized how far it had gotten from what I had originally intended.
“That’s not to say I’m not proud of that stuff — I am proud,” he continues. “But when the band split and I started writing music again, I really felt like I got back to kind of my whole purpose creatively and what I wanted to get across.”
Working again with producer Paul Ebersold, who also helmed Leslie’s 2011 LP Lord, Have Mercy, Vaden set out to make a record loaded down with power-pop spectacle, classic rock guitar carnage, and his own irrepressible exuberance.
The 10 songs that resulted live up that billing, often feeling like a retro call-to-arms to the kinds of big melodies and rock ‘n’ roll glory of yesteryear, while also bearing the marks of the guitarist’s time backing Isbell and, before that, singer-songwriter Kevn Kinney in Drivin’ N Cryin’.
“I just think that I’m being myself on this record,” he says with obvious pride. “This is probably the most I’ve ever been myself, on a record. I feel like there’s a void for that Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, Big Star, Heartbreakers, Neil Young type of mash-up thing — and that’s fucking me.”
In some ways, the album is less a rejection of Leslie than a distillation of the band’s strengths. Opening with the spry one-two punch of “You Can’t Have it All” and “Get You High,” both swaggering power-pop numbers that combine big riffs and effusive choruses that conjure up the ghost of Alex Chilton, Vaden seems to be refining and polishing his prior approach more than abandoning it.
More telling, perhaps, is his cover of Oklahoma songwriter John Moreland’s “Nobody Gives a Damn about Songs Anymore,” a concise diatribe against a music world that seems to be leaving behind the traditions that made classic country and rock music so great. Far from re-treading the original, Vaden sped up the tune and changed the key, giving it a more Byrds/Heartbreakers-style arrangement that blended his sensibilities with the seriousness of the tune.
As the record goes on, it’s clear that the balance of acute lyricism with big-melody euphoria has become increasingly important for him. Both “Chameleon” and the closing “Greta” are plaintive acoustic numbers, tunes whose meditative self-searching (the former) and finely wrought storytelling (the latter) seem to be directly influenced by Isbell. Elsewhere, he combines that lyric-forward approach with the Neil Young-by-way-of Drive-by Truckers riffage on “Land of Refuge.” By this point, the Moreland cover feels less like a carefree toss-off and more like a declaration of intent.
Vaden is aware that his instrumental prowess has often outshone his songwriting abilities. “I’ve always leaned more on the music [in the past], but this time I really leaned into both [lyrics and melody],” he admits.
“I’ve definitely learned so much about conveying messages through lyrics, and I’ve learned a lot about trimming the fat and being more concise,” Vaden says. “I’ve also gotten better at coming up with parts on the guitar and other musical things. I’m no longer just writing around a riff. There’s an idea, there’s a great melody I’m searching for — all those things. I definitely feel that it’s changed for the better.”
Vaden calls the album a “labor of love” (although he hates the cliché) and reiterates that its existence is more a creative salve than a continued bid for his own frontman stardom. He just wants people to hear it.
“I’m proud of it, and I figure if I can hit the people who already like what I do with something real good, it will spread from there,” he says. Although the album doesn’t drop officially until May 27, he’ll have advance copies at the PoHo show.
“I wanted to start that conversation again with people with music that hasn’t existed like that for a while,” he says. “I hope people dig it.”