Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit
w/ Cary Ann Hearst
Fri. Sept. 7
1977 Maybank Hwy.
from Sirens of the Ditch
It’s been said that, sometimes, with tough good-byes come new beginnings. That certainly applies to former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, who, in the past six months, amicably parted ways with his former bandmates and saw the release of his long-in-the-works solo record Sirens of the Ditch. He embarked on a maiden voyage, or tour, supporting the album with his new band, The 400 Unit, in tow over the summer.
The bandmates come from the Muscle Shoals area — Jimbo Hart plays bass, Ryan Tillery is the drummer, and Browan Lollar plays the guitar. “We’ve all worked together before in different groups, and it’s really exciting for me to get to play with all of them now,” says the frontman.
Don’t expect any retread or recycling from Isbell’s tenure with the Truckers, as Sirens zeros in on the young Alabama guitarist-songwriter’s knack for delivering serious, story-driven songs set against a rugged but hooky guitar and pop-influenced backdrop. The sinister twang of “Down in A Hole” gives way to the touching “Dress Blues,” which comments on the fate of a young soldier from Isbell’s hometown who died while serving, while the piano-accentuated “Chicago Promenade” tips the hat to Isbell’s late grandfather, who had a major impact on the artist as he was growing up.
On a couple of tracks, the album also pairs Isbell with two of the most respected session men to come out his native ‘Bama — keyboardist Spooner Oldham and bassist David Hood (father of Trucker founder, Patterson Hood). Isbell and his bandmates used the old FAME Recording Studios building in Muscle Shoals, site of legendary recordings by Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among numerous others, to record the album.
“Spooner Oldham has played on numerous classic albums and tours,” says Isbell. “He’s worked with Neil Young since the Comes a Time album and he’s recorded and toured with folks like Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan, just to name my favorites. He’s doing some work with the Truckers, Cat Power, and lots of others as we speak. David also has an incredible resume. He’s a founding member of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and he’s worked with Paul Simon, Aretha, The Staples Singers, Traffic, and lots of other legends. They’re both great people.”
Sirens of the Ditch has been in the works for some time. Most of the songs were written and recorded while Isbell was playing with the Drive-by Truckers. “Dress Blues” is fairly recent, but the rest were written over the last two years.
“I know quite a bit more about the business now, whether I want to or not,” says Isbell of his recent rock ‘n’ roll experiences. “Of course, I learned things about pacing the live show and reading the audience. In all honesty, I learned a whole lot about everything during the time we spent on the road and in the studio.
“Every song needs real people,” he adds. “Even if you change the names or the situations, you have to draw from reality or else you can’t really discuss the human condition too well. I like to think that all the characters in my songs, or any of my favorites, are either actual individuals or a combination of them.”