Jason Isbell and the 4OO Unit Hit Larimer on Here We Rest Tour
::Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit::
By Timothy Dwenger
Here We Rest, the new record from former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell and his band The 400 Unit, carries with it a darkness that on one level reflects the dire economic state of the deep South, and on another simply reflects the kind of writer that Isbell is, and has been for most of his career. While his concerts tend to be the kind of beer swilling, whiskey drinking affairs that lead to some serious hell-raising, the subject matter of his songs tends to be pretty serious.
“That’s kinda always been my M.O., I write a lot of sad songs,” Isbell told The Marquee on a rare off day while on tour in Pittsburg. “I usually have a good time playing them, but the songs themselves are pretty sad. I don’t know why, I have a hard time writing about happy stuff. If I’m in a really good mood and everything is going well, I don’t necessarily want to write.”
To focus on writing the new record, Isbell spent most of last year off the road and took some time to soak in the feeling of being home in north Alabama. While the economic situation in most of the country over the last couple of years hasn’t exactly been pretty, the South has been hit even harder. “I think that people are really frustrated right now by the fact that they don’t have a lot of control over their lives and it’s probably not worse in north Alabama than it is in a lot of other places, but I noticed it more because that’s where I spent the bulk of my year last year,” he said. “It’s hard to find sympathy about it ‘cause if you are in a bar and you lost your job, chances are someone else at the bar has lost their job that day, too. So you aren’t the saddest guy on the barstool all of a sudden.”
With that kind of energy surrounding him, and influences of the old blues and country music that he grew up on coursing through his veins, Isbell managed to put together a very cohesive album that showcases his vast talent as a songwriter and a band leader. The characters in songs like “Alabama Pines” and “We’ve Met” carry an air of resignation as he tells their stories with lines like, “I never do what I’m supposed to do, hardly even know my name. When no one calls it out, it kinda vanishes away;” and, “my playground fears have faded, replaced with grown up nightmares, that come true.”
Though it may not sound like much of a feel-good record, there is something about this album, and the passion that Isbell and his band pour into it, that makes the listener feel proud to be allowed into the intimate world they have created. The lyrics paint vivid images that are put into context by the unique blend of country and honky tonk rock and roll that The 400 Unit has perfected over several years on the road together.
“As a band, we’ve really gotten closer,” Isbell said. “This is the first album we’ve made with Chad [Gamble] on drums. We picked him up right after we finished recording the last album, so he toured for that, and toured for the last couple of years with us. We have gotten really consistent as a band and it was really easy to make this record because of that.”
The area where Isbell and his bandmates live was the hotbed for soul, R&B, and country music in the late ’60s and ’70s, as it was home to the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. The group, and studio, were an integral part of more than 75 gold and platinum hit songs with artists like Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, and Etta James and the musicians who were a part of those sessions were committed to passing the torch onto a younger generation that Isbell was lucky enough to be a part of.
“I first started meeting the folks that worked on the old Muscle Shoals records when I started going out and playing in cover bands and that kind of thing when I was 15 or 16 years old. I didn’t necessarily know what kind of material they put out over the years and how good they were,” he admitted. “To me, they were really, really friendly and took a lot of time with me and with people my age that were trying to learn how to play and how to be musicians in general. So that had a huge influence on me, people like Spooner Oldham and David Hood and Scott Boyer and people like that were really pivotal on any kind of development I had at that point in time. Then, when I went back and started looking at the body of work that had come out of that area it gave me a whole encyclopedia of music to draw from.”
While Isbell himself humbly admits he has a long way to go in his career and a lot of learning to do, it’s clear that he takes his craft very seriously and is constantly absorbing information from whatever sources are available to him. If Here We Rest is any indication, there is indeed a long career in front of Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit.
::Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit::
::Larimer Lounge :: June 9::
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