Jason Isbell comes clean on the best album of his career, ‘Southeastern’

:: Boulder Theater :: July 22 ::
:: Ogden Theatre :: July 23 ::

By Timothy Dwenger

Being ejected from a hard-partying band for drinking too much is a bitter pill to swallow. But for former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell, that decision was the first domino to fall on a long path toward sobriety, clarity, and eventually an impacable, personal album.

Though he’s been writing songs since he was twelve, the Muscle Shoals, Alabama native made a name for himself in his twenties in the hard-rocking, hard-living, alt-country band Drive-By Truckers. He penned some of the band’s most revered songs and fans were stunned when, in April of 2007, Isbell announced that he was going out on his own to pursue a solo career (it was later revealed that Isbell had in fact been forced out of the band to “get his life together”).

Sometimes it takes a little bit of time for a 20 something to “get his life together” and for Isbell it took more than five years. Over that time he released three solid albums, toured small clubs with his band The 400 Unit, and played for rowdy bunches of hardcore fans who sang along with every lyric as Isbell slowly drank himself into oblivion on stage.

His saving grace came in the form of a longtime friend, turned romantic interest, violinist Amanda Shires. “After we got together I was still drinking a lot and it was taking a toll on me. I never really had any big bottom-hitting moments or anything I don’t think. I had a few really bad nights and I knew I needed to quit and I was pretty sure I couldn’t do it on my own,” he admitted during an interview with The Marquee as he waited to go on-stage in Des Moines Iowa. “After I had said that to her once or twice, she said ‘The next time you say that, I’m going to hold you to it.’ So I got drunk one night and said ‘I need to quit drinking and I probably need to go to rehab to do it cause I can’t just stop on my own.’ She took the initiative and called a couple of folks whose opinions I respect and told them that was the plan because she knew that once they knew, I wouldn’t back out of it.”

After a couple weeks of rehab and some dates with fellow sober songsmith Ryan Adams down in Australia and New Zealand, Isbell had the foundation he needed to confront sobriety head-on and soon turned his attention toward writing a new album that would prove to become a defining moment in his career.

“When I was writing the songs on Southeastern it was more of a reflection in a moment of tranquility than anything. It’s hard for me to deal with something and simultaneously write about it. There usually has to be some time in between,” he revealed. “Getting sober and into a steady relationship really changed a lot of things about my life. I changed what my priorities were and they way I spent the majority of my time. That made a big difference. It gave me a lot of time to focus on each individual song and it gave me a lot more time in the day. I wasn’t drinking or recovering from a hangover so I was able to focus and write with a much clearer head than I had in the past.”

The result is a stunning collection of songs that range from tender ballads like “Cover Me Up” to richly developed anthems like “Flying Over Water” to the electrically-charged barroom rock of “Super 8” and the soft, incredibly poignant, bitter sweet and poetically phrased “Elephant.”  “There’s a lot about that song that I think works really well. I didn’t know that right when I’d written it and I didn’t necessarily even like that song very much when it was immediately finished. I wrote it in a hotel room on the road and I wasn’t really in the head space to appreciate it,” he confided. “After singing it 500 times I think I got really close to what I wanted to say. The song, to a lot of folks, is about cancer, about disease, about death, but really it’s just about a relationship between two people and I just tried to present the right details in that relationship and I think I did that pretty well. I can sorta see those characters now and I think that’s the trick for me. I didn’t write that song about two exact people who exist in reality and I hardly ever do that. It’s always a combination of folks and stories that I build off of.”

While he had been a great lyricist since his days with The Truckers, and probably before, Isbell found a way with words on Southeastern that puts him in a class alongside some of the great writers of all time. He deftly tackles heavy and socially complex issues that many writers choose to avoid or simply ignore as his sobriety hangs over the record like the “Elephant in the room.” Lines like “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff, forever this time” from “Cover Me Up” or “The sand that they call cocaine cost you twice as much as gold, you’d be better off to drink your coffee black” from “New South Wales” paint a vivid picture of the life that Isbell chose to leave behind and the life that he now takes one day at a time.

One of the most revealing and personal passages on the album comes in the opening stanza of the hauntingly beautiful “Live Oak.” When Isbell sings “There’s a man who walks beside me he is who I used to be / and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me. / And I wonder who she’s pining for on nights I’m not around / could it be the man who did the things I’m living down,” it’s clear that he’s struggling with how the changes he made in his life will affect his personal relationships. “I don’t know that I could write that song now because I don’t have that same level of worry. Really, when you are thinking ‘if I get sober it could make me less effective either creatively or personally or socially,’ those are really just excuses to keep drinking,” he said. “Now I can see that more clearly from the other side so I don’t really have those concerns anymore. Now I realize that’s not even the right question to ask. When you are getting sober you ask yourself those kinds of things but the question really is ‘Do you want to live or not.’”

Having made the choice to live, and to continue to pursue the same art form that he had during all the sloshing, blurry and headache riddled years of his career up to that point, Isbell had to confront the reality of stepping back onto the stage without a bottle of Jack Daniels within easy reach. “I think a lot of people think it’s harder for me because I’m always in clubs and venues that sell alcohol but everybody is around alcohol all the time so that’s something I would have to deal with no matter what my ‘job’ was,” he said before admitting “it helped out a lot when the band slowed way down, they don’t drink much now, and we never really had to have that conversation or anything. They just did it out of respect.”

The one thing that Isbell said he found hard about performing live without alcohol was not so much about him as it was about others. “I’m not as patient with drunk people,” he said. “I really just have to work to keep myself away from drunk fans after the show and I kinda hate that because people come to the show, have a good time, and they want to come back and say ‘hello’ and compliment me on the show or the record or whatever and I appreciate all that but if somebody is drunk it just drives me fuckin’ crazy. They hang all over you and they say the same thing 10 times. It’s a good reminder for me about why I quit drinking in the first place. If I ever feel like I want to have another drink I just hang out with some drunk folks and that goes away.”

In the end, Isbell is rightfully proud of his new life and sobriety, as well as his work on Southeastern, but he’s quick to give credit to his fans for embracing the record with such enthusiasm. “It’s been really good for us,” he admitted. “We’ve stepped it up in terms of the rooms we play in and the way we travel and all that, but on a deeper level it’s great to have people react to the new material. It just makes me feel like I’m not regressing and that I am moving forward as a songwriter and that’s a really good way to feel.”

:: Jason Isbell ::

:: Boulder Theater :: July 22 ::

:: Ogden Theatre :: July 23 ::


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