Jason Isbell, playing Tuesday at the Boulder Theater and Wednesday at the Ogden, embodies all the traditions, influences and stories that make up Southern folk and country. He was raised in rural Alabama and immediately took to singing and playing guitar. He toured and wrote with Drive By Truckers. He got married, divorced and re-married. He spent many years on stage with a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand and now has just a couple under his belt without it. Over those years he's become a master storyteller, mixing his smooth Alabama accent with complex guitar melodies and traditional country themes that will make you weep, fondly reminisce on old loves and adventures, clap-along, or just yearn to spend time in a bar with one of the characters he creates.
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But Isbell doesn't do all his storytelling in the recording booth. Actually nowadays, even more of it happens online, as he tweets quips as intelligent as his lyrics, all from his phone.
"I just have a lot of free time and it's a good thing to waste time with," Isbell says. "That's about as far as I think to it. I like Twitter because I can participate in a conversation as much as I want to or you can just be shy. It's nice, I've met some cool people that way."
When he isn't making fans laugh with his commentary on everything from Canadian Subway's to the World Cup, he's continually trying to bring stories to life through music. More often now with his wife, Amanda Shires. The two just recorded a stripped-down and haunting cover of "Born in the U.S.A" for Lightning Rod Records.
"That's the one [song] that appealed most to me because it's not what everybody thinks it's about," Isbell says about the song choice. "You know it's a protest song but became an anthem for a lot of folks who don't pay attention to the lyrics. So we wanted to record it and maybe force people to pay attention to what Bruce was actually saying when he wrote it."
Force is a word rarely used to describe Isbell. When he sings, people listen, no forcing needed. What did need forcing though, was to get him to open up about working with his wife, a fellow musician. He says that when it comes to music, he likes to stay solo.
"We edit together a lot. We don't necessarily sit down with a plan to write a song together just because I don't see the purpose," Isbell says. "Normally my favorite songs are the ones that are written by one person. But we do help each other and we'll bounce ideas or lyrics or melodies off of each other to try to see what sticks."
The occasional collaboration seems to work for them, however. A challenge for each of them to go write a song one day resulted in "Cover Me Up," the most romantic, soul-piercing song on Isbell's Southeastern. And clearly Shire's influence is present in the "Born in The U.S.A" cover. However, there's one thing they just can't agree on when it comes to music.
"She hates Steely Dan," he says with a laugh. "She really really hates Steely Dan. I don't hate Steely Dan, but I just got to pick my battles."
Jason Isbell probably won't play Steely Dan when he comes by the Ogden Theatre Tuesday night, but he will be bringing his guitar, his stories and his ability to rip out your heart with just one turn of phrase. Find out more information about the show here.
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