Jason Isbell is finally in the driver's seat. After five years of riding with the Drive-By Truckers, he's now behind the wheel of his own rig. But he says that no hard feelings fueled the decision to veer off on his own, speaking from the road during the first week of the tour supporting his outstanding solo debut, Sirens of the Ditch. He and his former bandmates are still on great terms — and Patterson Hood, Shona Tucker and drummer Brad Morgan even perform on Ditch. The split was the result of creative differences. Really.
"I know that's kind of a cheesy way to put it," Isbell admits. "I mean, everybody says that, but sometimes it's really true. I wanted to go in a different direction musically. You know, I think if you listen to my songs on A Blessing and a Curse, especially the songs of mine that didn't make that record, it's pretty obvious that I was going in a little bit of a different direction, and it was probably a little cleaner than what they wanted to go in and maybe a little bit more produced."
Isbell, who joined the Truckers in time for 2002's Southern Rock Opera tour, has always seemed slightly out of step with the other guys. While songs like "The Day John Henry Died" fit rather seamlessly alongside those of Hood and Mike Cooley, others he penned — including "Goddamn Lonely Love," "Danko/Manuel" and "Outfit," which effectively conjured the spirit of "Simple Man" for the iTunes generation — stood out as being far less gritty and raucous, and decidedly more conscious and incisive. In the eyes of fans, he was steadily emerging as a talented songsmith who deserved a vehicle of his own, to steer as he saw fit. And Isbell eventually reached the same conclusion.
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"It's hard as a writer when you have a vision that's fairly complete, of how you want songs to be recorded and how you want them to sound, it's hard to really collaborate with anybody, really," he says. "I mean, we never wrote together. Usually, the person who wrote the song was the person who made a lot of the decisions, as far as arrangements and production. So I don't know that it was stifling, but it was kind of like painting half of a picture and then giving it to somebody else to finish.
"It's not all that different," he continues. "I mean, I still have the same purpose when I write a song, which is pretty much to teach myself how I feel about a certain thing."
In the process, he's also developed a remarkable knack for conveying how others feel about things, such as the current war in Iraq. On "Dress Blues," Ditch's de facto centerpiece, he poignantly elegizes Matthew Conley, a Marine corporal from Greenhill, Alabama, Isbell's hometown, who died exactly one week before his 22nd birthday and just two days before he was slated to ship out of Iraq and head home for the birth of his daughter. It shook the town when Conley was laid to rest in Greenhill. According to the Tuscaloosa News, the funeral procession stretched fifteen miles from a memorial at Conley's former high school to the cemetery.
"It was really a big, big deal," Isbell recalls. "In a larger city, you don't know everybody, I guess. Something like that might not affect the whole area the way it does a small town. I don't think people necessarily realize the implications of war until something like that happens in their back yard, you know."
Over the course of "Dress Blues," Isbell offers an evocative snapshot of a grieving community coping with the loss of one of its own. It's not hard to envision the "flags on the side of the highway" and the "scripture on grocery store signs" that he describes, nor the high school gymnasium decked out in red, white and blue and filled with "old Legionnaires" and "silent old men from the Corps." After mentioning how "nobody showed up to protest, just sniffle and stare," he sums up the gravity of the situation with the song's coda: "Nobody here could forget you/You showed us what we had to lose/You never planned on the bombs in the sand/Or sleeping in your dress blues."
Isbell does a good job of tempering his own political ideals on "Dress Blues," avoiding heavy-handed, partisan fist-shaking in favor of focusing on the underlying humanity — which is precisely why the song resonates so deeply. Still, it's pretty clear where he stands when he delivers lines like these: "What did they say when they shipped you away/To fight somebody's Hollywood war?"
While "Dress Blues" is the highlight, there are plenty of other captivating moments on Ditch. The opening track, "Brand New Kind of Actress," showcases Isbell's poppier leanings, while "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades" finds him swaggering soulfully atop a piano-heavy vamp. On "Try," Isbell courts a slinky come-hither groove while crooning in a voice that evokes Glen Frey. Other standouts include "Chicago Promenade," which Isbell wrote as a tribute to his late grandfather, and "Grown," in which he reflects on a momentous coming-of-age crush. Despite such seemingly salacious lines as "You took my little hand and took me to your room/You taught me how to want something, so I learned how to move" — followed by "Oh, oh, you made me feel so grown" — Isbell insists this song is really an innocuous ode.
"She was older, but we were both little kids," Isbell remembers. "And nothing actually ever happened, you know, sexually or anything like that. I was too young to really be concerned with that. But I had a really big crush on her, and she was a huge Prince fan; she loved Prince. She would play Prince records for me all the time when I was a little kid, because nobody else would listen to them with her."
Isbell's libido eventually kicked in, however, thanks to an album from his dad's record collection.
"Queen had a picture of a bunch of naked girls on bicycles on the inside sleeve, so I liked that a whole lot," he confesses. "They finally had to take the liner notes away and burn 'em. I would just sit and stare at it all the time. I wouldn't do anything else. They let me keep the record, though."
And many others, as it turns out. Isbell credits his dad's taste in '70s arena rock and classic country with shaping his own inclinations, and those influences can still be heard in the songs he writes. While his folks weren't particularly musical, just about everyone else in the family was, and Isbell started playing the guitar as a kid. The instrument proved to be a good distraction when his folks split up just as he was becoming a teenager. "It definitely made me focus a whole lot more on playing guitar and listening to rock-and-roll records," he says of his parents' divorce. "That's for sure. I spent a great deal of time in those days sitting in my room playing guitar, ten or twelve hours a day, every day, for years."
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It was a wise investment. By the time he was fifteen, Isbell had performed at the Grand Ole Opry and was appearing regularly with a variety of bands, one of which also included Chris Tompkins — who went on to co-write Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats." A few years later, he met Patterson Hood in Muscle Shoals and struck up a friendship that resulted in the pair performing together for a spell, before Hood eventually extended Isbell an invitation to join the Truckers.
Three albums, one divorce (Isbell parted ways with bassist Shona Tucker, his wife and fellow Trucker) and thousands of miles of touring later, Isbell is essentially starting all over again with a whole new band. But as he points out, the road has already been paved.
"I mean, I'm not starting from scratch," he concludes. "I have a fan base that listened to the Truckers and what we did, and I feel like a lot of those people are now coming to our shows and buying our record. So wherever I go, I've probably been there before."