Interview by Scott Preston
For a comparatively brief moment in the mid-1960s, Muscle Shoals, Alabama was the unlikely epicenter of a major American songwriting renaissance. Here are some of the names: Arthur Alexander, Donnie Fritts, Eddie Hinton, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, O.C. Smith, Joe South, Tony Joe White. Toss Bobbie Gentry into that mix, on style if not geography, and the list is not complete, regardless.
Style matters, for in those turbulent times these writers and their collaborators fused the vocal passion of African-American soul and gospel to an Anglo-Saxon storytelling tradition which goes back at least to Beowulf: Tough, hard, passionate, unflinching songs, unrepentant in their sense of place and direct in their stubborn Southernness.
That is a powerful pile of names to spade across the work of Jason Isbell, as his second solo album, named for his band, is, well, only his second solo album. And he’s almost 30. It’s not simply that he lives in Florence, Alabama, just outside Muscle Shoals, nor that he recorded Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit at the famed FAME studio there. That guarantees nothing.
The songs will stand on their own.
Cincy Groove: I see that your new album is ready to come out on Feb 17. How did you approach this new record with the 400 Unit compared to your last one which was a solo release?
Jason Isbell: We approached it much more traditionally as it relates to the time frame. We recorded this one over the course of 2 weeks. We recorded for a week, went out and did some shows, then came back and did another week in the studio. I was really glad to be able to do it that way. It makes the album a lot more cohesive. It sounds like it was a project that was done at one period of time. It’s hard to do that over the course of a couple years and you end up second guessing yourself a lot.
Cincy Groove: How did you meet the guys in The 400 Unit?
Jason Isbell: I have known all of these guys for a long time. Browan (guitar) and Jimbo (bass) are from here (Muscle Shoals, AL) so I have grown up with them. We have known each other since we were teenagers. Gary the keyboard player used to play with Son Volt. We toured with them on the road and that’s how I met him. Our full time drummer, Chad Gamble, is from here in Muscle Shoals also. The drummer we used on the record is Matt Pence from Centro-matic ans South San Gabriel, he is one of my favorite drummers in the world, he is also an engineer and producer. I have been wanting to work with him for a long time.
Cincy Groove: Being from an area with such a rich music heritage, what were you listening to growing up?
Jason Isbell: I listened to my parents records. They had a bunch of country and arena rock music. Then there was Queen, Tin Lizzy, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, George Jones. I also listened to what was on the radio at the time in the 80’s. There was Crowded House, Prince, The Cure. When I was probably 15-16 I started getting into the music that was recorded around here, a lot of soul and rock and roll. I got to know the people that played on those records, so I have been paying attention to that since then.
Cincy Groove: What would you say the band dynamics are like now compared to when you were in The Drive By Truckers?
Jason Isbell: With the Truckers there were 3 singer/songwriters and now there is just me. There aren’t as many egos to deal with I guess. We got a whole lot of good work done and had a lot of fun. But with this particular project now, its different. I guess I’m a little more in charge than I was then. But I think we are all going for that same goal. The other guys in the band might not write lyrics or sing lead vocals on every song , but we all want the same thing.
Cincy Groove: What have been some of the good and bad experiences from the past year?
Jason Isbell: We had a really good time in Europe this past spring. Loved playing in Spain, the UK, Germany. Most of the year was good, but we did have a few bad days. The worst being in San Francisco. We woke up one morning and somebody had broken into our van and stole about $20,000 worth of stuff. We lost 4 guitars, some drums, clothes, laptop, ipod, digital camera, it was quite a bit of stuff. Right after that the drummer that was playing with us at the time just took off and got on a plane and went home. Dave from Son Volt came out and finished the tour with us. We were lucky enough to have some endorsers send us out some equipment to finish the tour. We only had to cancel one show through all of that.
Cincy Groove: How do you feel the internet has affected the music industry?
Jason Isbell: I don’t think its a negative thing for people like me, being an independent artist. Its probably not a good thing for people who are making shit tons of money. People know who Metallica is, they really don’t have the trouble of getting their name spread around now. I think the file sharing thing cost them quite a bit of money. But in a situation like ours its really a good way to spread the word about our music. Its really something that will have to be embraced because it’s not going anywhere.
Cincy Groove: What do you like to do in between shows to kill the time?
Jason Isbell: Play pool. Usually after sound check I’ll try to find a pool hall. We are all pretty good tourists for the most part. We try and go out and see the main spots in whatever town we are in. Because we tour so much we have a lot of friends now in a lot of different places.
Cincy Groove: Are you guys excited for any of your many upcoming gigs?
Jason Isbell: Tonight (2/12) we play in Birmingham and Saturday night (2/14) we play here in the Muscle Shoals area. There is a big theater downtown that they usually use for plays, but its a really, really nice place. But there are a lot of great rooms on the tour. There’s the Orange Peel, The 9:30 Club in D.C., Bowery Ballroom in NYC, there different reasons for me looking forward to each of them.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit:
Jason Isbell – guitar, keys, vocals
Jimbo Hart – bass, vocals
Browan Lollar – guitar, vocals
Derry deBorja – keys
Chad Gamble – drums
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit, 12.30.07, “Grown” @ Lincoln Theater
Upcoming Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit tourdates
for complete show details visit http://www.jasonisbell.com
Feb 12 2009 Workplay Birmingham, Alabama
Feb 14 2009 Shoals Theater Florence, Alabama
Feb 16 2009 Grimey’s / In-store performance Nashville, Tennessee
Feb 17 2009 Georgia Theater Athens, Georgia
Feb 18 2009 The Earl Atlanta, Georgia
Feb 19 2009 Horizon Records / In-store performance Greenville, South Carolina
Feb 20 2009 Lincoln Theater Raleigh, North Carolina
Feb 21 2009 The National Richmond, Virginia
Feb 22 2009 The Pub Harrisonburg, Virginia
Feb 24 2009 TT the Bears Boston, Massachusetts
Feb 26 2009 Bowery Ballroom New York, New York
Feb 27 2009 World Cafe Live Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Feb 28 2009 Club Cafe Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Mar 1 2009 9:30 Club DC, Washington DC
Mar 2 2009 Beachland Ballroom Cleveland, Ohio
Mar 4 2009 Horsehoe Tavern Toronto, Ontario
Mar 5 2009 Mohawk Place Buffalo, New York
Mar 6 2009 The Rumba Cafe Columbus, Ohio
Mar 7 2009 Southgate House Cincinnati, Ohio
Mar 8 2009 Orange Peel Asheville, North Carolina
Mar 13 2009 Headliner’s Louisville, Kentucky
Mar 14 2009 The Mercy Lounge Nashville, Tennessee
Mar 21 2009 Chelsea’s Baton Rouge, Louisiana
Mar 24 2009 The Hi Tone Memphis, Tennessee
Mar 25 2009 Sticky Fingerz Little Rock, Arkansas
Mar 26 2009 Wormy Dog Saloon OKC, Oklahoma
Mar 28 2009 Sheridan Opera House Telluride, Colorado
Mar 30 2009 Green Room Flagstaff, Arizona
Mar 31 2009 Club Congress Tucson, Arizona
Apr 2 2009 Spaceland Los Angeles, California
Apr 3 2009 The Independent San Francisco, California
Apr 4 2009 The Blue Lamp Sacramento, California
Apr 5 2009 Doug Fir Portland, Oregon
Apr 6 2009 Tractor Tavern Seattle, Washington
Apr 8 2009 The State Room Salt Lake City, Utah
Apr 9 2009 The Belly Up Aspen, Colorado
Apr 10 2009 The Sand Bar Vail, Colorado
Apr 11 2009 The Bluebird Denver, Colorado
Apr 12 2009 Knuckleheads Kansas City, Missouri
Apr 14 2009 Knickerbockers Lincoln, Nebraska
Apr 15 2009 The Turf Club St. Paul, Minnesota
Apr 16 2009 High Noon Saloon Madison, Wisconsin
Apr 17 2009 Double Door Chicago, Illinois
Apr 18 2009 Daytrotter Presents at Rock Island Brewing Company Rock Island, Illinois
Apr 24 2009 Strutting Duck (Outside) Auburn, Alabama
Jun 6 2009 Wakarusa Festival Ozark, Arkansas