To hear Jason Isbell tell it, his excellent new album Here We Rest is more a result of coincidence and good fortune than his own diligent work as a songwriter.
The year off from touring in 2010 that allowed him to hang out in his hometown of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, absorbing stories that turned into songs? A mere scheduling issue. “It just worked out that way in the cycle,” Isbell says. “We didn’t have a record to tour. I don’t want it to sound like it was something I wanted to do.”
The maturing sound that now includes some traditional country accoutrements like fiddle and standup bass, even a little accordion? “It wasn’t a thing that was planned,” Isbell avows. “I wrote the songs, and we went in the studio and tried to record them in the most appropriate way possible. That became the recordings we got. I definitely didn’t want to run away from making something a country song if I felt like I’d written a country song. I wanted the songs to sound like they wanted to sound.”
Yes, like many a songwriter, Isbell feels he’s a mere conduit of the music, channeling some mysterious force into concise songs full of rich characters and evocative imagery. If only it were that easy.
Anyone who’s watched the 32-year-old Isbell evolve from the barely legal wunderkind who joined the Drive-By Truckers in 2001—providing some of that band’s best moments before leaving in 2007—into the rock-solid writer and leader of a new band, the 400 Unit, knows he’s too talented to simply attribute his music to good luck.
That time off the road allowed Isbell to hunker down in his hometown for the first time in his adult life; most of the past decade has been spent touring. And during that year, he was able to sit at his favorite bar and hear the trials and tribulations of friends and strangers. Getting into the rhythm of life in the small northern Alabama town certainly fueled the songs on the new album.
Here We Rest is the strongest of his post-Truckers catalog, from the stirring opener “Alabama Pines” to “Tour of Duty,” the story of a soldier trying to return to a normal life at home. There are love songs (or heartbreak songs, depending on your perspective) like “Codeine” and “We’ve Met” that rank among Isbell’s best. Altogether, it’s one of the best albums of the year to date, in the Americana genre or otherwise.
The trick, of course, is getting a straightforward roots-rock record heard in an age of pre-programmed radio formats. Like Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty or his old band the Truckers, Isbell isn’t quite “rock” enough for modern rock radio, nor country enough for Nashville. So he and the 400 Unit hit the road and take the tunes to the people.
“It’s hard to make a living,” Isbell says. “I’m losing money on the road as we speak. There are really no major outlets for the kind of music we make. But that’s something I signed up for; I knew that was going to be the case.”
The modern music environment does help Isbell in one way. Social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook allow him to reach people across the country on the cheap. And those fans, in turn, get to know one of their favorite artists a little better, whether Isbell is tossing out witty one-liners or bemoaning a loss by his beloved Atlanta Braves.
“It’s another way to connect with people,” Isbell says. “It can be a little odd and creepy sometimes. You don’t want to let people know too awful much about you, because some people are nuts. But for the most part, the people who listen to the kind of music I make are really decent people for the most part. Well-adjusted.”
JASON ISBELL & THE 400 UNIT
w/ Maria Taylor
The State Room
638 S. State
Friday, June 10, 8 p.m.
$17 advance/$20 day of show