WHEN JASON ISBELL walks on stage these days, fans are quite literally seeing a changed man.
In January 2012, Isbell went into rehab to kick an alcohol addiction that had been a regular part of his routine for years. He sees the results of that decision every night when he performs with his backing band, the 400 Unit.
“It’s made a huge difference,” Isbell said of his sobriety in a recent phone interview. “First of all, I can hear myself. I know a lot of people don’t realize this, but the first thing to go when you’re drinking is your hearing. Obviously, by the end of the night, your vision can be blurry, too. But the hearing goes first. I was spending a lot of time yelling and trying to hear myself through the course of the night. Now I don’t have that problem. I feel like it’s been really good for my voice. My voice is a lot stronger, a lot younger sounding than it was a few years ago. And I have little bit more stamina. I’m in much better shape than I was when I was drinking.”
Isbell also can deliver some of his best shows because his songwriting has hit new heights on the two albums he has made since going through rehab—2013’s Southeastern and Something More Than Free, which was released on July 17.
Southeastern was a watershed album for Isbell, who began his career in the Drive-By Truckers and wrote several standout songs ("Decoration Day," "Never Gonna Change") during his tenure in that acclaimed band from 2001 to 2007.
Isbell went solo after his split with the Drive-By Truckers, releasing three solid albums—Sirens of the Ditch (2007), Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit (2009) and Here We Rest (2011)—before Southeastern presented a different side to his music.
Instead of the hard-hitting, plugged-in country tinged rock that had characterized his first three albums, Isbell, for the most part, downshifted on Southeastern into more of a spare, often acoustic setting, with a collection of sharply drawn, often lovely songs.
Written in the aftermath of his decision to quit drinking—and as he was falling in love with his future wife, fellow musician Amanda Shires—the lyrics showed an unflinching honesty and provided a window into the damage his drinking lifestyle had done and how he was finding a way to a better life as a sober, recovering alcoholic.
Southeastern also cemented Isbell's reputation as one of music's most gifted songwriters, earning him three top awards last year from the Americana Music Association—Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year for the tune "Cover Me Up."
Given what Southeastern did for him, it would only make sense that Isbell wouldn't break the mold created with Southeastern on Something More Than Free. And indeed, the new album sticks largely to the same acoustic-leaning, laid back sound of that previous album.
But don’t think that Something More Than Free took on its musical personality because it was the right career move for Isbell.
“Whatever album I’m putting out at the time is going to be exactly where I am because I’ve got to go out and play it a lot and I certainly don’t want to be up there on stage wishing I was playing something different,” Isbell said. “That’s exactly where I am at this particular time, and that might change as the years go by. But if it does, it will definitely reflect itself in the lyrics.”
And Something More Than Free definitely suggests that Isbell, who is now happily married and had a baby girl with Shires in September, is in a decidedly better place.
“I’ve become a lot more comfortable in the world, that’s for sure,” he said. “When I was writing Southeastern, I'd just recently gotten sober. For me, that was a major turning point in my life. It changed things I did on a day-to-day basis. My whole routine was upended. It took me some time to get used to that and figure out how do I keep myself entertained. How do I keep myself occupied, keep my hands busy? So to get through that period, I wound up reading a lot and consuming a lot of different kinds of art and practicing my own, writing songs and playing guitar. After the time period had passed and it was time to make another record, I just felt a lot more comfortable in my own skin. I had another routine that worked really well for me and I had become closer to some of my friends and family members. Even when I'm not writing on Something More Than Free from my own perspective, when the narrator is not necessarily me, I think I'm finding these characters can be a little less desperate than they've been on records in the past."
The new album certainly has songs that seem inspired by Isbell’s own life and experiences. “Children Of Children,” for instance, expresses first-person regret about how a mother sacrifices her own ambitions and dreams to raise her child—feeling a measure of guilt for “All those years you took from her/Just by being born.” And several songs suggest that the search for happiness and meaning concludes when a man finds that one special girl—an idea that seems close enough to Isbell’s recent life.
But more often, Isbell seems to draw from sources outside of his life, using his realistic and finely detailed prose to tell stories that are flush with emotion and lived-through truths. For instance, “Speed Trap Town,” about getting out of a too-small town and away from a state trooper father who put the speed trap into the town, and the title song, which draws a picture of a man who is still searching for more in life, but sounds ready to accept that the work-a-day life he leads might have to be reward enough, sound like they should resonate with most any listener.
As strong as Isbell is as a lyricist, he continues to show that he’s no slouch when it comes to music, either. Gently assertive country-tinged songs like “How To Forget,” “If It Takes A Lifetime,” “24 Frames” all of which come with strong vocal melodies and plenty of smartly applied instrumental touches from violinist Shires and the 400 Unit (drummer Chad Gamble, keyboardist Derry deBorja, guitarist Sadler Vaden and bassist Jimbo Hart) that nicely enhance the basic structures of the song.
Isbell and the 400 Unit are now in the early stages of what figures tobe a lengthy tour cycle behind the new album. They’re playing about a half dozen songs from Something More Than Free, several tunes from Southeastern and rounding out the live set with a few songs from Isbell's first three solo albums and tunes from his time in the Drive-By Truckers. The emphasis on newer material means the shows lean more toward quieter songs, a situation that could slow the energy of a show. But Isbell said he hasn't had many occasions where he felt he should have rocked up his show.
“I didn’t know what to expect when we first started touring behind Southeastern because you don't want to lull anybody to sleep or lose their attention," he said. "But it's really been incredible how the crowds seem to be just as excited for the slow, sad songs as they are for the old rockers."