Music preview: Jason Isbell's universal story is building an audience

CorrespondentJanuary 16, 2014 

As critics rolled out their top-albums-of-2013 lists, one Americana record kept popping up: Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern,” which was recognized by a variety of outlets – from The Huffington Post and NPR to Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly.

And the Nashville-based singer-songwriter/guitarist/band leader knew all along it was good.

“I spent more time working on it. I didn’t go out and drink anymore, so I had time to really work on the lyrics and focus on it,” he says. “In some cases, the fact that I cleaned my life up and got sober after so many years and I got married and wound up in a happy place – it helped people pick it up and put the needle down for the first time. But that only works with one listen. At the end of the day, had it been an album that was subpar or less than great, people would’ve ignored it.”

“Southeastern” certainly has gained him a larger audience. Last summer, the Visulite Theatre had to turn people away from his sold-out show. Thursday, he moves to the larger Neighborhood Theatre.

Until 2013, Isbell was known as a former Drive-By Trucker who left the successful band (and divorced the band’s bassist) to pursue a solo career. Going it alone wasn’t easy at first.

“There’s always that kind of startup time when you’re going to lose money and have difficult decisions to make in order to get the right people around you and playing to enough people where the word spreads,” he says.

“(The Truckers had) gotten to a point where we were comfortable, riding around in a bus, and we had a crew,” Isbell says. “I didn’t know how to plug in my own amplifiers when we started touring this band. I remember at a show early on standing in front of my amplifier with a cord in each hand and (current bassist) Jimbo (Hart) walked up and said, ‘You don’t know how to set up your own s---, you son of a …’ But that served us well. It’s good to be hungry, whether it’s voluntary or not.”

Isbell’s songwriting has been the key to capturing the attention of listeners. He tackles sobriety and love after the storm, as well as tricky subjects like cancer (“Elephant”) and child abuse (“Yvette”). It’s heavy stuff, and it’s not exactly autobiographical. Isbell is very much a literate storyteller.

“I think the most important part is details, and not making broad strokes,” he says. “There’s only one story. A lot of people in college fiction will tell you that there’s three. I think we’re all telling the same story over and over. The individuality inside of that is found by focusing on the details.”

While some songs do “fall out fully formed,” Isbell works on others for months and focuses on his phrasing.

“I revise the majority of my songs, making sure the phrasing is perfect,” he says. “That’s something I like about the best rappers. Somebody like Jay-Z or Kanye West or even Macklemore now – those people are really great at having very musical phrasing. They can say a statement that’s awkward … but still make it work rhythmically. I spend a lot of time with that.”

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