Jason Isbell draws from his Alabama roots for inspiration
BY CHRIS TALBOTT December 12, 2012 6:06PM
Jason Isbell headlines Lincoln Hall on Dec. 14. | AP
JASON ISBELL & THE 400
♦ 10 p.m. Dec. 14
♦ Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
♦ Tickets, $20 (21+over)
♦ (773) 525-2501;
Updated: January 15, 2013 6:13AM
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Music was all around Jason Isbell as he grew up in northern Alabama.
The region’s rich musical history provided a soundtrack for his childhood. His grandparents turned on the radio and taught him to play guitar. He was schoolmates with The Secret Sisters, bandmates with future hit songwriter Chris Tompkins and a casual rock ‘n’ roll rival with John Paul White of The Civil Wars.
Everyone was practicing “a hillbilly gospel tradition” that’s been passed down in the area for generations. It spawned some of history’s best music at Muscle Shoals in the 1960’s and ’70s, and there’s been a second coming of prominent acts in the 21st century. Isbell is the latest artist to break out of the area.
“I stayed with my grandparents” after he finished school, Isbell said. “That’s where I learned how to play because they were trying to give me something to stay occupied so I wouldn’t get into much trouble. I’d sit and play for hours and hours at a time and not be breaking anything or stealing anything. I know a lot of people who did that. The Rogers girls [Laura and Lydia], The Secret Sisters ... my mom used to make sure we got next to them in church on Sunday. Even though they were 4 and 6, they were just harmonizing. They were just born with it.”
Isbell’s upbringing left him with a strong sense of place, and he’s used it to turn heads in the Southern songwriting community, first as a member of the Drive-By Truckers and later as a solo artist.
He won the song of the year award at September’s Americana Music Association awards for “Alabama Pines,” a tune his good friend White says is a great example of Isbell’s gift as a songwriter.
The song is a love poem to north Alabama — Isbell grew up in Greenhill — studded with places, names and friendly advice to visitors about liquor stores and speed traps. It’s the latest in a long line of Isbell songs that unfold like short stories by your favorite Southern author.
After beating him in that talent show while in their teens, White lost track of Isbell. Years later, White heard Isbell’s DBT song “Outfit” and it left him breathless. And changed. He calls Isbell “intimidatingly good” and credits his ability to weave local landmarks and mythology into his songs with helping him write some of the material for “Barton Hollow,” his own duo’s gold-selling debut album.
“I’d never even considered doing that,” White said. “It seemed kind of comical because I didn’t think anybody else would be interested in those places because I grew up around them. They were a common thing. So when he started talking about Seven-Mile Island and Kendale Gardens and TVA, it just really hit home and I started doing those sort of things. So the ideas of ‘Barton Hollow’ were born, that was kind of the genesis of a lot of that and what really inspired me.”
He recently became engaged to singer-songwriter Amanda Shires and moved to Nashville. He also quit drinking, something Adams has been helping him navigate.
“I think if you live right, good things happen,” Isbell said. “I don’t really see that as any mystical or magical reason, but if you make good decisions, life goes better, you know? And for me not drinking was a good decision. Settling down with somebody and not chasing women all the time was a good decision. And I was at a time when I could actually do those things and live with them and be satisfied with them.”