On a mid-July night, a large crowd wedges into the Mercy Lounge to see Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, one of the brightest stars in the amorphous firmament known as Americana music. A broad assemblage of folk, country, blues and roots-rock performers that is coalescing into a commercial as well as artistic force, Americana is something of a band of outsiders — or insiders, considering its ranks include the likes of Mumford and Sons, The Civil Wars, Bonnie Raitt and the modern-day Robert Plant.
It's a broad enough organizing principle to have something for almost everyone, and Isbell draws a crowd from an especially wide swath of the white-to-blue collar spectrum. Guys wearing tucked-in Oxford button-downs stand next to guys sporting ball caps that advertise their lawn-care services. Yet for a moment, Isbell succeeds in transporting the entire room beyond self-consciousness's reach.
It happens, for sure, during a Southern grunge number called "Try," addressed to a man bent on keeping his woman in line. The bluntness of the lyrics draws a hearty "Hell yeah!" from men throughout the room, amplified by that most powerful of public-address systems, beer. And the bruising way Isbell and his bandmates attack the song catches everyone up in its primal rush.
But if you actually stop and listen to the lyrics, the hard-rocking song reveals a surprising degree of nuance. It's really a putdown of a tyrannical male ego, not a down-home rewrite of "Under My Thumb." When Isbell snarls, "You can't give her loving on the phone / You can't make her stay her ass at home / But you try, don't you?" it's not the woman he's snarling at.
That much is clear when Isbell sits down with the Scene in the townhouse east of the Nashville airport that he recently moved into with Amanda Shires, his fiancée and fellow singer-songwriter. Right off the bat, he offers his guest a piece of the key lime pie Shires baked from scratch the night before. As soon as he realizes the pie topping requires her to use a hand mixer to whip the cream, he sounds sincerely, and self-deprecatingly, apologetic.
"I really did not mean to be the guy who's like, 'Make a piece of pie for us,' " Isbell says, deliberately delivering that last part like a lumbering Neanderthal. "I feel awful about this. I wanted to avoid that at all costs."
Shires reassures him from the kitchen, "I'm not doing anything important." But he's not having any of it.
"You're stenciling a fuckin' caribou on your guitar," Isbell says. "That's important."
Even though they play out the exchange like a comedy routine, there's no question that they're serious about their mutual respect. Isbell had shown an equal amount of self-awareness at the Mercy Lounge, joking that anybody who found the content of his songs too heavy was welcome to pretend he was singing about ice cream and trampolines instead.
"If you're playing anthemic rock 'n' roll music," Isbell says, "people don't think you're questioning somebody's personal nature, you know? They're not gonna think it's that deep. If you're playing power chords, people are thinking, 'This is for me to rock out musically and lyrically. That's what this song is for.' I like being sneaky that way sometimes, though.
"If you can come up with it, I think there should be more to a song than just what's on the surface. Some songs are for dancing. And that's great. I'm glad those songs exist. But the kind of stuff that I want to create, I think, has a little bit more depth to it and takes a little bit more time to solve."
Actually, he's pretty damn great at having it both ways: exploding the familiar folk-influenced model of a serious singer-songwriter, yet giving listeners multiple ways into his music. And he does it while bridging divides of class, culture and political orientation, working from a vantage point that's both down to earth and highly evolved. It isn't every day that you find all of those qualities in one singer-guitarist. Americana is pretty much the only place for realist roots boogies like Isbell's, and even there they stand out.
His latest studio album, Here We Rest, was up for Album of the Year at last night's Americana Music Honors and Awards, which kicked off the Americana Music Festival running at venues across the city through Saturday. (See the related round-up of highlights on p. 20.) Results were not available by press time, but between that nomination and others in Artist, Song and Duo/Group categories, he had the most of anyone this year.
Receiving this level of recognition as leader of his own band is new for Isbell, formerly a member of the Drive-By Truckers. But unlike Linda Chorney — whose nomination in the Americana Grammy category last year stirred much debate, since she'd made little discernible impact on the roots music world up to that point — he's undeniably deserving, and well on his way to building a respected body of work as singer, songwriter, player and producer, though he's still just in his early 30s. Plus he's a flesh-and-blood example of what it looks like to be a successful Americana performer in 2012, which is far more illuminating than trying to define the genre in theoretical terms.
That major labels are low on the cash and patience it takes to develop new career artists these days hasn't hurt Isbell. Long ago, he dedicated himself to his own artistic development. It started back in itty bitty Greenhill, Ala., where his grandparents put a guitar in his hands to keep him from running wild as a kid. There to get him rolling were family picking parties, his parents' '70s rock and country LPs, and hooky '80s pop radio.
By his mid-teens, Isbell was seeking out what little professional music there was in Northern Alabama. He started bugging guys like Spooner Oldham, David Hood, Scott Boyer, Kelvin Holly and Barry Billings — many of them legendary Muscle Shoals session players, all considerably older — to let him sit in at their Mexican restaurant gigs.
He developed such a feel for the region's native blend of R&B, soul, rock 'n' roll and country that he gained a rep as a prodigy. "You know, you don't want to say that," Isbell says, "but I'd be lying if I didn't say that." He also took note of the strengths emphasized in different kinds of music making and concluded he didn't want to be limited to just one.
"I remember early on listening — I mean, when I was 10, 11, 12 years old — listening to guitar-based records or records that were instrumentally showing off," Isbell says, "and thinking, 'Man, why aren't the songs any better? Why are these guys all singing really bad lyrics? I appreciate the guitar playing, but God! I don't want to have to put up with that. It'd be nice if I could write some really good songs and still play guitar like that.' "
"He's a real triple threat as far as I'm concerned," says Logan Rogers, chief of Lightning Rod Records, the indie label that releases Isbell's music nowadays. "He writes as well as anybody, he sings as well as anybody, and he plays as well as anybody."
In other words, Isbell's a total package as a roots entertainer, and he's not afraid to entertain. What he does on guitar can be smoldering, incisive or ferocious. Vocally, he has the sound of a working-class soul singer, a gritty, woolen drawl hiding a softer, sensitive underbelly. He worked, consciously, at both faculties, but only the latter was actually hazardous to his health.
"I wanted to sound like Ray Charles, and I sounded like Vince Gill, so I started smoking," he says with an easy laugh. "It's true. That's exactly why I did it. It worked. I don't sound like Vince Gill anymore. I don't sound like Ray Charles, but I don't sound like Vince Gill. Now I can't stop."
His lifelong book habit was equally formative, especially when it came to his drive to escape small-town inertia and his ability to write about that deadening force with uncommon insight.
"I think that the fact that I read that much from that early on was probably a reason why I didn't wind up hanging out with the average kids when I was a teenager in that part of the country — because it's kind of a dangerous place to be a teenager," he says. "There was a lot of fighting and a lot of 14-, 15-year-olds getting pregnant, a lot of people going into the military because they didn't have any other options. And I didn't fall into any of those traps, probably because the people I spent my time around were people I could talk to about books and music and that kind of thing."
Now he talks to Shires about that kind of thing. "Jason, since he's quit drinking, his focus has gotten even more intense," she says. "He wants to read even more. Where I was reading the books and throwing them over to him before, now he can read, like, three times as fast as me." One of the many, many books they've passed back and forth recently is Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami's mammoth dystopian fantasy 1Q84, and his favorite authors include Salman Rushdie and Jennifer Egan.
Isbell studied creative writing at the University of Memphis. He left once he'd done all the heavy lifting and had little more than a P.E. credit to go. But the first time he played his own songs at a show there, he wrote the entire set's worth the night before. After demoing them back in Alabama, he wound up signing a publishing deal with FAME Music. The day came when he had to choose his own adventure: songwriting artist or staff writer; smaller niche or country mainstream.
"That was tempting to me for a little while," says Isbell of the latter. "If I hadn't joined the Truckers when I did, it could've been a possibility of something that I did in my 20s. My best friend from home at the time, he moved up here and became a country songwriter. He's done pretty well for himself."
Isbell's induction into the Truckers, that celebrated Southern tall-tale-spinning, alt-rock institution, settled the matter of which direction he'd take. Truckers ringleader Patterson Hood recalls encountering a fresh-faced Isbell at a guitar pull.
"I couldn't believe those songs were coming out of that kid," Hood writes in an email. "When it was my turn, he played along on my songs like he'd been playing on them forever."
Isbell soon found himself spontaneously filling in for the Truckers' missing guitarist at a house party, just as the band was gaining national momentum. Here's how fast things were happening: The very next day, Isbell appeared with the band in a Spin photo shoot, as an official member.
That was in 2001. Once again proving he could hold his own with musicians a decade or more older, Isbell carved out a place for his tuneful, humanistic touch within the group's blend of brains and brawn. He contributed Truckers standards such as the Decoration Day album's title track, "Danko/Manuel" and "Goddamn Lonely Love" on The Dirty South, and "Daylight" on A Blessing and a Curse.
He'd started cutting his first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, while he was still in the band. But after six years with the Truckers, and the disintegration of his marriage to Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker, it made sense to put together his own thing. He left the group officially in 2007.
That meant pretty much starting over. He and his new outfit, the 400 Unit, didn't even have a proper stage to play on for their first show — just a patch of floor roughly the size of a walk-in closet.
Bassist Jimbo Hart was one of the earliest 400 Unit recruits. He and Isbell had known each other since their high-school marching-band days. Hart had played cushier gigs as a sideman, but as he puts it, "For me, it was like, 'It's my friend,' and also I thought the weight of his writing and his substance basically was worth riding around in a van for a little while. Whereas before, you know, riding around in a bus and a plane playing some manufactured country stuff that I don't really know anybody that likes, that's tough."
The old 13-passenger standby was recently retired to Isbell and Shires' driveway, replaced by a far more bus-like, diesel-powered Sprinter van. Besides tours with John Prine and Ryan Adams, Letterman appearances, and all those Americana Award nominations, the transportation upgrade is one of the most tangible signs that things are growing.
At this point in the upending of the music industry as we know it, most people probably have either a grossly inflated, pie-in-the-sky notion of what success actually means, or they have no idea how anyone can still make a music career work. So here, for once, are some real numbers.
Rogers, of Lightning Rod — a label whose small yet impressive roster boasts Isbell, James McMurtry and Joe Pug — reports that Isbell's self-titled second album has sold 25,000 copies in the U.S. since 2009. In comparison, Here We Rest has already sold 30,000 in less than half the time. (In November, Isbell will add a live album to his Lightning Rod catalog.) By major label standards, those are throw-in-the-towel-type figures. But for an independent-minded Americana act like Isbell, they're affirmations of sustainability.
"He doesn't want to be a superstar," says Isbell's manager, Traci Thomas. "He just wants to make a nice living doing what he enjoys doing, which is writing songs and playing music. I think that's where he differs from some artists, because a lot of artists are out there and they want to be in the spotlight, and he's a little bit uncomfortable with that at times. He'd almost rather just be playing guitar, which a lot of people may or may not realize about him."
Separately, Thomas, Shires and Isbell each point out that he decided to give up drinking earlier this year so he could fully appreciate the experience of living his dream. He says, "It was like, 'Man, I actually want to remember this, this time. It's happened once before [with the Truckers], and I don't remember shit about it.' "
The dream, in his words, is "just to not go back to having a day job, be able to do this and hang out with people I hang out with and play music for a living."
As Diane Pecknold points out in the first chapter of Old Roots New Routes: The Cultural Politics of Alt.Country Music, one of the most visible dividing lines between Americana and mainstream country has to do with business paradigms. The sales goals and business models for roots music are explicitly smaller-scale, in a way that allows artists to take a proud stand on maintaining their creative and cultural credibility. It's not that Americana is uncommercial; it's just more modestly commercial — though the explosion of Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers and The Civil Wars has shown that it can catch on big-time.
"The older I get," Isbell says, "the more I think, 'Well, it's just a completely different job.' I mean, you can't compare what Gillian Welch is doing to what Carrie Underwood's doing. They're not trying to do the same thing at all. So I can't really say, 'Well, this has more value than that. To me, you know, what Gill's doing has more value, but that's just a personal opinion."
The difference between mainstream and outside-the-mainstream music-making came to the forefront in January, when Isbell tweeted that Dierks Bentley's single "Home" had ripped off his own ballad "In a Razor Town," from Sirens of the Ditch. Since Bentley's song had three co-writers, Isbell's side of the public debate took on the tone of an ideological battle between a roots underdog who labors on his own and a successful mainstream country guy who writes by committee.
Beyond the issue of plagiarism — which Thomas says was resolved by a musicological expert "who determined that there were not enough similarities to be an issue" — it was an occasion for Isbell to champion the aesthetic worth of the discernible, distinctive, individual voice.
"You're not gonna get a real good picture of somebody's mom if 10 people paint it," Isbell says. "But, like I say, that's a different job. ... I don't want to hear what 10 people think about a love story. I don't give a shit. I want to hear what one person thinks about what happened to him."
One of the chief markers of authenticity in Americana is performers coming up with their own songs, and those songs sounding true and believable coming from their lips. On some level, it's about writing what you know, though for Isbell that doesn't take the form of strict autobiography.
He's transcended the no-prospects small town, but stayed in touch with that very real and very hemmed-in way of looking at the world. When Here We Rest came out, the accompanying PR bio emphasized that the songs grew out of him hanging out with down-and-out folks back home in Northern Alabama. In the songs, you could hear him examine the generally unexamined life, and reflect upon his characters' constricting immediate circumstances.
You've probably heard songs, even recently, that caricature, fetishize or whitewash the semi-rural working-class experience. But Isbell doesn't take those sorts of easy outs. According to him, the songs he's written about young guys who sign up to go to war because they have absolutely, positively no other way to get by — like "Dress Blues," "Soldiers Get Strange" and "Tour of Duty" — have gotten some of the best reactions, from all sorts of listeners, of anything in his catalog. And they're a far cry from either of the default positions of contemporary war songs: country's patriotism-on-steroids, or the anti-war posture struck by everyone from folkies to Green Day.
"People assume that you're either writing a protest song or a jingoist song, because that's usually what you get, in all honesty," Isbell says. "You either get, 'War is hell. There's no excuse for it.' Or you get, 'Put a boot up their ass.' And there's so much middle ground. Those two things don't really exist.
"The truth, I think, really lives in the individual stories, for me. Sometimes I do have a point that I want to make, and the best way to make that point is to tell a story about, 'OK, this is what happened to this person. You figure out how well it worked for them.' "