Traveling alone: A clear-headed Jason Isbell talks solo success

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Jason Isbell credits sobriety for his recent award-winning album and a renewed passion for playing live that has grown his audience. He performs at the Paramount on Monday. Photo: Michael Wilson. Jason Isbell credits sobriety for his recent award-winning album and a renewed passion for playing live that has grown his audience. He performs at the Paramount on Monday. Photo: Michael Wilson.

Jason Isbell is enjoying the afterglow of redemption. The lauded country-rock tunesmith is still touring behind his career-defining 2013 album Southeastern, an effort that earned overdue recognition for an artist who turned his demons into a poignantly captivating sonic statement. Ubiquitously praised by critics, the album led to Isbell taking top honors at the Americana Music Awards, where he was spotlighted among genre heroes including Jackson Browne and Loretta Lynn.

Isbell’s road to greater success, though, was long and at times personally arduous. After spending six years as a key contributor in the Drive-By Truckers, alcohol-fueled discord resulted in his departure from the band in 2007. He’s since released four studio albums under his own name, but Southeastern is a step above the previous three.

Isbell gives the credit to a clear head. In 2012 he quit drinking with help from friends, including Ryan Adams, and his soon-to-be wife, fiddler and fellow songwriter Amanda Shires, and shortly after he wrote the songs that would become Southeastern’s starkly confessional 12-song set. An Alabama native, who grew up near the musically rich town of Muscle Shoals, Isbell delivered the album with his endearing husky drawl, shrouded in a blend of dusty rock and front porch soul, as he reflects on regret through personal revelations and vivid character sketches. Since the album’s release, Isbell and his band the 400 Unit have graduated into bigger venues. Last fall he sold out three straight nights at Nashville’s venerable Ryman Auditorium, and Monday night will mark Isbell’s first appearance at The Paramount Theater.

C-VILLE Weekly: Why do you think Southeastern had greater impact than your previous work?

Jason Isbell: The longer I go as a songwriter the more I realize that the craft goes a long way. I think people attribute their connection to the record to the subject matter, but I think it comes down to the songs being well-written. The amount of time and focus that was spent refining the songs made for better quality.

Also, the personal story that went with that time period for me resonated with a lot of people. It was kind of a perfect storm, as far as songwriting goes, because I had something to talk about.

Has the success affected the way you approach songwriting moving forward?

Everything I do in my life is different now, because I have more hours in the day. Before this record I was going out and drinking a lot. I no longer have to spend a few hours getting over a hangover every morning. I was never really working and drinking at the same time. I would drink so much that I couldn’t really read anymore, so I surely couldn’t write. Now I put more work into everything that I do, and that’s more rewarding for me.

What’s the status of a follow-up album?

A dozen songs are almost done, and we’re going to record in March. As far as content of the songs or themes, I try to stay away from focusing on that while I’m in the process of writing them. Once the record comes out, I’ll start to see things emerge and figure out exactly what I’m talking about. While I’m writing the songs, I just demo them for myself so I don’t forget them, and then I put them away and go to another one. I like to go into the studio with that kind of freshness. I have to relearn the songs along with the members of the band and work from scratch.

When not busy with your own work, you and your wife, Amanda Shires, play in each other’s bands. What’s it like collaborating with your spouse creatively?

I can trust her opinion. It’s important to have somebody around you that will call you on bullshit and won’t just say ‘yes’ to everything. A lot of creative people get less creative as they get more successful because they eliminate those folks from their lives and they get no constructive criticism. My wife is a good person for giving me a straightforward opinion on the work that I’m doing. That helps me keep from being complacent. On the other side, it’s just fun to make music together. That’s the thing that made us friends in the first place, and it’s still our favorite thing to do.

How did you adjust to playing big rock shows completely sober?

It was the opposite of what I expected. When I go back and watch YouTube clips from when I was drinking, it’s like (hearing) fingernails on a chalkboard for me now. When you drink, your hearing goes. That’s why everyone gets louder and louder in a bar as the night goes on. If you can’t hear, you can’t really sing too well, so I used to have monitors blaring and still not be able to hear the pitches I was trying to hit.

I also have a lot more energy now. The whole band does, too. When I quit drinking they all cut way back, out of respect. Everybody is in really good spirits. I enjoy playing more now than I ever have.

Last summer you reunited with your old Drive-By Truckers bandmates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley to play a benefit show in Muscle Shoals. How was it?

I had a great time. I keep in contact with those guys regularly, especially Patterson. I miss playing those songs, so it was really nice to have a night to go back and revisit that material. I believe the work that we did together was really strong, so it was a joy to go back and do it again.