If not for the Alabama Crimson Tide and Grimey’s Records stickers on the back window of a well-traveled truck and the music-gear trailer in the driveway, nothing would suggest that one has arrived at the residence of Jason Isbell.
In the Nashville suburbs a stone’s throw from one of the Tennessee Valley Authority dam projects he referenced so eloquently in his song “TVA,” Isbell sits alone at a coffee table in the modest, impeccably tidy home he shares with his new wife, Amanda Shires, herself a critically acclaimed singer/songwriter/fiddle player. Being happily married is part of what drives Isbell’s new album, “Southeastern,” due June 11 on Isbell’s own Southeastern Records, with marketing and distribution from Thirty Tigers.
While the album does have its guitar moments, the focus is mostly on Isbell’s powerful vocals and fearless songwriting. Isbell wades into risky waters time and again, whether he’s holding forth on domestic bliss (“Stockholm,” “Relatively Easy”) or, more frequently, murder, mayhem, abuse, terminal illness and an impressive range of altered states and substances. As the title of one track suggests, these are “Different Days” for Isbell, 34, who’s now taking on life not only with newfound domesticity but also sobriety.
“I didn’t set out to make a rehab record, and I didn’t set out to make a honeymoon record, but it’s a little bit of both in some ways,” Isbell says.
Isbell first gained recognition in a brief but highly productive run with Drive-By Truckers, where his songs like “Decoration Day” and “Outfit” quickly became fan favorites. Isbell left the band in 2007, and has since released three critically acclaimed studio albums (along with last year’s “Live in Alabama”) and toured relentlessly with his band, the 400 Unit.
Isbell wrote all of the songs for “Southeastern” since moving to Nashville last summer, and laid down the tracks at the studio of producer Dave Cobb (Jamey Johnson, Secret Sisters). While it’s billed as a solo album, the players consist mostly of the 400 Unit, and that’s whom Isbell will tour with this summer.
The characters that populate the songs on “Southeastern” are often unsavory or unlucky, or both, and if their behavior rings true, that’s the intention, as they spring from real people and situations. “What I was trying to do-and I do this a lot–is take folks that I really know in the real world and combine them with other people, give them certain characteristics,” he says. “I let them react to the world, and if you let them behave as they’re going to behave, you wind up getting a really good story. You have to think of them as real people, because if you don’t, then you won’t give them the characteristics of real people.”
Ultimately, though, the characters reflect Isbell himself, arrived at through internal “discussions” in his head. “More than anything else, it’s probably a way that I explain my own feelings to myself and sort of compartmentalize, unpack them, put them where they go,” he says.
So despite the difficult subject matter, “there’s some hope on the record, which is something I struggle with, because I am a very hopeful person, even five or six years ago when I wasn’t necessarily at my best,” he says. “It seems like an amateur thing to me to just write a bunch of sad songs, but I don’t really listen to that many happy songs either, so maybe that’s not true. Randy Newman doesn’t have a whole lot of happy songs. He saves those for Pixar, I guess.”
Isbell’s last two records were released on the Lightning Rod imprint, but now he’s completely independent, with his manager Traci Thomas essentially running Southeastern Records, and Thirty Tigers handling marketing and distribution through RED. “I’m able to get the records distributed and promoted like I need to without taking the money of a big record label and giving up my masters and that kind of thing,” Isbell says. “I really felt like I’d come to a point where I didn’t need that outside source, that middleman, anymore. I’m lucky enough to have great people working with me right now, and I feel confident we can do the release right and be OK.”
As for the commercial prospects of “Southeastern,” “Honestly, if I don’t have to get another job, if I don’t have to cut the cable completely off, I’m pretty happy about it,” Isbell says. “My truck’s going to need a new transmission pretty soon, and I would like to get a bigger place so we can start having kids, but other than that I’m fine. I don’t have to get up early; I don’t have to sit in a cubicle or load trucks all day. If you try to not pay any attention to a certain level of commercial success, if you ignore that stuff when you’re making a record, you’re going to make a better record every single time.”