When guitarist/singer/songwriter Jason Isbell put together his solo debut, Sirens of the Ditch, it was a prolonged process carried out over several years while he was a fulltime member of Drive-By Truckers, those purveyors of raucously rockin', whiskey-drinkin' alt-country music.
"I only had a day or two to record it at a time," Isbell told me during a phone interview a few days before kicking off the second leg of his spring tour with his band The 400 Unit.
Squeezing solo studio time into an already jam-packed gigging schedule might've been easy for your standard hired hand, but Isbell made up a third of DBT's triple axe attack and was a productive songwriter throughout his six-year tenure with the band. He'd always brought his own distinctive flavor to the Truckers' sound and as he drew closer to finishing his record, it became clear he was headed down a different path than the rest of his bandmates, both musically and personally. The dissolution of his marriage to DBT bassist Shonna Tucker didn't make things any easier, so three months before he released Sirens in 2007, Isbell made his amicable exit.
Sirens sounded a lot like a DBT record, and though it was well received by critics and fans alike, there was a lingering curiosity about the direction he'd take with his follow-up. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, recorded in Muscle Shoals and released on Lightning Rod Records in February, is a clear departure from the Truckers sound. It's also more is cohesive than his solo debut. Isbell's pleasantly husky drawl is set against rootsy, Southern-fried rock 'n' roll with countrified pop melodies and the soulful, gospel-tinged Muscle Shoals sound: tough, passionate, unflinching, melancholy, and sincere.
"On this one, we went in and did it over a couple weeks," he says. "It was nice — the album has a sort of continuity that I didn't have in the first record. And my current band had more collective studio experience, so there were lots of different ideas bouncing around."
Isbell stresses that, in contrast to Sirens, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit is a band effort. He says that even though he wrote the songs, The 400 Unit — Baltimore keyboardist Derry deBorja (formerly of Son Volt), guitarist Browan Lollar and bassist Jimbo Hart — were integral to the recording process. "This album was much more about getting together in the studio and working off each other's creative ideas," Isbell adds.
He didn't necessarily make a conscious effort to separate his sound from what he created with the Truckers. "When I was with that band, I was aware of the kind of music they made, the rules they had as a band, to write to those strong points, and to play my part in a band that already existed," Isbell says. "With this group [400 Unit], I'm really able to do exactly what I want to do. It's not that I didn't want to write those songs before, I'm just making more of the rules now, and so I can pretty much do whatever I want."
Isbell's poetic, character-driven storytelling in the new disc is as much a part of his band's aesthetic as the sound, his songs full of working class folks dealing with everyday life and struggles, and presented in vivid detail.
He reveals that most of his songs "are about actual people or actual stories I've read, or heard about in passing conversation." He plays around with the particulars, uses his own creative license as necessary, elaborates here or there, but his songs never veer too far from the truth. "They all pretty much come from places in reality," he says. "There's a whole lot of inspiration around if you just pay attention to people's stories."