Former Trucker Jason Isbell still finds freedom on the road

by Jordan Green

The decision to give up smoking may seem like an impossibility for Ryan Snyder even the typical music writer smoker, but imagine being a touring musician in the midst of dozens of shows spread across the country, driving the gig van for hours a day, only to wind up in one smoky bar after another. The cravings understandably can become unbearable. Former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell dealt with that, and after a concerted effort to kick the habit the temptation got the best of him. “I do pretty well when I’m at home, but it’s when I get out on the road it’s difficult,” he said his distinctively deep Southern drawl. “After you’ve been driving the van all day, it seems pretty natural to get out and have a cigarette.” Isbell added that it’s especially tough to resist after a show, but he didn’t go down without a fight. He and his band the 400 Unit mutually agreed to ban smoking in the tour van, resulting in drummer Chad Gamble’s own victory over the pack, while Isbell even took anti-smoking meds. His efforts came up short, however, which in a way, likened himself to many of the characters in his second solo album, the eponymous Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit. His new band’s sound may come across as vaguely lighter, more soulful and a little more polished than the gritty, Dirty-South vibe that his work with the Truckers often exuded. However, the subject matter remains much the same and it almost seems poetic that the band, and in turn the album, is named after a mentalhealth facility in northern Alabama. The characters in the album fall short of clinical neuroses, but they aren’t without their own problems. The highly-acclaimed album itself runs heavy with themes of codependence, unrequited affections and the after-effects of war, all rooted in real individuals that Isbell encountered growing up around Muscle Shoals, Ala. and on the road. The town made famous by a Lynyrd Skynyrd song has had a double-edged influence on Isbell. Even though Isbell grew up in a family full of players, he was never compelled by anything other than his own volition to take up music. Music, to his family, was more of having the means to come together for a common purpose. He is, however, thankful to those associated with Muscle Shoals Studios who took the time to offer their support. “I try to keep in mind that it’s not their job to help or encourage young musicians, but they just do it because they want to do it,” Isbell said. “It’s really awesome that they tried to work with us whenever they could and let us into their circle.” Not that Isbell has ever been one to lean on others for support, however. It’s his fiercely independent nature that led to the amicable split between himself and the rest of the Drive-By Truckers in 2007. Isbell constantly pushed the band in different directions, but the band’s democratic process eventually won out. His first solo effort, Sirens of the Ditch, was put together while still a member and featured many of his soon-to-be former bandmates, but the result was liberating enough that Isbell quickly found his new place as an artist. “I definitely have plenty of creative license now,” said Isbell. “I don’t feel like I was really limited, but now I’m not a part of a democracy so it’s a lot easier to do whatever it is that I want to do.” While he still talks to his old bandmates once in a while, he’s not sentimental over having to argue a song’s case for inclusion or acceptance. There are plenty of people to play devil’s advocate, he says, whether they be his new bandmates, producers, engineers or managers. “We all definitely pitch in our opinions and try to discuss it maturely, and the last album was pretty easy as far as that went,” Isbell stated. If you really want, you can always find someone to argue with.”

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit will play a special acoustic show at the Garage in Winston-Salem on Friday at 9 p.m.