Some musicians might have been left in a bind, needed the downtime to plot the next move. But Jason Isbell knew what he was doing in April when he split from popular neo-Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. His recently released solo debut Sirens of the Ditch is one of the best alt-country albums of the year.
The disc starts with a bang. The opening track "Brand New Kind of Actress" is prime power-pop fitted with an evocative lyric indebted to the folk/country style of storytelling:
A celebrity picks up a waitress in Hollywood. She comes back with him to his home. But then something goes horribly awry. "Put the piece away," she pleads. "Just let me call a cab."
No names are mentioned in the song. But it turns out the lyric is based on the night that transformed a legendary music producer into a murder suspect -- and current tabloid star.
"The song is about Phil Spector," Isbell says. "But nobody has picked up on that."
The soft-spoken 28-year-old pauses and then adds, with a wry chuckle: "This is the first time I've mentioned it. You got yourself some breaking news."
Isbell takes the interview call from a tour stop in Portland, Ore. He has a busy day ahead of him that includes an in-store appearance in the afternoon followed by a club show at night. His schedule won't let up any time soon. Isbell hasn't hit the road this hard since he first joined DBT in '02.
"Touring more had a lot to with [me going solo]," Isbell says. "Those guys are older with families and different priorities."
Google Isbell's name and you'll find glowing CD reviews and interviews advancing his upcoming appearances. But back in April, searches for "Isbell" mostly unearthed blog posts and message boards teeming with rumors about what, exactly, prompted his split from DBT. Some speculated that Isbell wanted more of his songs recorded. Most thought it had to do with his divorce from DBT bassist Shonna Tucker -- or a combination of both.
Isbell spent about five years with the band as part of its heralded three-prong guitar attack. He occasionally sang lead and wrote a fraction of the songs. I ease into the question: There has been speculation online that the divorce prompted your departure from the band. Is there any truth to this?
"Y'know it's obviously a little more difficult being on the [tour] bus with an ex than a current wife," Isbell says. "So it's ridiculous to imagine otherwise. But [the divorce] wasn't a major deciding factor. But everything comes in to play when you're making a decision like that."
Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley founded Drive-By Truckers in '96. Following a few independent releases, the band finally reached a wider audience when their double-disc concept album Southern Rock Opera earned rave reviews and got picked up for international distribution by Lost Highway/Universal in '02. Isbell, who like Hood is from Alabama, first appears on the 2003 DBT release Decoration Day; one of his two songwriting credits is the title track. Isbell wrote four songs for DBT's '04 release The Dirty South but then only two for their latest outing, '06's A Blessing and a Curse.
Meanwhile, Isbell made regular stops by FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals to lay down the tracks that wound up on Sirens, an album four years in the making. Hood and Tucker play on many of the songs. It's as if an Isbell solo career had been in the works all along.
"I don't really look at it as having a solo or band career," Isbell says. "I planned all along on making a lot of different kinds of records with different people, and it would all be part of the same career."
Were the songs on Sirens ever considered for DBT albums?
"No, no they weren't."
Never pitched to the band?
Isbell sounds tired of discussing the genesis of the album and why he left DBT. I let it go. The important thing is that whatever went down between him and the other members of his old band helped lead to Sirens, a literate, affecting collection of country-tinged power-pop and soul.
The album's centerpiece is the poignant ballad "Dress Blues." Isbell attended the funeral service of a hometown friend killed while serving as a Marine in Iraq. The young man was 22, married with a child, and was due to come home shortly before his death. Over mournful pedal steel and piano, Isbell sings: "Your very last tour would be up but you won't be back/ They're all dressing in black, drinking sweet tea in Styrofoam cups." Lesser writers would have allowed such subject matter to become maudlin. Isbell sticks to specifics and forgoes sermonizing.
"I just sat down and told the story best way I knew how," Isbell says. "The details were all there and the song came out in about 30 minutes."
Isbell had a lot riding on Sirens. After all, he'd only written eight songs for Drive-By Truckers over the course of three albums. But with tunes like "Brand New Actress" (the disc's first single) and "Dress Blues," his solo debut suggests this new career phase could be just as fruitful as his years with DBT, if not more so.
"You always wonder if people are going to share your same taste when you make a record," Isbell says. "But you just have to go ahead and make it, and keep in mind that's just what you do. You're always nervous, but I was happy with what I had made."
Isbell mentions that he has been writing songs since he was 15 -- the age he first started believing in himself as a musician.
"Confidence is not something I'm lacking in," he says with a knowing laugh.
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