Jason Isbell: Soulful Southern Rock.

Jason Isbell is one of America’s best songwriters. He played guitar for the Drive-By Truckers from 2001-2007, and has released two solo albums. His latest release is Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, out now on Lightning Rod Records. Jason recently wrote in to discuss writing songs on the road, his favorite art meseums, and naming his band after a mental facility.

Do you remember your first musical memory? 
Not exactly, but I remember from very early on my grandfather playing traditional gospel and country songs.

What was the first song you leaned how to play on guitar?
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man.”

How did you first become involved with the Drive-By Truckers? 
I met Patterson through Dick Cooper, who managed the Truckers and lived in the Shoals, in 2001.. I was staying at Dick’s house and Hood was visiting while recording ‘Southern Rock Opera.’

Do you follow a certain method when writing songs? 
Not really. Sometimes I write lyrics first, sometimes chord changes and a melody. I’ll take it however I can get it though. Occasionally I’ll sing phrases into my cell phone and work them out when I get home again.

Do you approach songwriting differently when writing for yourself than with DBT? 
It’s still the same approach, but I try to keep in mind the players who will appear on the recording and write and arrange to their strong suites if I can.

Did growing up in a small town influence your songwriting?
I think so. There wasn’t much to do but work on a craft, and being from a town so small gave me a sense of community that I transferred onto a larger group when I moved out into the world. If you grow up knowing everybody around you, you eventually feel like you still do, even on a larger scale.

You craft great characters in your songs. What inspires you lyrically?
Anything. I think the inspiration is everywhere if you listen to what people are saying to you. So many folks don’t pay attention to others’ stories, maybe as a defense mechanism.

What is the story behind the writing of “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades?” 

I was drinking a lot and listening to a lot of Randy Newman. Nothing new, really.

You tour a ton. Do you have a favorite memory from being on the road?
I loved that last paella in Barcelona, DBT touring with the Black Crowes was a great thing, and I love going to museums when I get the chance. The Guggenheims are beautiful, and I love MOMA in NYC.

Do you write songs while on tour? 
Yes, but not as often as when I’m home. Writing on the road is very similar to waking up in a strange girl’s house and needing to take a shit. You’ll do it if you have to, but it’s better to wait until you get home so you can leave the door open.

How do you decide what to play on your setlists each night?
I don’t make setlists. I like deciding on the spur of the moment depending on what the show needs.

How did you choose who you wanted to back you up in the 400 Unit?
I basically called all the best players from the Shoals area and Derry deBorja from Son Volt. They were all first choices, and luckily they were available.

What made you decide on naming your band the 400 Unit?
There is a mental treatment facility here in Florence (Alabama) called The 400 Unit. About once a week they would drive downtown and take, I guess, the six or eight healthiest people in the facility and let ’em go downtown. Give ’em all like $15 apiece to go get some lunch. You’d immediately recognize who it was and why they were there; they all had nametags on, saying kinda strange stuff to everybody. And trying to get a sandwich at the same time. When I started thinking about a band, and how we get to a new town and everybody gets $15 and gets out of the van, goes out and tries to get a sandwich, it kinda reminded me of that.

How do you feel that your sound has evolved from “Sirens of the Ditch” to your self titled album? 
It’s more of a traditionally-recorded album, so I feel like it’s more consistent stylistically. It’s also an album made with a full band, and I think that adds to the overall experience of listening because you start to recognize the spaces that each player occupies. The subject matter is also a bit more personal.

For more info on Jason Isbell, check out http://www.jasonisbell.com/

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