Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with former Drive-By Truckers guitarist and singer/songwriter Jason Isbell about taking a break from the road, reconnecting with his roots and the universal appeal of songs about desperation.
CP: You didn't tour as much as usual last year. Why?
JI: We just didn't put a record out. If you playing the same towns over and over again, people stop coming. It wasn't something we wanted to do; lord knows, we all need the money. Yeah, if you don't have a record out, and you keep touring, people get tired of you.
CP: Yet you turned what could have been a negative into a positive in seeking inspiration from being at home. Talk about that.
JI: Yeah, you have to do that. It was something that I was faced with. Sure, for the first month or so, it was nice get recuperated and rehabilitated from traveling so much. Once that wore off, I started feeling like I wasn't contributing anything to society, so I had to buckle down and start writing and come up with another record. We ended up recording that, and I think it turned out good.
I think it helped me - and informed the record a lot - to be around people who weren't traveling musicians or music fans or promoters or agents or anything like that. It was nice to spend time with people who live normal, day-to-day lives and get to know them better.
CP: Before you returned home, did it feel like you'd lost touch with where you came from?
JI: Sort of. I don't necessarily - just because of the people we are - if I'd lost touch with that, but it's bound to happen if you don't do things like that, don't spend any time at home. It winds up taking its toll on you, creatively.
You see so many writers, who wind up becoming really good and really successful and the steam of their prose or their songwriting or their language, in general, goes out. Even if some of them try to focus on the same sort of topics, they're not able to grasp them like they did years ago. You wouldn't hear Prince talking about a girl wearing thrift store clothes anymore, which is kind of a shame, because that was a wonderful thing to hear Prince talk about when he was still hanging out with those kind of women.
CP: Looking ahead, your tour calendar seems fairly busy. Are you back up to pre-2010 levels?
JI: Yeah, we are. We've been out now for 2 _ months straight, so we're all a little bit exhausted - a lot exhausted, honestly - but it's been a good trip, a good tour. We're home this weekend and leaving on Sunday to go to Athens, then we'll be home a week or so. But yeah, the year is going to be really busy for us. It has been so far.
CP: What upcoming shows are you excited about?
JI: We're doing some shows in the early fall with Justin Townes Earle. He'll be headlining. He's a really good friend of ours. I think the audiences work well together. They're not necessarily the same audience, so you don't feel like you're preaching to the choir, but it's something I think both groups of people can pick up on.
There are still some festivals left. I think we're going to try to do the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. That's probably my favorite one in the country right now because it doesn't have any corporate sponsors, and it's free to the public. You don't have to play on the Coors Light Stage or any of that (crap). It's just more fun for me when people aren't tried to be sold anything other than the music they're listening to.
CP: You wrote many of the songs on "Hear We Rest" about life in Northern Alabama. How have the songs been received by people outside that region? Have you found them to be fairly universal?
JI: It's been really, really good. People are so similar. That's the thing that surprised me the most when I started touring. There are rural areas in Alabama, but they're the same as the rural areas in Michigan or upstate New York or Pennsylvania or northern California.
People have the same concerns and same levels of open mindedness and same stresses over the economy. They have the same levels of racism and bad things. You can point at Alabama or Mississippi and say, "Well, I'm sure those people understand not having a job and hating Mexicans," but then go to Arizona, and they have the same exact situations - bad and good.
When you write about a certain level of desperation, it's not necessarily a southern desperation. It's not unique to the place we're from. It's easier for me to write when I use an actual place. I feel that's important in the style of writing I do, in particular. I think it translates really well because there are a whole lot of similar people around the country and around the world, really.
CP: What are you guys playing at shows these days? What can people in Chattanooga expect? Mostly stuff off "Here We Rest" or a more wide-ranging set?
JI: We do something off of all the albums. We usually do 6 or 7 off the new one and a couple of the two previous solo albums. I still go back and do stuff I wrote with The Truckers. I feel somebody needs to do those songs, and I'm not too awful tired of them yet. We mix it up.
I admire bands that go out and play only their new material exclusively and don't dip into their back catalog at all. That's just not necessarily as much fun for me. I don't like standing on stage hearing people yell, "Outfit" all night and then not play it for them.
CP: Have you given any thought to your next album? Are you working on it?
JI: Not really. There are a few things in the works that I can't really talk about. A couple of them are really exciting projects with folks I've wanted to work with all my life. That's really good, but I can't name names at this point.
I think it'll wind up being a pretty busy year for me, even separate from being on the road. Last year, I ended up doing some studio and some production work. That's sort of expanding right now.
I'm trying to get to the point now where I have a happy balance between touring and performing live and appearing on other people's records or on outside projects. There's probably going to be a lot of that this year. I'm happy about that.