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Thursday, Aug. 13, 2009

Jason Isbell: Estranged Trucker

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When people ask Jason Isbell why he left the Drive-By Truckers after the band's 2006 CD, Decoration Day, to a point he feels he doesn't have to even say a word. The music tells the story for him.

"I think the music they've made and the music I've made since then makes it fairly obvious the directions we were going in," the guitarist/singer said. He explains that Decoration Day portended his split from the band.

"I don't think it was the best album that we made," Isbell said. "So it was just kind of a natural progression of things. I never planned on leaving that band and I never planned on really having a solo career. Obviously I thought about it. Everybody thinks about it, but that wasn't my goal from the start. I just think it became necessary after awhile with the different kinds of music we were making."
Of course, another factor figured into Isbell's thinking: His divorce from Drive-By Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker.

"It was definitely one of those things that had a big influence on every decision I made in those days," he said. "It was difficult to be in the same place at the same time."

But Isbell is right to point to the stylistic contrasts between his two solo albums and the Drive-By Truckers' first album without him, Brighter Than Creation's Dark, to illustrate the musical divide that came to exist in the band.

Brighter Than Creation's Dark continued to feature Truckers' triple-guitar-fueled, hearty Southern-tinged rock, but it also brought back the straight country influence that was apparent on the group's earliest albums, but had grown less apparent on the albums that followed Isbell's arrival in 2001.

On his two solo records, 2007's Sirens Of The Ditch and the recent Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Isbell has begun to separate himself from the Drive-By Truckers. Especially on the new CD, Isbell shows more of a soul and pop influence, pulling back from the tightly wound and high-powered Drive-By Truckers sound in favor of a more relaxed feel.

The pop influence is especially apparent on "However Long," a gritty rocker with plenty of melodic punch and on the epic album-closing ballad, "The Last Song I Will Write."

What's also notable about Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit is only a song or two-the stellar rockers "Good" and "Soldiers Get Strange"-sound like they would fit easily on a Drive-By Truckers album.

While Isbell's first album was recorded with members of the Truckers during his time with the group, his follow-up solidifies the divorce, and is named after the touring band with which he recorded it. The lineup includes a pair of musicians Isbell knew before he joined the Truckers - guitarist Browan Lollar and bassist Jimbo Hart -and former Son Volt keyboardist Derry deBorja.

The current CD, Isbell said, was created with the sound of the 400 Unit in mind.

"I think there were maybe one or maybe two songs that I pulled out (from the past) and reworked for this record," he said. "But the rest of it was all written within a couple of months of recording it or written in the studio while we were in there. I did that because I was really focusing on the players. I wanted this to sound like a band record. I was writing with those guys in mind and writing to their strengths as best as I could."

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit play an 8 p.m. show at Shank Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 19, with Strand of Oaks.