Jason Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, were walking around last weekend in Newport, Rhode Island, where they played the Newport Folk Festival. As they talked, Isbell was struck with a realization.
"It occurred to me the thing that broke my heart the most was when I grew up and realized everything wasn't an adventure," he says. "I got to a certain age and realized I couldn't be Indiana Jones."
The former Drive-By Trucker's newfound sobriety, a recurring topic of discussion (and of his exceptional songwriting), may have cost him some of his sense of adventure, but it has undoubtedly focused his attention on his craft. That's abundantly clear on his breakout new album, Southeastern, one of the year's best in any genre.
"You can still find those adventures if you surround yourself with the right people," Isbell tells Rolling Stone, sitting at a picnic table on the roof of the Port City Music Hall in Portland, Maine, where he'll perform in a couple of hours, a few days after his Newport set. "You can have as much fun. I never would've thought that before, but now I know it's true. There's still just as much awe."
After recording and touring for several years with the Drive-By Truckers, for whom he wrote standouts including "Decoration Day," "Outfit" and "Danko/Manuel," Isbell launched his solo career in 2007. Recognition has been building steadily; he won Song of the Year at the 2012 Americana Honors and Awards at the Ryman Auditorium last September for "Alabama Pines." He calls his superb backing band the 400 Unit, after the psychiatric ward of a hospital near Muscle Shoals, the part of the state where he grew up.
At age 34, he's got the baggy eyes of a man who has spent a lot of time thinking hard late at night. But his voice is much stronger and clearer than it was in the Truckers. In Portland, he led the band (including his wife on fiddle) through charging, heartfelt songs that often sounded like the cavalry was coming.
"We try to have as much fun as possible singing a bunch of sad-ass songs," he said from the stage with one of the few grins he'd allow himself.
The attention he's getting for Southeastern, from the opening recovery track "Cover Me Up" and the brutally stark "Elephant" to the full-throttle raver "Super 8," feels like it's coming at the right time, after he'd had ample opportunity to get good at what he does. "There's not a lot of filler, not a lot of songs I would skip through," he says.
Teaching himself to hear his own songs objectively has been one of the harder lessons to learn, he says: "It's impossible to get that distance for me. They all feel good," he says of making records, "and they all feel really bad when you're working, simultaneously."
Chris Tompkins, a high school friend who has co-written mainstream country hits including Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats" and Florida Georgia Line's "Get Your Shine On," says Isbell seemed "on a different level" even back when they were covering "Stairway to Heaven" together. "I remember I used to think the force was strong with him," says Tompkins, who signed his first publishing deal when he moved to Nashville at 22.
Isbell's grandfather and uncle were both musicians, says Tompkins on the phone from Nashville. "We found music, and then being in the Shoals area just gave us an early look at all the places music can take you. We're proud to be from that area. Being from Muscle Shoals is kind of like having a cool tattoo or something."
After getting sober, writing and recording the new album "felt more natural to me," says Isbell, lighting a cigarette as seagulls caw overhead. "I don't have certain kinds of fatigue. My focus stays strong – I can work on a song for six or seven hours in one day, and not get bored or tired of it."
Having recently moved to Nashville with Shires – whose own fourth solo album, Down Fell the Doves, comes out next week – the newlyweds will sequester themselves in different corners of the house to write new songs, then play them for each other. It's not competition, Isbell makes clear with a chuckle.
"I like to play pool," he says. "When the ball goes in the pocket, you win." Writing songs isn't so cut and dried, he says.
Shires, who was touring with the Texas Playboys when she was still a teenager, has a sense of responsibility that's been good for him, he says.
"She's not really a rock & roll kid, for lack of a better term. I've been around so many people for so long who were. Rock & roll kids just let decisions make themselves. She makes the decision before it gets to the point where she makes a mistake, and I like that.
"She has a big conscience, a big heart. Essentially, she's just a good person. That's the trick."
Isbell's first show after finishing rehab was opening solo for Ryan Adams in Perth, Australia, three days after he got out ("two, if you count the international dateline, the day that goes into the vortex"). If writing came easier sober, playing live was terrifying at first, he says.
"There were probably 2,500 people, and I'm just standing there with a guitar, elevated and facing everyone. I remember thinking, 'Wow, there's a lot of potential for me to really mess this up.'"
He has since learned to "tell the story" of his recovery. "I'm not a big AA guy, but I'll go every once in a while. They do tell you that going out and helping other people really helps you a lot. It seems like a simple thing to say, but it's really true.
"If you say those things out loud, it makes a difference. It's a lot like writing a song about it. Here was my life five years ago, and here's my life now. Which would I rather have? It's pretty obvious."
A few hours later, his band is peeling the wallpaper with their customary encore cover tune. They've ended shows with Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" or Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic." Tonight it's the Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," and it's ecstatic. When the band step back from their microphones to begin the extended breakdown, Isbell smiles like a boy on a great adventure.
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