Jason Isbell felt a rush of familiarity when he watched the final episode of Mad Men on his tour bus. As he saw Don Draper go AWOL from his advertising job and embark on an aimless cross-country road trip, Isbell recalled his own life around 2008, after his first marriage had fallen apart and he’d been fired from the Drive-By Truckers due largely to his heavy drinking. Isbell bought a motorcycle and took off from his home in Alabama. “I drove down to Florida, back up through Georgia and visited some of the girls I had met on the road,” he says in a husky Alabama drawl. “It’s a wonder I didn’t kill myself. I got home feeling and looking worse than when I’d left, just completely lost.”
Isbell eventually went to rehab and turned his dark past into some of the best music to come out of Nashville this decade. On 2013’s Southeastern, he reflected on cocaine nights at Super 8’s, mistreating vulnerable women, and starting over. “I was behaving in a way that was deplorable on a lot of levels,” Isbell says, drinking Red Bull and smoking cigarettes on his tour bus, outside the Capitol Theatre in Portchester, New York, one recent afternoon. “The problem with drinking is you can drown out your conscience until it shuts up.” Bruce Springsteen called Southeastern a “lovely record” and sneaked up on Isbell at a Dr. John benefit to sing Isbell’s song “Traveling Alone” into his ear. Isbell sold out four consecutive shows at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in October.
“I’m kind of picky about songwriters, you know,” says John Prine. “But when I heard Southeastern, it just killed me. I loved it. I like songs that are clean and don’t have much fat on them — every line is direct, and all people can relate to it. That’s what I try to do, and that’s what Jason does. I really haven’t heard anybody that different in probably 30 years.”
Old ghosts still exist on Isbell’s new album, Something More Than Free, like an ex-lover who spills unflattering stories about Isbell to his wife. But Isbell finds more material in the common truths of the overworked and underprivileged people of the rural South — truck loaders, railroad workers, housewives. “I don’t think on why I’m here or where it hurts/I’m just lucky to have the work,” he declares on the title track, which he wrote partly about his father, a retired house painter. “Physical labor, manual labor — if you can stay close to those folks, there’s always plenty to write about, ’cause their issues are real issues.”
Isbell grew up in the low-income town of Green Hill, Alabama. “People came to school [just] to eat lunch,” he says. Green Hill is 20 miles from Muscle Shoals, where Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Percy Sledge and others did some of their best work. As a teenage guitarist, Isbell got to know many of the musicians on those records while sitting in at bars with bassist David Hood and organist Spooner Oldham.
As a student at the University of Memphis, Isbell made up songs to entertain his frat brothers and read original verse at poetry readings. One night, Isbell sat in with the Drive-By Truckers, a hard-living band led by Hood’s son Patterson. The Truckers invited Isbell to join as a full member, and he left on tour with them just two days later, becoming the third great voice in the group after Hood and Mike Cooley, who had just completed Southern Rock Opera, a concept album about Lynyrd Skynyrd. Isbell boiled down complex ideas into novelistic songs like “Decoration Day,” a devastating chronicle of family/neighbor turmoil, and “Danko/Manuel,” in which he compared his demons to those of two fallen members of the Band.
Isbell had no problem adapting to the Truckers’ lifestyle. He would wake up and start drinking, finishing off a fifth of Jack Daniel’s by the end of a show. “We were lucky if we could walk off the stage,” he says flatly. “I’d wake up in a lot of pain and not know where I was — some girl’s house somewhere.”
Isbell married bassist Shonna Tucker in 2002 after, he says, she saved his life one drunken night (she joined the band a year later). But the honeymoon didn’t last long. “I slept with people I shouldn’t have slept with,” he says. “I started going outside the marriage.” They separated — sort of. “We were still in the band together, and so we were only separated by the distance between those two bunks,” he says. “She didn’t deserve that, but I shouldn’t have married her in the first place.”
The toxic environment — combined with Isbell’s explosive temper at the time — was too much for Hood and Cooley, who fired Isbell in 2007. (They’ve reconciled.) Isbell burned more bridges, lost more friends and recorded two albums with his band the 400 Unit. In 2011, he started seeing Amanda Shires, an old friend who had played fiddle and guitar with everyone from the Texas Playboys to Todd Snider. She had little tolerance for his excuses: “I told somebody in her presence, ‘I don’t drink in the morning,’ and she said, ‘Your morning is one in the afternoon. And you do drink at one in the afternoon.’ ” Shires and friend Ryan Adams convinced Isbell to go to rehab. “Rehab is like a divorce,” he says. “The divorce isn’t nearly as sad or shitty as the two or three years leading up to it.”
After sobering up, Isbell started reading “big, thick books,” including Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian — and dedicated six to eight hours a day to writing songs full of aphorisms like “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me/No one dies with dignity” and “Is your brother on a church kick?/Seems like just a different kind of dope sick.”
“A lot of people in Nashville think that the best song is the catchiest, or the one that sells the most copies,” he says at one point. “They’re editing songs in a way that make them seem more consumable, I guess. I’m trying to edit them in a way that makes them more honest.”
One of those songs is a new single, “24 Frames,” a searing account about how loss can upend one’s world. “I still have the problem of thinking I’m in control of things I’m not in control of,” he says. “No matter what you thought your plans were, that’s not how things are going to work out, and that’s the only way you can really, I think, live successfully.”
Isbell takes a long drag off his last cigarette and cracks another Red Bull. “With karma too, it’s like, ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ That’s always the wrong question. It doesn’t matter. The only right question is ‘What do I do now?’ That’s it.”