"Trying to sell creative, interesting songs to pop country artists? You'd have better luck selling shirts to Dave Navarro."
So reads a Facebook status update from Jason Isbell, the Alabama singer-songwriter playing the Firehouse Saturday night with Lightning Rod Records labelmate James McMurtry. Another example of Isbell's humor was a Twitter message the same day: "Yes. They don't pay enough. RT @PeterMoylan: Anybody else having issues with iTunes?"
A gifted writer with three solo albums under his belt since his abrupt but "amicable" 2007 departure from the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell doesn't waste much time trying to sell songs to the Top 40 country music types in Nashville, although he probably could.
"I'd hate one of those Nashville songwriter jobs," says Isbell. "They work to a formula. Actually, there are about three acceptable song formulas that get cut in Nashville and I don't really write any of those type things. And if you don't fit in, you won't be there long because there are only a few streams of big money and some powerful people guard those very closely."
"And I know that going the route I'm taking I'm not going to sell a million records, but I'm okay with that," Isbell notes. "I would like to get where I can sell three or four hundred thousand, though, so I can get off the road some."
As others in the ranks of nationally touring independent artists have noted recently, Isbell finds that selling records is a dwindling part of the economics of keeping a music career alive. For his kind, touring and merchandise sales are increasingly important in the equation of survival.
"Sure, you want to write new songs and hopefully do a decent recording of them when the time is right, but there's no substitute for touring for us," Isbell says. "At least with some of the technology that's available nowadays, you can diminish some of the tedium of being in a van every day because you can watch a movie, distract yourself with things to keep the boredom down."
"But you never know how long your voice will hold up, things like that," he adds. "I've had a couple of pinched nerves in my neck this year and I'm sure sitting in the van all the time isn't the best thing for that."
Isbell is touring hard behind his current album, Here We Rest, a literate masterpiece filled with sweetly wistful ballads and Muscle Shoals groovers littered with whip-smart observations like, "Two things that I hate / Having to cook and trying to date."
"You'd like to think someone like Miranda Lambert — she's one of the few big acts in Nashville who's trying to reach outside the box for interesting songs — would cut 'Codeine' or 'Save It For Sunday,' but the odds are pretty astronomical," sighs Isbell. "That's certainly not something I bank on."
Isbell, who appears on CBS's Late Show with David Letterman Friday night, balks at the suggestion that his songwriting is in the vein of Bruce Springsteen or Steve Earle.
"Sure, they're in my list of influences and people I pay attention to, but I think my writing is most informed by guys like Tom T. Hall and Randy Newman," he says. "Newman's Southern concept album Good Old Boys is one I've always admired and studied. And I like to do story-songs, which Tom T. and Newman are both masters at.
"Most of my songs are grounded in where I'm from [Muscle Shoals, Alabama], just like Bruce's are rooted in New Jersey or Steve's are rooted in Texas," adds Isbell, "but I'd still say I'm more under the writing influence of people like Newman and Tom T."
Here We Rest came out a bit late to be considered for the recent Americana Music Association awards in Nashville. He skipped the convention.
"Those things are nice to catch up with old friends and get everybody together in one place for a couple of days, but we were on the West Coast touring with Ryan Adams this year, so I didn't make it," says Isbell.
"Sure, being nominated or winning one of those awards is cool, but I really don't put much store in all that. There's a lot of politics that I'd just as soon not have to indulge in."
Quite a bit of Here We Rest is about working through heartache and trouble, getting one's life back together. If the album had to be described in one word, it would be "sad" or "melancholy."
"I do write a lot of songs that come from sadness and just the trouble that comes at people in life, but I think those songs all have a kernel of hopefulness in them," observes Isbell. "And to my mind, hopefulness is at the core of that basic survival instinct that is probably the strongest human trait."
Isbell is perhaps best known for penning the Drive-By Truckers' tune "Outfit" from the band's 2003 LP Decoration Day. The song unfolds from the point of view of a father telling his musician son how to avoid becoming a house painter or winding up in some other low-paying, dead-end job. The song implies that the father views himself as a failure, but the advice he imparts to his son is wisely informed by poor-folks common sense and an existentialism that cuts like a razor.
"It's funny how that song has aged, at least for me," muses Isbell. "You get some big old Southern boys who take that song very seriously, then you get some hipsters who have a different take on it. Personally, I think it's interesting because, on the one hand, it's deadly serious, but on the other it's also got some humor in it if you take the time to look for it. I like that."
One of the most poignant songs on the new album is "Tour of Duty." Told from the point of view of a soldier recently returned from the current wars simply trying to reintegrate into society, it makes no attempt at trumped-up patriotism. There's no "boot up their ass" rhetoric, no jingoistic flag-waving, in lines like, "I will not exaggerate the glory."
The whole song is eminently quotable, filled with lines so everyday they almost don't call attention to themselves: "I've been eatin' like I'm out on bail / Collard greens and chicken wings / And oysters by the pail." At another point, the veteran matter-of-factly states, "I know I'm not the same as I was / I've done my tour of duty / Now I'll try to do what a civilian does."
"If you're my age and you're from this part of the country, you are bound to have friends who've served," says Isbell, 32. "And it seems to me you have to have respect for those people and you have to have some empathy for them for what they've done and how it has affected them, no matter what your politics or views on the war are.
"So many people in Alabama serve in the military, so that song is just a summation of things I hear and see around me when I'm home," he explains. "Parts of that song sprang from some stuff I overheard in my local bar. I'm always eavesdropping, looking for material that's real."
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