Dress Blues

After five years riding with the Drive-By Truckers, Jason Isbell is finally in the driver's seat, behind the wheel of his own rig. No hard feelings, he says from the road during his first week supporting his outstanding solo debut, Sirens of the Ditch. Since former bandmates Patterson Hood, Shonna Tucker and Brad Morgan each perform on Ditch, as rote as it sounds, the split truly is the result of creative differences.

"I know that's kind of a cheesy way to put it," Isbell admits. "I mean, everybody says that, but sometimes it's really true. I think if you listen to my songs on A Blessing and a Curse, especially the songs of mine that didn't make that record, it's pretty obvious that I was going in a little bit of a different direction, and it was probably a little cleaner than what they wanted to go in and maybe a little bit more produced."

Indeed. Isbell, who joined the Truckers in time for 2002's Southern Rock Opera tour, has always seemed slightly out of step with the other guys. For the most part, the tunes he wrote were far less gritty and raucous than those of counterparts Hood and Mike Cooley. While songs like "The Day John Henry Died" fit rather seamlessly, others such as "Goddamn Lonely Love," "Danko/Manuel" and "Outfit" were decidedly more conscious and incisive.

Isbell's contributions were fewer than Hood's and Cooley's, but in many fans' eyes, he steadily emerged as a talented songsmith deserving his own vehicle. He eventually reached the same conclusion.

"It's hard as a writer," he points out, "when you have a vision that's fairly complete, of how you want songs to be recorded and how you want them to sound, it's hard to really collaborate with anybody. I mean, [DBT] never wrote together. Usually the person who wrote the song was the person who made a lot of the decisions as far as arrangements and production. So I don't know that it was stifling, but it was kind of like painting half of a picture and then giving it to somebody else to finish.

"It's not all that different," he goes on. "I mean, I still have the same purpose when I write a song, which is pretty much to teach myself how I feel about a certain thing."

In the process of such reflection, he's also developed a remarkable knack for conveying how many others feel about things like the current war. Sirens' de facto centerpiece "Dress Blues" eulogizes Matthew Conley, a Marine corporal from Isbell's hometown of Greenhill, Alabama. Conley died exactly one week before his 22nd birthday, just two days before he was slated to ship home from Iraq for the birth of his daughter. When Conley was laid to rest in Greenville a week later, the whole town was shaken. The Tuscaloosa News reported that after Conley's memorial at his former high school, the funeral procession stretched 15 miles to the cemetery.

"It was really a big, big deal," Isbell recalls. "In a larger city, you don't know everybody, I guess. Something like that might not affect the whole area the way it does a small town. I don't think people necessarily really realize the implications of war until something like that happens in their backyard."

Avoiding the usual heavy-handed, partisan fist-shaking, Isbell adroitly tempers his own political ideals on "Dress Blues," instead focusing on the underlying humanity, making the song resonate even deeper. (However, lines like "What did they say when they shipped you away / to fight somebody's Hollywood war?" make it pretty clear where he stands.)

"Dress Blues" may be the highlight, but Sirens has plenty of other captivating moments. Opening track "Brand New Kind of Actress" showcases Isbell's poppier leanings, while "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades" finds him swaggering soulfully atop a piano-heavy vamp. Isbell courts a slinky come-hither groove on "Try," his croon evoking Glenn Frey. Other standouts include "Chicago Promenade," a tribute to Isbell's late grandfather, and "Grown," his reflection on a momentous coming-of-age crush. Despite such seemingly salacious lines as "Oh, oh, you made me feel so grown," Isbell insists that the song is innocuous.

"She was older, but we were both little kids," he remembers. "And nothing actually ever really happened, you know, sexually or anything like that. I was too young to really be concerned with that at that point. But I had a really big crush on her, and she was a huge Prince fan. She would play Prince records for me all the time when I was a little kid, because nobody else would listen to them with her."

As innocent as those encounters were, Isbell's libido eventually kicked in, thanks to an album from his dad's record collection.

"Queen had a picture of a bunch of naked girls on bicycles on the inside sleeve, so I liked that a whole lot," he confesses. "They finally had to take the liner notes away and burn 'em. I would just sit and stare at it all the time. I wouldn't do anything else. They let me keep the record, though."

Isbell says his dad's love of '70s arena rock and classic country is chiefly responsible for the tenor of his songs. Although his folks weren't particularly musical, just about everyone else in the family was. Soon Isbell was spending all his time playing guitar, which proved to be a good distraction when his folks split up just as he was becoming a teenager.

"[The divorce] definitely made me focus a whole lot more on playing guitar and listening to rock and roll records," he says. "That's for sure. I spent a great deal of time in those days sitting in my room playing guitar, ten or 12 hours a day every day for years."

By age 15, Isbell was performing regularly with several bands — one included Chris Tompkins, cowriter of Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats" — and at the Grand Ole Opry. A few years later, in Muscle Shoals, he met Patterson Hood and struck up a friendship that resulted in the pair performing together solo for a spell. Hood eventually extended an invitation to join the Truckers.

Three albums, one divorce — Isbell recently split with Trucker bassist Tucker — and thousands of touring miles later, Isbell is essentially starting all over again, but he doesn't quite see it that way. The road, he notes, has already been paved.

"I mean, I'm not starting from scratch," Isbell concludes. "I have a fan base that listened to the Truckers, and I feel like a lot of those people are now coming to our shows and buying our record. So wherever I go, I've probably been there before."

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit perform Wednesday, August 15, at Walter's on Washington, 4215 Washington, 713-862-2513. Centro-Matic is also on the bill.

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Dave Herrera
Contact: Dave Herrera