It seemed a bit odd to be talking to Jason Isbell on Memorial Day.
Lonesome, Onry and Mean had just watched a YouTube clip of Isbell doing "Dress Blues," his tribute to a high-school friend who died in Iraq. And with a daughter who did her tour of duty in Afghanistan, LOM didn't even have to listen to "Tour of Duty" from Isbell's current album, Here We Rest, because that song is filed in our brain like a computer-chip implant and may never leave us all the rest of our days.
To anyone who knows Isbell's catalog, it's obvious he won't be writing any jingoistic Top 40 flag-wavers threatening to put his boot in someone's ass. So what separates Isbell from the pandering jerk-offs who use their plastic patriotism to sell records at Walmart? He writes for the art, not the money.
Calling from a van in Wisconsin, Isbell says quite simply, "I haven't been in a conflict, I've never served, so all I can do is try to make sense of it from a personal level, try to put into words the effects that war or the death of a loved one have on people and communities."
Isbell, who plays Summer Fest Sunday, notes that "one of the things about writing songs like 'Tour of Duty' is that you have to listen carefully."
"I try to listen hard to what people are saying and get from that what it is that affects them a certain way and why that is," Isbell explains. "I just try to make sense of these things and hopefully write something that resonates."
With Here We Rest, Isbell has truly come into his own as one of Americana's top songwriters, along with Lucinda Williams, Hayes Carll and a handful of others who have moved the literate bar ever higher.
"Yeah, I really dig Hayes and that 'KMAG YOYO' song," says Isbell. "He has that rare ability to be funny about serious stuff, and that's such a fine line for a writer."
Aside from studying writing in college, Isbell notes that he reads a lot and, "I just fell in with some songwriters early on who I admired and tried to learn from them."
"I like songs that tell stories and that are conversational," says Isbell, who did a stint in Drive-By Truckers before setting off on his own.
"And I like to make albums," he explains. "I always hope when I write a batch of songs and go into record that by the time we are done we could put the thing out on vinyl, with a Side A and Side B, and that the whole thing hangs together like that."
While it contains a few solid Isbellian rockers like "Never Could Believe" and "Go It Alone," Here We Rest is, for the most part, somewhat of a departure for Isbell, a quiet, folksy album filled with deep hurt and much loneliness. Is the less rocking, more acoustic style a permanent change?
"I try not to run away from a country song if one comes along," he explains. "I don't want to take a song like 'Alabama Pines' or 'Codeine' and force it to be a rock song for no reason. Nothing is permanent about how we arrange and produce records."
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit play Free Press Summer Fest at 5:35 p.m. Sunday, June 5, on the 29-95 stage. See freepresssummerfest.com for more information.
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