Jason Isbell came to fame during six years as a young upstart member of the Alabama-bred/Athens-based rock band Drive-By Truckers. But since going solo in 2007, and particularly on his past two albums with the 400 Unit, Isbell has taken his music to another level.
Isbell won song of the year for “Alabama Pines” at the 2012 Americana Music Awards, plus three other nominations. And his 2011 album with the 400 Unit, “Here We Rest,” garnered the widest critical acclaim and best chart showing of his career.
Isbell and the 400 Unit will celebrate the Nov. 20 release of the band’s first full-length live album, “Live From Alabama,” with a show Nov. 23 at the Buckhead Theatre.
We caught up with Isbell on the phone last week from Athens, where he was in the studio working on a new album that his fiancee, Amanda Shires, is recording
Q: It seems you’ve made a few changes lately. How are you feeling?
A: I quit drinking about nine months ago and that’s been good. It’s been really good. I had to get used to playing live and getting up in front of people without drinking. But once I got over the nerves, it was fine. I like it a lot now.
Q: On the subject of playing live and your new album, what do you think about live albums in general?
A: You know, I’ve gotten a lot out of some of them, but I don’t like live albums that are doctored in the studio. I like live albums to really do the same thing that studio albums do, in that they document a certain period of time and a certain group of people.
Q: Is it difficult knowing it’s a live one-take thing?
A: It’s kind of nerve-wracking being up onstage and knowing you’re being recorded for an album. But with the right band, you’re comfortable enough playing things that you’ve played a million times before. You’ve got to have some players to pull it off, and I’m lucky to have those kind of guys.
Q: You don’t usually make set lists, so how did you pick the songs for this album?
A: We recorded over two nights, and I listened to everything and picked what I thought we played best and sounded best on. It was as simple as that, really. As far as the order, I tried to keep the general pace intact, because we do tend to fall into patterns of intensity as the night goes on.
Q: The old Candi Staton song “Heart on a String” is a pretty inspired cover, going back to the kind of soul music that was recorded in your area of northern Alabama in the ’60s and ’70s.
A: It’s a really good song. You know, we recorded it for our last studio record. I’d never put a cover on a studio record before but I feel like that song is so overlooked, like a lot of stuff from that period, like Bettye LaVette and Ann Peebles. I’ve seen Candi recently, and she still has a great voice.
Q: The title of the album also sort of stakes out your roots. Beyond the obvious stuff, how has your songwriting been shaped by your home state?
A: I guess it goes into more than just creative output. It’s just the person I am. I’m fairly educated compared to a whole lot of people from the South. And a little bit more liberal, as far as my beliefs. But at heart, I’m a country person, so the music I make is going to have that kind meaning, even if it’s straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll.
Q: So what you hear in your songs and see onstage is you?
A: I try to be honest with my audience. When you’re onstage, you’re always a little bit of a different person, but I still try to present myself in my songs as honestly and as clearly as I can. I don’t ever want to be known or get popular for something other than who I am.
Q: But you seem to be able to get to the thoughts and feelings of other people, too.
A: It’s important to be able to pay attention to the details. I was reading an interview with Laurie Anderson one time, and they asked her if she could have any super power, what would it be. She said, empathy. I thought that was a really great answer to that question. I think that’s really what art does and what music does best, is try to give insight into what somebody else’s life is like.
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