Interview: Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell chats songwriting, his C.F. Martin & Co. collection and finding a place to call home

It's cold and rainy in Nashville, but Jason Isbell is still battling his allergies.

At 36, he's come a long way from the tyro guitar-slinger who propelled the Drive-By Truckers into full, three guitarist Lynyrd Skynyrd mode in 2001. He's a dad now, too – his wife and musical soul-mate, Amanda Shires, gave birth to Mercy Rose last summer – but family responsibility and an increasing tendency, of late, to explore his acoustic roots isn't slowing him down.

"When you're on the road as much as we are," Jason says, between snuffles, "You're used to waking up every few hours, anyway. She [Mercy Rose] just fits right in."

Family features prominently in Isbell's musical story. He was born in Green Hill, Alabama in 1979 and grew up surrounded by guitar and fiddle-playing relatives. If he wasn't soaking the music up at home there was plenty coming from his local church and the bars and cafes of Lauderdale County, and it was the Alabama connection that led to that first big Drive-By Truckers break.

"We were all from the same home town. Patterson Hood [guitar and vocals, Drive-By truckers] was a few years older than me and I'd met his father first [bassist and founder of Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, David Hood]. The band had a space come open for another guitar player as they wanted that Skynyrd, 'three guitar attack' thing for touring the Southern Rock Opera album. It was initially meant to be a temporary gig but I started writing songs for the band and ended up sticking around for six years."

That connection to the legendary Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section acted as a major influence on the music Isbell played with the Drive By Truckers, though it had been prevalent all through his musical upbringing.

"What the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section were doing – and had done on so many hits – was a huge influence on all of us, and the great thing was, all those players were working in bars. When I was 16, 17, I watched them all the time. Every Friday night, some local band would have David Hood, Spooner Oldham or Donnie Fritts sitting in. David, in particular, didn't like touring much so you'd just go and see him playing in a restaurant. That's how I grew up. I suppose the time when I developed most as a musician was when I was staying with my friends in Muscle Shoals, just playing together and never really having a specific destination or purpose for it."

That sense of musical adventure manifests itself with Jason's penchant for collaboration, performing with Lynyrd Skynyrd on their live album One More For The Fans, and working with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Beck and Elizabeth Cook in recent times. The latter an homage to one of Jason's songwriting heroes, Townes Van Zandt.

"The Townes Van Zandt thing was originally done as a Christmas present for David Letterman, because we'd both been big fans of his for such a long time. There wasn't a lot of reason for it other than they're such beautiful songs. I was always a guitar player first, listening to the Allman Brothers, Queen, Free, bands like that with great lead guitarists, but when I really got into writing songs I started to delve into some of the great lyricists and Townes is right up there."

Among Jason's most frequent collaborations are those with his wife. The pair released a surprise EP Sea Songs in 2015, which included a cover of Warren Zevon's 'Mutineer'.

"My wife and I do that stuff a lot. Occasionally we'll play shows that way. She opens, then I play and then we play together. Finding those harmonies is a great way for two people to collaborate, to really get into the tradition of it. 'Mutineer' was Amanda's idea. She brought it out in a soundcheck. Zevon was heavily influenced by the Everly Brothers, and we figured it was made to be a duet even if that wasn't the way he did it."

Jason isn't afraid to cover tracks by classic artists – he has performed Van Morrison, BB King and Neil Young songs during his live shows – but it's a tool that he's keen to use sparingly.

"I might just do one cover every two or three shows as we've now got so much of our own stuff, thankfully, that people want to hear. I get disappointed seeing guys go out and play as many covers as they do original songs. I think, as an artist, you should stand on your own two feet."

Part of that process has been his unflinching attitude towards addressing the pressing social and political issues of the day – particular those in relation to his native Alabama. It's been fertile songwriting territory, which implies a level of comfort with tackling those issues…

"Actually, it's where I'm least comfortable so I figure that's what I should be doing. Creatively, there are different jobs. If you're making music to just sit in the background, that's one thing, or party music for going out on the weekend and dancing, yeah, that music needs to exist, for sure, but I'm not interested in that. I like to challenge myself and the listeners. I think a lot of people shy away from that because it might mean a smaller audience, but there are plenty of other people out there who get it – and want it – so I can have a career and still say the things I need to say. I get bored with things that don't challenge me, so, really, I'm trying to make the music that I'd want to listen to."

The new album, Something More Than Free, is a reflection of this attitude. It's packed with vignettes of working people's day-to-day struggle to salvage some dignity in difficult circumstances.

"The line in the title track, 'I'm just lucky to have the work', comes from something my Dad always used to say. He's only 19 years older than me and he still works really hard. I do try and stay close to the people I grew up with who maybe have a different lifestyle to the way mine is now. I'm not interested in writing about musicians or touring. The people who're most under-represented, at least in our society, are the people who work too hard for too little reward. My Dad spoke about how he'd love to go to church with the family on Sunday but, working the other six days of the week, he's too exhausted to get up and go. And he doesn't drink or smoke, either. It seems like that might be something worth writing a song about. Where I grew up, the only thing people have to be proud of is the fact that they work hard every day. They don't have wealth or social status. Calling somebody 'a good man' there is the equivalent of calling him a hard-worker."

The trials and tribulations of growing up in small-town America is a theme across the album, and it's most keenly realised on one of Somewhere More Than Free's stand-out tracks, 'Speed Trap Town'.

"It's a lot of people's favourite song on the album. I grew up half an hour outside Muscle Shoals and we even had to use the neighbouring town's post office. The ultimate point, in the fact that people think you're writing specifically about their town, is that in bringing out the things that strike you in a personal way, you have to find the little similarities that translate – you focus on the very particular to try and find something universal. If you keep your eyes open and focus on the right detail, you're going to make a connection with other people."

Like many songwriters aspire to do, Jason has relocated to Nashville, and is now in a position to travel the world performing his music and soaking up new cultures and ideas, but he's conscious of maintaining that 'universal' appeal his songs have.

"Nashville's a good place to be logistically. I like being close to where everything happens business-wise and to the band and crew. In terms of affecting the way I write songs, I don't think anything's changed that much but the main thing is that I really feel welcome here – even more than I expected. To be able to play four sold-out nights at the Ryman… I can't see that happening in any other town. Having said that, I'm not tempted to go out looking for more money or celebrity because I'm in a town full of rich country singers."

"I wrote the song 'Stockholm' in Stockholm," he adds, "so your work does get motivated and inspired by travel. But then, some nights all you have is a hotel room and your creativity isn't exactly shaken loose so you do have to work on it. We were in Austin, staying in a hotel where we soon realised the only part they'd put any work into, in regard to returning it to its former splendour, was the lobby. I was sitting in this cold room with just a piece of paper and a guitar trying to write a song and I couldn't come up with anything so I went back down to the lobby, wandered round looking at things and ended up finding the story, which became 'Flagship' on the new album. If you're serious about writing anything you don't sit around waiting for inspiration to appear. I like what [US artist] Chuck Close said: 'Inspiration's for amateurs – the rest of us just show up and get to work.' The motivation's the hard part."

That motivation is probably made easier by having a raft of stunning guitars to choose from. Jason is in luck on this front, with his love affair with the work of C.F. Martin & Co showing no sign of abating.

"I have the HD-28 as a back up these days, and a D-35 that was a custom build, but the one that I've been using since February is an 'authentic series' 1939 D-18. For a new guitar, it sounds amazing: it's loud, it projects, amplifies well and I'm really happy with it – especially seeing as they gave me one for my birthday!

"Dreadnoughts have always been it for me," he continues. "They fit my size and I like that volume. My grandfather played that type of guitar and his brothers did, too. We'd get together on Sundays at his house and everybody had a dreadnought. My great-uncle had a Martin but the rest of us could never afford one so we always had knock-offs. I've also got a couple of old Harmony-style arch-tops: a Western Auto True-tone and a Harmony 'Prep' with a humbucker on it that I used on 'Alabama Pines' and some Justin Townes Earle stuff."

What does the future hold for Jason?

"A lot of touring. As far as recording goes, Amanda's album is being mastered as we speak and should be out by spring. I love being back in the shadows, just playing the guitar, that's probably the one thing, apart from spending time with family, that I don't get to do enough of. Just being somebody else's guitar player."

So no ego, then. With an ever-growing back-catalogue of superb songs and an enviable mastery of both electric and acoustic guitar, Jason Isbell simply doesn't need it.