If Jason Isbell is not yet a household name, he is at the top of the list when one mentions “Americana” these days. New West Records, likely wishing he was still on their roster, is smart enough to capitalize on Isbell’s success and take us back 11 years to Isbell’s first solo album after leaving the Drive-By Truckers, Sirens of the Ditch. While Isbell’s voice is more robust these days, self-attributed to sobriety, his knack for songwriting was clearly apparent from the start. It was an effort to reflect the sound of his hometown, Muscle Shoals, and he succeeds brilliantly, oozing his own brand of soul with the original eleven plus four new never-before-issued tracks from the sessions at FAME.
Co-produced by Isbell and DBT co-front man Patterson Hood, Isbell sings lead and plays hard-hitting guitar throughout. He’s joined by his former bandmates Shonna Tucker on bass, Brad Morgan on drums and Hood on guitar. Muscle Shoals veterans Spooner Oldham and David Hood (Patterson’s dad) come aboard for “Down in the Hole.”
Keep in mind that Isbell was in his young twenties at the time, reveling in a decadent lifestyle as opposed to the sober husband and father he is today. You’ll sense it in the listen. The Southern characters and subject matter, so closely associated with the Drive-By Truckers, is sometimes evident but as Jason says, “… The songs are more hook-oriented and they’re not necessarily as story-driven.”
Nonetheless, among several excellent tracks, two are downright stunning. “Dress Blues” is written about a Marine from Isbell’s hometown who served and died bravely in Iraq. Accented by John Neff’s (formerly DBTs) weeping pedal steel, this is one of the most haunting Iraq- based tunes on any record with its memorable chorus – “You never planned on the bombs in the sand or sleeping in your dress blues.” Pre-Katrina New Orleans is the backdrop for the soulful blues ballad, “Hurricanes and Hand-Grenades” showcasing both Isbell’s heartfelt vocals and stinging guitar. Other notable cuts include the passionately delivered “Try”, the ode to his musician grandfather, “Chicago Promenade”, and the politically charged closer, “The Devil is My Running Mate.” Those are some of the originals, all remastered in this Deluxe Edition.
Now, here’s what you’re most curious about – the new songs. Patterson Hood wrote “The Assassin,” a tune you may still hear in Isbell’s live shows. It’s been released digitally as has the slide-driven “Crystal Clear,” a bitter warning about the perils of crystal meth, and “Whisper,” a slow burner in the mode of “Outfit” from his DBT days. The one that’s been held back, “Racetrack Romeo,” is an Oldham piano shuffle propelled by Morgan’s incessant beat for Isbell’s tale about a relationship gone bad.
There are countless songwriting workshops and courses, but it was evident as soon as Isbell wrote “Danko/Manuel,” “Decoration Day” and others for the Truckers that he was a special talent with an innate songwriting gift that cannot be taught. This, his first solo effort, is further proof, laying the foundation for the remarkable lyrics he is writing a decade later.