Friday, September 4, 2009

Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit Exclusive (but not really)

Note: This is a repost of an article published in the Columbia, SC Free Times, penned by our own Drew Harkins. So while in no arguable way is this exclusive, we'd like to point out that Drew interviewed the talent, and was compensated for the article. (Not by us...what a silly concept.) At any rate, here's the finely crafted article, on the subject of HSW favorite Jason Isbell.


If you think about it, sometimes Jason Isbell didn’t really seem so much a card-carrying member of Drive-By Truckers as the rest. With all the post-Dixie apologizing going on, Isbell’s earnest homages to more subtle Southern influencers were often lost in the tribute-minded three-guitar shuffle.

Not to mention the age gap. Born in 1979, Isbell was in his britches “dancing to Purple Rain,” as he put it on his 2007 solo album Sirens of the Ditch, while former bandmates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley were coming of age. Merely taking a glance at his MySpace page might still betray his age: Witness Isbell alternately in Kanye West-style shutter shades and wearing a rockabilly-style, pomaded pompadour, allowing a visual insight to his juxtaposition.

Isbell’s oeuvre is unique in that it’s inspired by a proud recording tradition but reflects modern realities. Stax and Volt records, Otis Redding inflections and outspoken tributes to The Band (Danko/Manuel on the Truckers’ Dirty South) are channeled along with poignant reflections on post-traumatic stress disorder, politics and of course, women.

To think of him another way, Isbell demarcates a new Southern social dividing line. Too young to have ever known of Atlanta as anything other than a sprawling metropolis, too far removed from sharecropping and too plugged in to his MacBook, Isbell and his generation are already ex-pats via the Internet, rather than in the Thomas Wolfe sense.

And in terms of modern music stratification, though imaginably precocious, Isbell was still too young to have witnessed the dawning of the No Depression era, which leaves him in the unenviable position of straddling the self-awareness that plagues the genre. Witness the deft post-modern positioning of the song “Outfit,” his center-stage debut with Drive-By Truckers, a roman-a-clef in which a young musician’s redneck father reminds him of his roots and admonishes him to not let rock stardom get to his head.

Now at the helm his own 400 Unit, the baby-faced Greenhill, Ala., native (who, in my humble opinion, sort of favors another famous Southerner: a young Bill Clinton) prefers to pay respects to his bluesy-soul Muscle Shoals roots on his band’s eponymous debut, proffering his own vision of The New South as a post-W., Gen-Y wasteland, posthumously disaffected yet distinctly in debt to generations before it.

While Sirens of the Ditch was a solo affair, backed by members of Drive-By Truckers among others, Isbell implemented his full touring band in the recording process of Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit. The outfit features a few members of other prominent touring acts, including Derry DeBorja, recently of Son Volt fame. But don’t call them hired guns.
“The whole band has known each other for a long time,” said Isbell from his home in Alabama. “I could’ve hired a bunch of folks from Nashville and been a solo artist, but I like to travel and play with people that I know.”

Not to say that Music City isn’t paying attention. He recently defected from New West Records to Tennessee’s Lightning Rod Records, a small label home to a few other Nashville stalwarts such as Larry McMurtry.

“They’re really focusing on the project,” Isbell says. “They’re a small label and don’t have too many irons on the fire. So I get lots of hands-on attention.”

When asked about another deviation from the genre’s couture trappings, his affinity for Burberry and Italian loafers and how he affords them as a modestly successful artist, Isbell says, “I could either [sell a lot of records] or just have good friends at Christmastime.”

Last but not least, there’s another affliction that plagues not only the South, but the alt-country minefield as well. I came of age with a guy who grew up in the Rust Belt, but once removed to the Carolinas, fancied himself a real redneck, relentlessly stressing his working-class affectations and purposefully mangling any pop-culture references so as to seem a bit more bumpkin.
I am no longer friends with that guy, and I really can’t imagine that Isbell would be either.

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