When old Truckers leave the big rig behind, they apparently wind up in the loony bin—or at least the namesake for one, as in the case of Jason Isbell. Once a third of the triple guitar assault and songwriting juggernaut of nouveau Southern rockers Drive-By Truckers, Isbell stepped away from that band two years ago and subsequently dubbed his new outfit the 400 Unit after a mental treatment facility in Florence, Alabama, where he lives.
Read what you will into that. In fact, Isbell long ago moved on, even peering in the rearview mirror at DBT (which still features ex-wife Shonna Tucker on bass) with a certain fondness. "I'm still really proud of everything we did," Isbell says, reached by phone while traveling across the Arizona desert. "But there were some times there when I was angry and they were angry. That's all wore off now. There's been a lot of distance and a lot of time."
Indeed, Isbell released his second post-DBT album, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, in February. He and the band—keyboardist Derry deBorja, guitarist Browan Lollar, bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble—have been on the road since, and will arrive at the Turf Club on Wednesday. While Isbell's first solo effort, Sirens in the Ditch, was recorded over an extended period while he was still with the Truckers and had a decidedly DBT feel, the new one is a more declarative statement of independence. It continues to showcase Isbell's trademark literary, character-driven songs and an array of Southern musical artifacts, but also adds modern pop inclinations, crafty arrangements, and studio wizardry, subtly layering tracks with surprises ranging from skittish horns to judicious distortion.
"The biggest difference was the fact that we'd all been playing together for a couple of years before we went in to record," Isbell says. That allowed the group to work quickly, flesh out arrangements together, and experiment with a wider palette of sounds. "On Sirens I dictated more of what everybody played typically and how the parts should go. This record I let everybody do what they wanted to do as far as arranging the songs and what specifically they were gonna play."
The studio also was packed with "producer- and engineer-type folks," he says. "So we had a lot of ideas as far as making the record sonically interesting. That was very important. I really like making headphone records, so the 10th or 12th listen you hear something different."
The lead track, "Seven Mile Island," rides a swampy groove through Skynyrd-esque descending piano figures, Allmans-like bass rumble, gospel claps, and unsettled slide while Isbell's soulful drawl drifts amid gathering clouds of aural intrigue. The languid "Sunstroke" conjures a dark majesty that trails bitterness into an ominous storm of noisy dissolution. "Good" is a hard-charging, Tom Petty-like rocker whose raging guitars veer into dissonance. "No Choice in the Matter" is classic Muscle Shoals soul, complete with tinkling piano, wiry guitar, and bristling horns. And "Cigarettes and Wine" is pure honky-tonk, Isbell's vocals suggesting John Prine covering Merle Haggard.
"I didn't necessarily do that on purpose," he says, laughing. "But I'll take that any day. I didn't really want to put a country song on this record. It just came out that way."
The sessions took place at Muscle Shoals' storied FAME studios, where numerous hits by the likes of Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, and Wilson Pickett were cut in the 1960s. "There's a heritage of soul music that's come out of that area and come out of that studio. It felt like a natural fit. All of us are pretty heavily influenced by a lot of the music that was made there."
Isbell grew up a few miles north in Green Hill, just shy of the Tennessee line. "When I first started playing in local clubs and bars I started meeting a lot of people who played on those records, and I became infatuated with it." He also absorbed the classic Southern rock of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, which eventually became a Truckers touchstone, although Isbell says he was far more influenced by it than the others were. "A lot of people made that assumption because of Southern Rock Opera, but really most of their musical background came from a more punk-rock aesthetic. Patterson [Hood] especially spent far more time listening to the Replacements than Skynyrd."
Isbell wound up at the University of Memphis studying music and creative writing, which is amply evident in his songs. His lyrics drip with Faulknerian traits, including acute sense of place, although the new songs are less draped in Spanish moss in favor of a more universal tack.
"I didn't do that on purpose," he says. "I'm just trying to write as personally as I can."
Ironically—or not—for a band linked to a madhouse, psychological issues dominate Isbell's pieces. The Iraq war vet in "Soldiers Get Strange" suffers from post-traumatic stress. Other characters struggle with regret, failure, alienation, feeling overwhelmed by life, or just trying to make sense of things. "Seems like the wisest thing at this point is kind of, throw your hands up and say, 'I don't know what's going on,'" he says.
"The people who I have the most respect for don't presume to know much of anything, really."
JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT will play with Justin Townes Earle on WEDNESDAY, APRIL 15, at the TURF CLUB; 651.647.0486