Now more than two years sober, Jason Isbell is at the peak of his career. The former Drive-By Trucker released his best-received album yet, Southeastern, last summer, immediately receiving well-deserved fanfare as an instant classic of the alt-country genre. On Friday, May 9, Isbell will play in the scenic environs of the Alabama Theatre, a show that somehow hasn’t sold out at the time of this writing.
Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers at the age of 21, shortly after the band released Southern Rock Opera, an album still considered by many fans to be their magnum opus. Even in a band with a talent for maneuvering around ambiguity – not to mention embracing the curses that accompany the blessings of being a Southerner – Isbell stood out for storytelling that was as bleak as it was crisply detailed.
For instance, where bandleader Patterson Hood made a Norse saga out of the unlikely, doomed friendship between Ronnie Van Zant and Neil Young, Isbell took a darker, more ambivalent route with “Danko/Manuel” on 2004’s The Dirty South. Originally intended to be a tribute to the lives of the titular men within The Band’s team of rivals, Isbell’s song gradually evolved into an exploration of the unsettling familiarities between himself and self-destructive musician Richard Manuel – a man who, by the time he died, was drinking eight bottles of Grand Marnier a day, and who had cocaine in his system when he hanged himself.
For Isbell, who had become a full-fledged alcoholic and cocaine addict during his time with the Truckers, the resonance was more than a little frightening. Yet some of his most outstanding work, particularly “Goddamn Lonely Love” off the same record, evokes the temptations the bottle presents for the heartsick as well as Townes Van Zandt ever did. “Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” the song goes. “A man walks into a bar and leaves before his ashes hit the floor. Stop me if I ever get that far. … I could find another dream, one that keeps me warm and clean, but I ain’t dreamin’ anymore, girl – I’m waking up.”
After getting kicked out of the band for his out-of-control behavior, Isbell pursued a solo career that was marked by moments of greatness, like “Alabama Pines,” yet also highly inconsistent, thanks in no small part to his continued alcoholism. In 2012, after a stint in rehab, Isbell got clean. “I didn’t quit because of my damn liver,” Isbell told comedian Marc Maron in an interview. “I quit because I was intolerable, and because I was in pain.”
Since then, Isbell’s married longtime crush (and collaborator) Amanda Shires, and has now put out his best material yet with Southeastern. Like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, Isbell has a special talent for writing confessional songs that nevertheless aren’t quite autobiographical, inserting revealing details and observations into songs about outlaws and barkeeps.
Critically, the autobiographical elements manage to avoid sappiness or easy redemption arcs, as Isbell characteristically opts for ambiguity. “There’s a man who walks beside me; it is who I used to be. And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me,” Isbell sings on “Live Oak,” a tragedy about an antebellum outlaw that echoes all the existential doubt of Ira Louvin. Even in a time of happiness, Isbell is fully aware and clear-minded about how hard it is to live your past down.
The unsentimental, dark view of the world that was such a distinct part of Isbell’s work with the Truckers and in the murder ballads of his solo material shows up throughout Southeastern. In “Elephant,” a song about a bartender who watches a longtime patron waste away from cancer, Isbell concludes, “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me: no one dies with dignity.” Album highlight “Songs That She Sang in the Shower” is a worthy successor to “Goddamn Lonely Love,” a song about heartbreak that finds Isbell sighing, “Experience robs me of hope that you’ll ever return, so I breathe and I burn, I breathe and I burn.”
Other songs explore the nature of manhood and how having roots in a place can pivot between being a home and being a prison, depending on who’s waiting there for you. It’s here that the record blooms into full, hard-earned hopefulness. “Home was a dream, one I’d never seen, ‘til you came along,” Isbell sings on album opener “Cover Me Up,” a paean to Shires that is easily Southeastern’s sweetest moment. Even on an album full of songs about vengeance, loss and temptation, there’s still the belief that, with some help, you can find your way.
Isbell’s live performance puts the lie to the old chestnut that artists reach greater heights when they’re on drugs; his abilities as a performer have been in a different stratosphere in the last couple of years, whether he’s performing gorgeous ballads or Springsteenian crowd-pleasers like “Outfit.” He may not be Alabama’s greatest songwriter yet, but with each new album, with each new performance, he strengthens his claim to the title.