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He'd started cutting his first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, while he was still in the band. But after six years with the Truckers, and the disintegration of his marriage to Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker, it made sense to put together his own thing. He left the group officially in 2007.
That meant pretty much starting over. He and his new outfit, the 400 Unit, didn't even have a proper stage to play on for their first show — just a patch of floor roughly the size of a walk-in closet.
Bassist Jimbo Hart was one of the earliest 400 Unit recruits. He and Isbell had known each other since their high-school marching-band days. Hart had played cushier gigs as a sideman, but as he puts it, "For me, it was like, 'It's my friend,' and also I thought the weight of his writing and his substance basically was worth riding around in a van for a little while. Whereas before, you know, riding around in a bus and a plane playing some manufactured country stuff that I don't really know anybody that likes, that's tough."
The old 13-passenger standby was recently retired to Isbell and Shires' driveway, replaced by a far more bus-like, diesel-powered Sprinter van. Besides tours with John Prine and Ryan Adams, Letterman appearances, and all those Americana Award nominations, the transportation upgrade is one of the most tangible signs that things are growing.
At this point in the upending of the music industry as we know it, most people probably have either a grossly inflated, pie-in-the-sky notion of what success actually means, or they have no idea how anyone can still make a music career work. So here, for once, are some real numbers.
Rogers, of Lightning Rod — a label whose small yet impressive roster boasts Isbell, James McMurtry and Joe Pug — reports that Isbell's self-titled second album has sold 25,000 copies in the U.S. since 2009. In comparison, Here We Rest has already sold 30,000 in less than half the time. (In November, Isbell will add a live album to his Lightning Rod catalog.) By major label standards, those are throw-in-the-towel-type figures. But for an independent-minded Americana act like Isbell, they're affirmations of sustainability.
"He doesn't want to be a superstar," says Isbell's manager, Traci Thomas. "He just wants to make a nice living doing what he enjoys doing, which is writing songs and playing music. I think that's where he differs from some artists, because a lot of artists are out there and they want to be in the spotlight, and he's a little bit uncomfortable with that at times. He'd almost rather just be playing guitar, which a lot of people may or may not realize about him."
Separately, Thomas, Shires and Isbell each point out that he decided to give up drinking earlier this year so he could fully appreciate the experience of living his dream. He says, "It was like, 'Man, I actually want to remember this, this time. It's happened once before [with the Truckers], and I don't remember shit about it.' "
The dream, in his words, is "just to not go back to having a day job, be able to do this and hang out with people I hang out with and play music for a living."
As Diane Pecknold points out in the first chapter of Old Roots New Routes: The Cultural Politics of Alt.Country Music, one of the most visible dividing lines between Americana and mainstream country has to do with business paradigms. The sales goals and business models for roots music are explicitly smaller-scale, in a way that allows artists to take a proud stand on maintaining their creative and cultural credibility. It's not that Americana is uncommercial; it's just more modestly commercial — though the explosion of Mumford and Sons, The Avett Brothers and The Civil Wars has shown that it can catch on big-time.
"The older I get," Isbell says, "the more I think, 'Well, it's just a completely different job.' I mean, you can't compare what Gillian Welch is doing to what Carrie Underwood's doing. They're not trying to do the same thing at all. So I can't really say, 'Well, this has more value than that. To me, you know, what Gill's doing has more value, but that's just a personal opinion."
The difference between mainstream and outside-the-mainstream music-making came to the forefront in January, when Isbell tweeted that Dierks Bentley's single "Home" had ripped off his own ballad "In a Razor Town," from Sirens of the Ditch. Since Bentley's song had three co-writers, Isbell's side of the public debate took on the tone of an ideological battle between a roots underdog who labors on his own and a successful mainstream country guy who writes by committee.
Beyond the issue of plagiarism — which Thomas says was resolved by a musicological expert "who determined that there were not enough similarities to be an issue" — it was an occasion for Isbell to champion the aesthetic worth of the discernible, distinctive, individual voice.
"You're not gonna get a real good picture of somebody's mom if 10 people paint it," Isbell says. "But, like I say, that's a different job. ... I don't want to hear what 10 people think about a love story. I don't give a shit. I want to hear what one person thinks about what happened to him."
One of the chief markers of authenticity in Americana is performers coming up with their own songs, and those songs sounding true and believable coming from their lips. On some level, it's about writing what you know, though for Isbell that doesn't take the form of strict autobiography.
He's transcended the no-prospects small town, but stayed in touch with that very real and very hemmed-in way of looking at the world. When Here We Rest came out, the accompanying PR bio emphasized that the songs grew out of him hanging out with down-and-out folks back home in Northern Alabama. In the songs, you could hear him examine the generally unexamined life, and reflect upon his characters' constricting immediate circumstances.
You've probably heard songs, even recently, that caricature, fetishize or whitewash the semi-rural working-class experience. But Isbell doesn't take those sorts of easy outs. According to him, the songs he's written about young guys who sign up to go to war because they have absolutely, positively no other way to get by — like "Dress Blues," "Soldiers Get Strange" and "Tour of Duty" — have gotten some of the best reactions, from all sorts of listeners, of anything in his catalog. And they're a far cry from either of the default positions of contemporary war songs: country's patriotism-on-steroids, or the anti-war posture struck by everyone from folkies to Green Day.
"People assume that you're either writing a protest song or a jingoist song, because that's usually what you get, in all honesty," Isbell says. "You either get, 'War is hell. There's no excuse for it.' Or you get, 'Put a boot up their ass.' And there's so much middle ground. Those two things don't really exist.
"The truth, I think, really lives in the individual stories, for me. Sometimes I do have a point that I want to make, and the best way to make that point is to tell a story about, 'OK, this is what happened to this person. You figure out how well it worked for them.' "
I was at Cleopatra it was awsoooooooooome
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