What longtime Truckers’ fans know, though, is that more than likely, there is no hidden story, no clandestine resentment or incendiary incident. We saw this coming for a while. Isbell has too many songs pouring out of him to be confined to two per album, and it’s hard to commit to promoting a solo project when you’re in one of the hardest-touring bands in the country.
Those expecting Sirens (co-produced by Patterson Hood) to be a Truckers’ record filled with Isbell songs will be disappointed. Gone are the crunchy guitars and relentless beats, and in their place is a casual soulfulness and rich power-pop hooks—though the subtle rootsiness and excellent storytelling remain intact.
Standouts include the heartbreaking “Dress Blues,” a simple ballad about a kid from Isbell’s high school who died in Iraq—“You never dreamed of bombs in the sand / and sleeping in your dress blues.” It’s a dirge tinged with politics, a young husband and father shipped off for “somebody’s Hollywood war.”
“The Magician” and “Shotgun Wedding” are examples of the classic story-songs Isbell does best—the girl he loves pregnant with another man’s child, a grifter lamenting his place in life. The piano-driven “Chicago Promenade” contains what could be the best line on the record, and perhaps an apt synopsis for Isbell’s decision to leave the Drive-By Truckers: “If I die now before I’m old / my story will be less than told.”
Scene: What kind of stuff were you playing before you joined the Truckers?
Isbell: I was living in Memphis during college. Part of the reason I moved out there was because Jeff Buckley was playing downtown every Tuesday night. The week I moved down there, he drowned. So I didn’t ever get to see him do that. I spent a little bit of time in the music scene, but mostly I was studying and going to school, doing a whole lot of reading and writing—songs and stories and poems and fiction, all kinds of stuff.
Scene: How did you end up joining the Truckers?
Isbell: The summer before my senior year of college I went back home and started spending a whole lot of time at a house that was owned by Scott Boyer, a songwriter, and Dick Cooper, who was working for a lot of bands at the time. I met Patterson [Hood] at that house. I also knew his dad before that—David, who had been a session player in Muscle Shoals for years and years, and still is. We did a few acoustic shows together for about a year, until the spot came open in the Truckers.
Scene: I’m sure it’s very hard to divorce making this record from the whole experience of being in the Truckers, but do you think that being in that band—
Isbell: Wow, you just used the word “divorce” in a completely different way than most people who interview me. I appreciate that. Sorry to interrupt you.
Scene: Ha, it’s OK. How do you think being in that band informed the kind of record that you made?
Isbell: That band had something to do with every aspect of my life. If you tour with the same people for five or six years, everything is gonna be influenced one way or another.
Scene: The record deals a lot with being on the road, and being away. Were you writing on the road or finding spare time at home to write?
Isbell: I was doing both. I write on the road, but not as much as I write at home. You’re kind of in survival mode when you’re on the road. You’ve got a whole lot of things you have to do, and a short amount of time to do ’em in. But yeah, I did write a lot of those songs while I was traveling—maybe half the record.
Scene: When I interviewed Patterson [Hood], he talked a lot about the difference between songs he wrote for the band and the songs he wrote on his own. He talked about how DBT was its own animal, and how it was very demanding.
Isbell: Yeah, it was always sort of obvious which songs belonged in which outlet, but I can’t really pinpoint why. I think anyone who’s listened to the Truckers enough realizes there are certain themes and certain sonic relationships between songs. It’s pretty obvious that a lot of the songs on this record wouldn’t have belonged there.
Scene: Something that I’ve always loved about Truckers records and that I love about this record is that there are a lot of cohesive themes that run throughout. On Sirens there are a lot of low places—ditches, holes—that clearly have a geographic power, but also a metaphoric power. I’ve always thought of that as a Southern thing, that idea of low places.
Isbell: There is an allegorical side to Southern storytelling that deals with a lot of that, a lot of those low places, because much of the South is disenfranchised, both geographically and culturally. I think that winds up finding its way into a lot of our work.
Scene: Obviously there’s a Southern influence in the lyrics, but also in the sound—though it’s a really different kind of Southern sound.
Isbell: Yeah, in a lot of ways I was trying to pay tribute to the music that’s been made in Muscle Shoals, Ala., over the years. There are a lot of different kinds of music that have been made down there, all with some sort of soulful feel. They all sound Southern, even if they were made by artists that weren’t from the South. I think “Wild Horses” sounds like a Southern song. Obviously those guys aren’t from Muscle Shoals.
Scene: There are clearly some political overtones on Sirens. “Dress Blues” expertly straddles the line between being a political song and simply being a song about something really sad that happened—I think that’s why it works so well. How long has that song been in the works?
Isbell: That one I wrote really, really quickly, early last year when all that went down. It might have taken me 25 to 30 minutes at the most to write that song.
Scene: Your guitar work on this record is a highlight. Was it fun not to have to share solos?
Isbell: Yeah, it was (laughs). I love playing guitar in the studio. It’s probably my favorite thing about recording records. So I got to mess around with a lot of different tones and different instruments and do some experimenting.
Scene: Did the deal with New West Records come pretty naturally, since they were already putting out the Truckers’ stuff?
Isbell: It took a little bit of work, because they didn’t know—and I didn’t know—exactly when the record was gonna come out and if I was gonna have the opportunity to put my full attention towards it. Things got a whole lot easier when I left the Truckers, because it was obvious that this was going to be my top priority.
Scene: What has your set been looking like on the tour?
Isbell: I do most of the songs from the record and then I do usually three or four songs that I wrote for the Truckers. We never do a set list so it depends on how the audience is working and how everyone is feeling that night. I think in Nashville we’ll have a few special guests for the show, so that should be fun.
Scene: Do you have new stuff in the works? You’ve clearly got a lot to write about.
Isbell: I have a bunch of new songs. I’m always writing. It’s gonna be fun making the next record—I don’t think it’s gonna be too stressful coming up with material.
There was a man named Jimmie Rodgers once.
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