“Cover Me Up,” the somber opening song on Jason Isbell’s latest album, Southeastern, includes this revealing lyric: “I sobered up and I swore off that stuff, forever this time.”
It’s nearly impossible to hear him sing those words and not take them as a first-person confession, for after years of heavy drinking, Isbell was compelled in early 2012 by his then-girlfriend (now wife) Amanda Shires to enter rehab. The impact on Southeastern, which he wrote the summer after getting clean, can’t be a coincidence — it’s the Alabama native’s best album since leaving Drive-By Truckers in 2007.
Isbell has long been one of our best songwriters, but Southeastern is especially affecting, the work of a newly reflective man who has only sharpened his ability to craft vivid, fully fleshed worlds within four-minute songs. And while his other post-Truckers’ solo work — 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch, 2009’s Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit and 2011’s Here We Rest — couldn’t help but showcase his seemingly effortless talents, Isbell has admitted the changes in his life have freed him of any expectations. He’s more relaxed, less reliant on the Americana/Southern Rock trappings that marked much of his previous work, which was often driven by his hard-partying ways.
But Isbell, speaking by phone from the Nashville home he shares with Shires (herself a successful singer/songwriter), cites another perk of sobriety.
“It makes the daytime a whole lot easier,” he says, laughing, his Southern twang much more prevalent than in his singing voice.
Isbell also points to a much more practical change when it came to recording Southeastern.
“In the past, I’ve at least been a co-producer, but I didn’t want to do that this time,” he says. “I didn’t want to keep making the same record over and over. I had talked about making the record with Ryan Adams, but we couldn’t get our schedules to work out. So I made it here in Nashville with Dave Cobb, and we have really similar ideas, similar visions and similar tastes, so it was a pretty easy process.”
In fact, ever the edgy, self-lacerating artist, he thought it might have been too easy.
“When the record was all done, I sort of looked back and thought, ‘Well, should I have been struggling more with this, should I have been punching holes in the wall,’ because you want to make sure you get the most out of the project,” Isbell says. “And if it’s that easy and that much fun, sometimes you think, ‘Well, maybe I should have been harder (on myself).’ But I think it turned out fine.”
Fine it is, but it’s also interesting to hear Isbell describe the recording process as fun given the more somber mood that pervades much of the new record. Several of Southeastern’s best songs are stripped-down, acoustic-driven slow-burners that showcase Isbell’s emotive vocals and deceptively simple language. An authentic ache illuminates such stark tunes as “Traveling Alone,” “Songs that She Sang in the Shower,” “Live Oak” and “Elephant,” which tells the story of his relationship with a terminally ill woman with piercing effectiveness.
“I think that just has to do with my tastes more than anything else,” Isbell says when asked about his ability write songs that seem both first-person specific and timeless at the same time. “I like those kind of songs. I like the kinds of things John Prine writes where they’re very simple but they open up into different meanings. I like conversational lyrics. I think Leonard Cohen at his best was very conversational.
“It might sound like a simple phrase when it comes out but there’s a lot of work put into getting it exactly right,” he continues. “I try to write in a way that you don’t really have to look anything up. I like the listener to feel like they’re being directly addressed, like they’re overhearing something in a bar or they’re just listening to some personal story.”
Isbell talks about the songwriting process with a kind of reverence, which is no surprise for a guy who grew up amid musicians down the road from Muscle Shoals, Ala., a town with an almost mythical musical reputation. He would go on to attend the University of Memphis, where he studied creative writing, immersing himself in the work of such authors as William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and Denis Johnson.
“I enjoy it when those things have that quality of poignancy,” Isbell says of his favorite writing. “Like when you stop and look up from a book you’re reading and think about the line you just read before you go on to the next one. I try to say things that are open to different meanings and things that sort of blossom. The more you listen to them, the more you think about them. That just comes from revision and from having the motivation to really write to your tastes, to not stop short of that. I try to put a lot of care into every word.”
It helps that he has a partner like Shires, whom Isbell married in February 2013. Her insistence that he get sober is but one way she has impacted his life and work. “Cover Me Up,” Southeastern’s previously mentioned opening track, seems to sum up her influence in following lines, which one can imagine Isbell delivering directly to Shires: “And the old lover’s sing/I thought it’d be me/Who helped him get home/But home was dream/One I’d never seen/’Til you came along.”
“As soon as all the songs were in any kind of state of completion, I would always play them for her first,” Isbell says. “She’s a good judge of those things. We keep a very creative house, the place is very friendly to writing and reading and doing those kinds of things. It’s just a good atmosphere for that. If you’re spending time with the right person, everything else in the world is easier.”