No ‘Rest’ for the working man: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit shine on a light on Southern struggles
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell knows when to speak his mind and when to listen while others speak theirs.
Take Twitter, for example — the social networking website is perfect for his dry wit and sardonic humor, and he’s amassed almost 20,000 followers who appreciate his 140-character insight and commentary. (A recent example: “Folks talking about what they would say to their 12 or 15 y.o. self. I wouldn’t hang out with that jackass long enough to tell him anything.”)
“It’s a real good platform for a smartass, that’s for sure,” Isbell told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview. “It’s perfect if you want to sit in the room and only participate in the conversation when you want to. I liked it right off the bat, because you don’t have to have two-way conversations, and you can make a statement that’s a non-sequitur. It’s a lot like being in a huge classroom, watching a video of everything in the world going on outside and continually making smartass comments.”
But when the time comes, as it did during the making of his 2011 release “Here We Rest,” he knows when to keep his mouth closed and his ears open. Because what he hears often has a way of becoming grist for the mill, allowing him to churn out three albums worth of songs (not counting his contributions to some of the best tracks by his old band, the Drive-By Truckers) that are perfect snapshots of the contemporary American South.
Good ol’ boys prone to trouble but unafraid of hard work, if only they could find some ... stoic veterans returning from overseas conflicts hoping a bucket of oysters and a plate of fried chicken will fill them up with enough happiness to tamp down the memories of what happened over there ... broken men, broken homes, broken lives, all clinging with desperate, clawed hands to the hope that the right woman, the right opportunity, or a run of good luck will turn things around ... these are the things in which Isbell traffics. On “Here We Rest,” he returned to his hometown of Muscle Shoals, Ala., and found that despite a career that’s blessed him with fans and critical accolades, not everyone back home had been so fortunate.
“I spent a lot of time around folks who get up and go to work every morning, do a lot of drinking when they get off and do a lot of talking,” he said. “I guess I was surprised by the fact that it’s hard to find a sympathetic ear these days. It seems like a few years ago, and it may have been because I was a little bit younger, when somebody complained about losing their job or their wife or their pension or their insurance, it was something they could take to the bar and complain about and have people listen to them and pay attention, depending of course on their own personal disposition.
“Now, it seems like the person next to you almost always has a story like yours that’s as bad, if not worse. It’s hard to find sympathy these days. And I don’t spend a whole lot of time with folks when I’m on the road, but I do get the sense that it’s that way everywhere, whether it’s a big city or a small town. I think a lot of people are dealing with the same issues, that it seems like the greed of a few people has really won out at this point.
“I don’t think a lot of folks understand why the economy is the way it is or why they lost their job, and I don’t know if I understand it completely, but what it looks like to me is that a lot of greed coming from a few people has really had a huge affect on everybody else,” he added. “And I think that sense of not knowing and not understanding is a really tough thing for some people to get used to.”
The frustrations of the those in the South walking the poverty line like a tightrope has been within easy reach of Isbell, dating back to before he joined the Truckers in time for that band’s landmark 2003 record, “Decoration Day.” He left the group after the release of 2006’s “A Blessing and a Curse,” and during his tenure, his voice and his songwriting made the Truckers a better band.
Shortly after leaving the Truckers, he released “Sirens of the Ditch,” an album that had been in the works for a couple of years prior to that. It took everything he did so well with the Truckers — particularly his songwriting and his world-weary vocals — and showcased just how instrumental he was in the band’s rise to the status of Southern rock darlings. A few years later, he put together a backing band, 400 Unit, and released an album by the same name, tapping into the soul-gospel sound made famous in his hometown during 1960s recording sessions by artists like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett and blending it with the country-rock muscle of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Here We Rest” ups the ante on all of that. The Americana Music Association recently announced the 2012 nominees for the Americana Honors & Awards ceremony, scheduled for Sept. 12 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville; based on the strength of “Here We Rest,” the album and the band are up for Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, Song of the Year and Duo/Group of the Year. Despite it all, however, he’s not selling out arenas or stadiums; he’s not charting No. 1 hits on Billboard, and he’s not best pals with guys like Kenny Chesney.
In other words, he’s not rich. He’s getting by and being paid to do what he loves, but it’s not so difficult to identify with the workingmen and women that populate his songs, because while he may not punch a time clock in a factory or flip burgers in the kitchen of a diner pushed up against Highway 72, it’s not hard for him to imagine himself doing so.
“I think not being incredibly successful financially has helped that a lot,” he said with a chuckle. “I would love to have more money, but at the same time, it’s hard to write about working-class folks when you’re not one. Some artists start out that way, but then they’re not one of those people anymore, and they forget. My closest friends and family are still dealing with those issues. They’re middle-class folks at best, and I spend a lot of time listening to what’s going on in their lives.
“My dad talks about people’s intellect, about how somebody whose intelligence only goes so far can’t even comprehend what it’s like to be more intelligent than they are. I think that makes sense in a lot of cases; if somebody’s got 50 IQ points on you, then you don’t have any concept how intelligent they really are, and money works that way, too. So many people go about their daily routine and see that the mail is still coming and other people are getting up and going to work, and they’re asking, ‘Why am I not doing these things?’
“They don’t understand it, and they don’t know why they don’t understand it,” he added. “It’s just really difficult, but it seems like the last time I was there, things seems to gradually be getting a little bit better.”