When Jason Isbell was recruited to play guitar for the Drive-By Truckers early in this decade, he was a recent college grad joining an established band. He was expected to be a bit player. The Truckers were in the midst of promoting their long-gestating, Lynyrd Skynyrd-referencing concept album Southern Rock Opera and needed a third guitarist to replace departed Rob Malone and help emulate the classic Southern rock band's multi-guitar attack. Isbell settled in beside longtime bandmates Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and hit the road.
"I don't think they meant to add me as a singer-songwriter," Isbell, who left the band this spring to embark on a solo career, says now. "They meant to add me more as a guitar player and found out along the way that I also wrote and sang."
Did he ever.
Isbell ended up providing eight songs across the three Drive-By Truckers albums he appeared on, including the poetic, locomotive "The Day John Henry Died," a retelling of the John Henry legend that morphs into a bitter class-conscious anthem ("When John Henry was a little bitty baby nobody ever taught him how to read/But he knew the perfect way to hold a hammer was the way the railroad baron held the deed"), and "Danko/Manuel," an impressionistic ode to the onetime Band mates.
On the band's career-best 2003 album Decoration Day, the newly added Isbell penned the title track, a modern folk ballad about a Hatfields/McCoys-style family feud from the perspective of someone who'd rejected it. But it was his first appearance on the album that was most memorable. Isbell's "Outfit" — the first of his songs most Drive-By Truckers fans ever heard — instantly became one of the band's most beloved titles. The song is written in the voice of a father giving rueful advice to his adult son (presumably Isbell), and the details are so perfect and lived-in that it's hard to believe that they aren't autobiographical: "Then hospital maintenance and tech school, just to memorize Frigidaire parts/But I started missing your mama and I started missing you too/So I went back to painting for my old man/I guess that's what I'll always do." The song climaxes with a sad father-to-son warning: "Don't let me catch you in Kendale with a bucket of wealthy man's paint."
A product of the same musically rich Muscle Shoals, Alabama, region as Truckers Hood and Cooley, Isbell says he met the band through their then road manager Dick Cooper and Hood's father, renowned studio musician Dave Hood.
"I spent a year hanging out with Patterson, playing acoustic shows, and then when the spot opened up, I went out on the road with them," Isbell says.
Hood and Cooley had been on the road and in recording studios together for more than a decade by that point, first in the band Adam's House Cat, then in the Drive-By Truckers. But Isbell says it wasn't hard to find his place alongside such a close relationship.
"They were very open to letting me do what I needed to do at that point," Isbell says. "They knew that I was going to be writing a lot of songs, and they knew that I was going to be working on this solo record before I even started in the band. Patterson already knew that I had a lot of songs and liked them, and I think that was more important than anything else — getting a lot of good quality material on the records."
But the partnership wasn't meant to last. Isbell had always wanted to be a solo artist and, more than a decade younger than Hood and Cooley, had different goals.
"I don't think they wanted to spend quite as much time on the road anymore," Isbell says. "Patterson and Cooley both have kids and families. They didn't want traveling to be a top priority, and I wasn't going to ask them to do that. We all decided, pretty much together, that it was time for it to happen. They're moving in a new direction musically. And I had this record and wanted to put a lot behind it."
The record is Sirens of the Ditch, Isbell's solo debut, which will be released next month. On it, Isbell continues the Southern rock sound the Truckers are known for, but he expands his palette with dabs of swamp rock, blues, and torch-song soul.
"Once I got the songs, I think that [Southern sound] was part of keeping the continuity of the record," Isbell says. "Especially considering how long it was between the time I started the record and the time I finished it. I spent maybe a total of two or three weeks in the studio, but that was over the course of two or three years because we were traveling so much."
Isbell embarks on a full tour in support of the album next month but has a few warm-up gigs first, including this week at the Hi-Tone Café. Isbell has played just about every rock-band venue in town in recent years as the Truckers evolved from performing for 20 people at the Hi-Tone to filling the New Daisy, but his relationship to Memphis goes deeper than that: Isbell is a University of Memphis graduate, having traveled from north Alabama on scholarship to attend the U of M from 1997 to 2001.
"I just liked the town," Isbell says of his choice, though he says he didn't get very involved in the local music scene at the time. "I wanted to go somewhere where I didn't know anybody. [Memphis] was just far enough away that I didn't have to see anybody from home that I didn't want to see, but it was still close enough that I could get back if I needed to."
Jason Isbell & the 400 UnitWith Brad Bailey and Kyle Kiser
The Hi-Tone Café
Thursday, June 21st
Doors open at 9 p.m.; tickets $10