MUSIC BOX: Isbell turns a sober Southeastern leaf

By on September 3, 2013
Jason Isbell returns to Town Square Tavern with an impeccable new album. (Michael Wilson)

Jason Isbell returns to Town Square Tavern with an impeccable new album. (Michael Wilson)

JACKSON HOLE, WYO – The last time Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performed at Town Square Tavern, there was a liter-size bottle of Jack Daniels placed on Isbell’s guitar amp to start the show. That bottle would get passed around stage among band members, eventually emptied sometime in the middle of the second set. The music grew more intense, with heavier grooves and the band improvising at length. There’s no doubt that the audience was experiencing something with this man and his band that would need to change. To borrow from “New Speedway Boogie” by The Grateful Dead, “this darkness has got to give.”

And it did. It was announced almost immediately following the tour that Isbell had decided to enter rehab for alcohol. He lost 40 pounds, got married to fiddle player and singer-songwriter Amanda Shires (who sometime tours with him now), and began writing material for his latest release, Southeastern. But the transition into sobriety also came with reservations about how it would affect his personality and his creativity.

“The changes can’t all be good changes,” Isbell recently told NPR’s Terry Gross. “There’s got to be something that you’re losing there, some kind of potency, or humor even, or some sort of attractiveness … not only to the person you’re with romantically, but to your family, to your friends.”

As I spin Southeastern for the fourth time, the transposition of darkness to light becomes engrained. The delicacy of it all can be summarized in a line from the tune, Live Oak “There’s a man who walks beside me he is the man I used to be/and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me.”

The album deals bluntly and poetically with one’s inner demons and finding love at the end of that tunnel, the damaged perspective of having a close friend dying of cancer and finding peace within a world of stark temptation. I’ve come to respect Lucinda Williams in this way, when she is at her sharpest. This is a pure songwriter’s project, and in ways comparable to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker, constructed around an acoustic guitar and a voice. Isbell has literally laid it all out on the line.

Unforeseen is the uniformity of reviews from critics, many taking the angle that Isbell’s previous solo albums were decent but that Southeastern is the impeccable gem that will carry him towards Townes Van Zandt status. I don’t disagree with the praise for Southeastern, as it is especially personal and poignant, but to pull a blanket over Isbell’s previous works is shortsighted. He has been a flourishing troubadour since his days with Drive-by Truckers, a six-year stint during which he contributed eight original songs, including “Decoration Day” and “Outfit.” His first three solo albums, especially Here We Rest, also are memorable.

So it goes without saying that this upcoming show will be the beginning of a new era of 400 Unit shows in Jackson. The stage will even be in a different position than last time.

T. Hardy Morris of Dead Confederate, an Athens, Georgia, alt-country/grunge band with a strong following, will open the show with tunes from his debut solo effort, Audition Tapes. It’s unclear whether he will perform solo, or with a band.

Jason Isbell with T. Hardy Morris, 10 p.m., Friday at Town Square Tavern. $15. 733-2886;

About Aaron Davis

Aaron Davis is a decade-long writer of Music Box, a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, member of Screen Door Porch and Boondocks, founder/host of Songwriter’s Alley, and co-founder of The WYOmericana Caravan.

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