Friday, July 13, 2007

Drive By Truckers-Bryan Dunn Put me On to these Guys

Long Haul
Jason Isbell is just getting going
By Will Welch

The Drive-By Truckers aren’t for everyone. What they do is really specific, and raw, and some listeners find even the ragtag way the albums are recorded too off-putting. Yet it’s no mistake that the Truckers have, on many occasions (and not just in their own press releases), been called The Best Rock & Roll Band in America. It bears mentioning, too, that many who don’t love the Truckers have admitted to falling for one or two of the band’s songs, and in nearly every case those songs were written by the band’s youngest member: a cocksure guitar player, singer and songwriter named Jason Isbell.

For better or worse, the era of non-DBT fans with a soft spot for Isbell tunes like the immaculate blues lament “Goddam Lonely Love” or the redneck War of the Roses “Decoration Day” are suddenly over. This April, Isbell and the band “parted ways.” Conveniently, however, Isbell had spent some four years of spare time working on a solo record called Sirens of the Ditch, and it’s finally in stores this July.

If the Drive-By Truckers made their name on Patterson Hood’s songs that punkishly snatched listeners up, dropped them into Alabama and dragged them through teen-aged travesties, messy morality plays and gnarly relationships, Isbell’s songs stood out not only because of their pop framework, but also because he sang about what was going on around him without giving a guided tour. It was the difference between listening to a stranger with a great story and eavesdropping on someone updating his best friend on an ongoing saga. On Sirens of the Ditch, it takes a while before we realize that we’re a kid learning how to dance—and lust—in a neighbor girl’s bedroom. Or that we’re talking directly to the hometown kid who joined the Marines, but fell one nightmare tour short of living to see the birth of his first child. The emotional heft of each song is plain from the chords, tempos and peculiarities of Isbell’s unique pop-soul-country phrasings (it’s like old-fashioned rhythm & blues in that way); the stories, however, take some piecing together.

Isbell can tell you the personal events behind each tune, but what makes him a transcendent songwriter is that, as good as his performances of them are, the songs themselves are bigger than he is. You wonder if he couldn’t get rich by quitting the road and shopping them in Nashville, but immediately after his departure from the Truckers, he had a band together and was right back out on tour. Suddenly it’s apparent that he’s played on three Truckers albums, but is just now getting started, with something already to fall back on. Suddenly it’s apparent that the songs are so good, their context will never really matter.

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