Freed from the “Southern Thing”: Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, April 18 at RIBCO Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 15 April 2009 06:05

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

As part of the three-headed songwriting monster of the Drive-by Truckers, Jason Isbell was overshadowed by Patterson Hood's grim, vivid, and vernacular Southern tales sung with an inimitable, scorched voice that could become a haunting howl.

That says more about Hood than Isbell, though. Isbell wrote some the Truckers' prettiest music, but the band has never been much about pretty. Its three-guitar attack and working-class outrage meant that Isbell's songwriting and singing contributions to Decoration Day, The Dirty South, and A Blessing & a Curse got largely lost. And the truth is that his vocals are probably better suited to the Eagles than the Truckers.

When Isbell in 2007 split from the band (by all accounts amicably), it freed his songs from the Southern-rock context and gave them the space to be appreciated on their own. And following a 2007 solo debut mostly recorded with his Drive-by Truckers bandmates, the new Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - released in February - represents a clean break.

Isbell, who will bringing his band to RIBCO on Saturday in an all-ages Daytrotter show, was modest in a phone interview about whether his liberation has been a good thing. "Any time you're at the helm of something, you've probably got a little bit more freedom," he said. "I don't know if that's necessarily the best thing for your music, but we'll see."

The evidence already vindicates the move. While the tracks on the band's eponymous record aren't radically different from Isbell's output with the Drive-by Truckers, they benefit from three things: the cohesion created by a single voice, not having to compete with Hood's rockers, and not having to work within the Truckers template.

"For that band I kind of understood there was a theme - something that was very Southern and very storyteller-oriented," Isbell said. "I'm both of those things naturally, but I don't have to focus so much on them now."

While his debut, Sirens of the Ditch, was recorded over several years, the new album came together over the course of a month. All the songwriting credits belong to Isbell, but he said the band added a lot of texture and shading.

"It wound up being much more of a headphone record than I thought it would be," he said, citing the percussion on "Seven-Mile Island" and the sound manipulation that builds in "Sunstroke" and kicks off "The Blue."

"That had a lot to do with the collaborative effort," he said.

Isbell wasn't particularly incisive about how his songwriting is different in and out of the Drive-by Truckers, but he also sounded like he hadn't been up long when we talked. "I just couldn't imagine those guys [in Drive-by Truckers] playing those songs," he said.

But for the new album, he said, he wrote specifically for his band's strengths: "I understand what kind of players they are after touring with them for a couple of years."

He also said that he still puts his Truckers songs in his live sets, although they're arranged differently. How are they different? "We don't play them the same way," he said. "It just sounds like a different band playing those songs."

He is significantly more articulate in his songs. On "Sunstroke," he succinctly reduces a failed relationship to 14 words: "I never meant to get bored with you / But I never meant to stay." And on "Seven-Mile Island," he captures the way a yearning for the future becomes a yearning for the past: "She used to say that she wanted a daughter, / Now she only wants a Saturday night."

Isbell and his band don't use a set list, and he said that what they play on Saturday will likely reflect the band's mood. "Very often it's more for our enjoyment more than it is for theirs," he said.

But if they crank up the volume, it could well be a cue to the audience. "If I feel like people aren't paying attention, we'll play something loud and fast ... ," he said. "But lately we haven't had to do that."

Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit will perform at RIBCO (1815 Second Avenue in Rock Island) on Saturday, April 18. Justin Townes Earle opens. The all-ages show starts at 8 p.m., and tickets are $12.

For more information on Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, visit or

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