photo by Danny Clinch
left to right: Brad Morgan, Shonna Tucker, Jason Isbell, Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood
Jason Isbell interview by Jason GrossSomeday when students and scholars look back to study Southern culture in the late 20th and early 21st century, they're going to dig through periodicals, essays and books for information but they'll also need to go through the back catalog of a Athens, Georgia band if they want a more complete picture. Now celebrating their 10th anniversary, Drive-By Truckers have just unleashed their seventh album. Through it all, they've dissected their roots but done so in a way that would make their heroes Lynyrd Skynyrd (or at least Ronnie Van Zant) proud: three guitarists crunch together while each of them brings a unique perspective to their songwriting.
Just as they were finishing up their latest album last, A Blessing And A Curse (New West), I spoke to guitarist/singer/songwriter Jason Isbell last October about DBT's history and chemistry, why doing solo records actually helps a band and the whole idea of a Southern mythology.
Thanks to Kandia Crazy Horse and Creative Loafing magazine where excerpts from this interview first appeared.
Q: What were you doing before you joined the Truckers?
JI: I was pretty much in college. I went to college in Memphis and I didn't play a whole lot in college. I was an English major just because I wanted to write songs and I wanted to read and basically, I just wanted a list of the things I needed to read. So I did that for about four years and wrote a bunch of papers.
Then one day when I was a senior, I booked a show at this coffee shop in Memphis downtown. I booked it about three days ahead of time and I probably had about an hour-long slot. I didn't have any songs so I just sat down for a few days, skipped all my classes and wrote about ten songs in one day. Then I went and played all those songs at the coffee shop the next day. About half of those I wound up demoing and turning into the guys at Fame Studios. They have a publishing company there in Muscle Shoals. Then I got back home and they picked me up for a publishing deal and I started writing songs for them and didn't have any cuts or anything- about a week after I started with Fame, I got picked up by the Truckers. I had done some demo session work there in Muscle Schoals in the meantime when I got back from college.
Q: When you were studying as an English major, what were you studying specifically?
JI: When I was in college, I really got into Salman Rushdie a lot. He's my very favorite right now. I read all those Tom Robbins books that you read when you're in college- Still Life of A Woodpecker and all that kind of stuff. I read a lot of stuff in high school that they wound up making me read again in college- the Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged and the (Ayn) Rand stuff.
And then I took a bunch of poetry class, a bunch of classes where I just had to write. Let me try to remember some of the poets I like... Who's that guy from Chicago? Mark Strand maybe? I really like Mark Strand. I think that's his name of this guy that the laureate for a while. I would go see a lot of people read. You know how the poet folks are. There's a whole bunch of 'em and there's a really good ones and they're all just kind of a LITTLE tiny bit different from the rest. (laughs) There's not that much difference. But I did that. I wound up taking a lot of classes more than once, classes that I made A's in just because I liked the teacher. And I had one guy tell me that when I got out of school... I went for four years and then when my scholarship ran out, I was about six hours short of graduating and I went back home to join a band. And I had this one teacher whose office hours were in a bar out by the railroad tracks, close to the college so if you wanted to talk to him, you would have to schedule time at the bar and come in and drink hard apple cider with him, which was kind of intolerable but the guy was really, really cool. And I would just go in and hang out with him and I remember him telling me that if I dropped out of school, if I didn't finish and went and tried to join a rock and roll band... Actually, I was thinking of moving to Nashville at the time and he said "You'll kill yourself. Don't do it- you'll kill yourself. Stay here and finish school." So I didn't move to Nashville but I also didn't kill myself so I guess he was kind of half right. (laughs)
Q: What school were you at?
JI: Memphis State. University of Memphis, used to be Memphis State.
Q: You moved to Memphis but where are you from originally?
JI: Muscle Shoals, Alabama, just right outside of there, in a place called Green Hill.
Q: It's interesting that you had the idea that writing courses would help you become a songwriter but a lot of other people have the notion that to be a real performer, you should put your time in at bars and clubs playing.
JI: I did the bar band thing too. I did that when I was in high school. I don't know... It kind of occurred to me that... you really need as much of an advantage as you can possibly get. And nothing, nothing in my opinion helps you turn a phrase better than reading 10,000 of 'em a month. And... I don't know, it can be done in a whole lot of ways. I mean, I met a lot of guys who can barely read. Lord knows some of the old Mississippi guys couldn't read when they were discovered and they wrote some of the greatest songs that have ever been. But for me, it was just the idea of learning as much as I possibly could about the process of putting words on paper and making them mean exactly what you want them to me. And I don't know, I mean it can be done a whole number of different ways but it definitely helps, I think.
Q: You had the publishing deal and joined the Truckers but how did you meet up with them before that?
JI: I've known Patterson's dad David for many years because he... Patterson moved out of town and David didn't- he always lived there in Muscle Shoals. When I was a teenager growing up, David was really, really good to me and kind of supported me as a young musician. He did with a lot of people in town. Folks like Spooner Oldham and Scott Boyer who used to be in (the band) Cowboy in the '70's... A bunch of guys around town who were just really, really great to me when I was a teenager and when I was a college and coming back home on the weekends.
There was a house where Scott lived and Dick Cooper who was a longtime friend of Patterson's and wound up tour managing us for a while. And they lived in this house and Shonna (Tucker) lived in that house at the time and I wound up kind of gravitating to the place and staying there when I was home for the weekends. When Patterson was... when they were working on Southern Rock Opera (2001) in Birmingham and he would come up and spend a couple of days at a time at that place and I met him there at that house. That was about a year before I joined the band, that was while I was still in college.
And starting with the summer before my senior year, he and I would go out and play some regional, Birmingham, Huntsville, North Alabama, Muscle Shoals kind of shows, acoustic. He would be doing solo shows and I would just kind of come along and accompany him and do a couple of my songs a night (I didn't have that many then). But we did that off and on for about a year before the slot came open in the band.
Q: What did you know or think about the Truckers before you joined them?
JI: The first time that I heard them was when they were working on the Rock Opera, I guess rough mixes of the Rock Opera. Patterson was bringing them up. He was really excited about the record and he was also really stressed about the conditions under which they were making that record. And so he would come up I think probably just to get away from everybody and get away from the hot warehouse in Birmingham where they were making the Rock Opera and come up and hang out with us for a few days. But he brought that record up and it really did take me... more than a few listens to understand exactly what they were getting at. And to me it helped my process to realizing that record, to know Patterson and to be actually getting to know him at that point and time and to discover his opinions on what they were writing at that time. It made it a lot easier for me to go "Ohhhh, OK... now I see why this Replacements guy is writing a double album about Skynyrd..." You know. It's kind of a strange concept but it made a lot of sense after you know... twenty listens. (laughs)
Q: When you first joined the Truckers, how did you fit in?
JI: Oh, it was great! Yeah, it was perfect. They... were playing a house party at that same house on a Saturday night. And Rob (Malone, guitarist) was doing something else- I think he was down in New Orleans for a wedding. So they played and there was kind of an empty chair there. And about half-way through the way, I was like "Man, I can't stand this. All these songs are easy enough. I could probably just get up there and play." And so Patterson said "Yeah, go ahead. Sit down and play." So I just sat down and played. That was about all the transition there was. The next day was Sunday and we left on Monday to go out to Oklahoma so I had about a day, a day and a half of notice to get all my shit together and call my mom and tell her that I was taking off. (laughs) I learned most of the record in the van. I had played some of it with Patterson but I learned all of (Mike) Cooley's songs and a couple of songs Patterson didn't do solo, in the van with headphones on the way to Oklahoma.
Q: Since you have three songwriters in the band, how does it balance out among all of you? Is it a friendly competition, do you compliment each other's work...?
JI: It's not... to me, it's not very competitive. You would definitely have to ask the two of them personally how they exactly felt about it. But I can assume for them that it's not. It's... I don't know if you'd call it competitive 'cause we're not trying to best each other but we are trying to meet a certain standard when we bring a song in. Most of the time, that standard is not necessarily set by the other songwriters in the band- it's just set by the taste of the band in general. I think all of us are pretty much music snobs. You know, there's a lot of bad music and it's very, very easy to write a bad song even if you are a good songwriter. You usually... What happens is, there's a song that's not strong enough to go with the Truckers' thing or to go on a Truckers' record. The person who wrote it will usually be the first person to cut it or to say "This song is not going to work out for what we're doing."
I don't know exactly how we keep that dynamic. I don't know how that's possible. I don't know if I could tell another band how to do it. I don't think I could. I think it's just a matter of the chemistry we have exactly between the five people in the band. It's pretty rare for that to work out without any sort of in-fighting.
Q: You also have friendly competitions where someone writes a good song that maybe inspires you to write something else?
JI: Oh, of course. Yeah, that always happens. When I came in the band, I had two... maybe one or two (songs) that were counterpoints to Cooley's songs that I had never heard before. So that was kind of neat- I came in and had just automatically, accidentally (had) written songs about the same topic that Cooley had written about and often about the other point of view.
But yeah, we do have a friendly competitive kind of thing but it's not even really... I don't know, it's almost like we're (each) isolated from the other two guys as songwriters in a lot of ways because it's so possible in this band to say creatively what we want to say. And if I came in with a song that sounded like fucking Bauhaus, you know as long as it was a good Bauhaus song, they would probably not mind. (laughs)
JI: Yeah, maybe! Cooley would probably give me shit about it but Cooley pretty much gives everybody shit about everything. (laughs)
Q: Do you find that when you hear Patterson or Mike write something, does that make you think of writing something in reaction to it?
JI: Yeah, it does. I mean, especially with Decoration Day and the Dirty South, more so with Decoration Day because it was I guess more of a conceptualized project. This particular record that we're working on right now wasn't something that we discussed in advance. It wasn't something where we came in and said "Alright, what songs do you have? What are we gonna do with it?" We never really got together at all. We just came into the studio and said "Here's one, let's do it" and played it like that and that was fun. That was a refreshing change because... You're obviously influenced by everything that's around you but... As far as just new songs, we didn't really have any point, counterpoint or anything to bounce off of just because we hadn't heard anything the other guys were working on. It was kind of nice that way.
With the last record, during the writing process, we had all been sharing the songs that we'd been coming up with each other. So that caused a little key to be turned I guess in our head and make us write a song that would be along the same lines or along the exact opposite lines or something like that. But with this one, we haven't really done that. It's kind been kind of nice.
Q: You said that you thought Decoration Day was kind of a concept record? How so?
JI: Yeah, it wasn't something that we discussed the themes of beforehand but we didn't have to because everybody was in the same shitty mood I think... except for me and I was just happy to be there at that point and time. Everybody else in the band... was writing about relationship problems, divorces, the past and having to start over in a lot of ways and kind of the fall out from the making of the Rock Opera. So it was a conceptualized record not in the way that we set down and said "Here's what kind of record we're gonna make." But as it formed itself, it turned into being a record about family and about losing family and starting over and about... just kind going through tough times in general while you're doing what you want to do. I kind of felt like that about that record. I definitely did. I've heard it called a concept album although I don't think I'd call it that myself. But it's pretty damn close.
Q: Well, maybe in feeling though.
JI: Yeah, I think so. I think just the attitude of the record was probably more conceptualized than anything else.
Q: With the last record, you chose these doomed characters like John Henry and Rick Danko and Richard Manuel from the Band.
JI: (Pauses) I guess that was just the mood I was in. I don't know. Once you get rid of... I've been writing a lot of songs, personal songs, about the things that I've been dealing with- just goin' on the road and all that kind of stuff. And those stories related to me really well. Like, my grandfather died and that kind of spawned the John Henry song because... I remember seeing this old guy in like a K-Mart after my granddad died. I saw a guy in a suit and he looked pretty well manicured, looked like he had a pretty good amount of money- not that I can tell that by looking at somebody. But in North Alabama, you can usually tell. He was probably in his 90's, just old, barely moving old guy. But he looked pretty healthy, looked pretty good and he was walking around. It kind of pissed me off. And I'm standing there thinking "Why does the fact that this old man is still alive, why is this is pissing me off?" And it took me a few days and took actually the writing of that song for me to come to terms with the fact that I was... a little bit resentful at the fact that some people were given a longer lease. That conjured up a whole lot of other ideas in my head. And that turned into that song.
With the Danko/Manuel thing, it was more of a situation of just my own personal life and my career and how I was learning to balance the two and learning to cut myself off at the right time from not just substances but from people and emotions and... all. It was about being on the road and taking care of yourself, mentally and physically and what happens if you don't. I think they're probably two prime examples of people who had more potential than anyone I could probably think of. And they saw that through and they realized that potential and they did what they could do with it. But at the same time, it cost them a great deal.
I was just going through personal things, you know. And both of those (songs) are kind of allegorical, one of them is... I guess they're in a reverse situation, you know. One of them is an allegory about myself and one of them is about... two totally different people. But the fact that they were characters just stumbled into place.
… My personal songs on this record are more about things that are going on in my life or in the lives of the people immediately around me. It's not as much of a Southern record I think. Its themes are more personal than they are regional. And it's a shorter record. It's going to wind up being quite a bit shorter than... The Rock Opera of course. I don't it, we have so many thing recorded, we might do the thing we usually do and just go ahead and say "Ah, fuck it" and just put everything on there. But from what we're working on right now, it's a lot different sonically but thematically, it's probably more a record like Decoration Day or Pizza Deliverance than the Dirty South or the Rock Opera. It doesn't deal with as much of the mythology as we were talking about.
Q: I heard that you, Mike and Patterson are each working on solo records.
JI: Yeah, I guess so. Patterson and I both are and Cooley keeps saying that he is and keeps saying that he's going to but I don't know if that's actually, technically true or not. (laughs) I have one that's completely finished that I've been working on... two and a half, three years just in my off time. It's done and it'll be mastered in the next week or two and hopefully available before Christmas at least on the Internet, on our website and at shows. Patterson's I don't know- he's got a lot done on his too but I don't know when it's gonna be out.
Q: How is your material different from your Truckers songs?
JI: Oh, it sounds very different. It's very different. I guess in a lot of way, more pop orientated. I'm a big fan of '80's pop, the good stuff you know. And there aren't any synthesizers, I'm not going to go that far with it but it's... a rock and roll record but it's probably more of a... I don't know. That may be become my means. Yes, it's a poppier record. A lot of the songs are recorded real simply. Two or three songs are just recorded with an acoustic guitar and piano or something like that where I just played everything and did it myself. But most of the record is with a full band. I used a couple of different drummers. Brad played on some of it and a guy named Mike Dillon from home played on some it and Patterson's dad played on a song and Spooner Oldham played on at least one and John Neff played pedal steel on one. It's just songs that don't sound like Drive By Truckers songs. It's called Sirens of the Ditch.
Q: Does it mean anything that the three of you are coming out with your own records?
JI: Well, I'm still working on the idea that two of us are coming out with solo records because I haven't heard anything from Cooley like that. I think it's just hearsay. But yeah, I think you go through phases as a songwriter and I personally might spend a couple of months writing songs that don't song at all like the songs I wrote the two months before. And that's just part of the growing up process for me and I think for Patterson too. We're very open and easy creatively with each other but still, you're working within the confines of one project and everybody understands that. So we all need other ways to get our songs recorded and released. It's definitely not a sign of the apocalypse with the band or anything. I think it would be right the opposite- I think if we didn't do the solo records, we would probably drive each other crazier. (laughs)
Q: What's changed with working with the band for the time you've been there now?
JI: I definitely feel that I have more of a role now as a writer but that's because I'm more prolific now. They've always really given an open ear to the songs that I've written and been very... I mean, the first record that I worked on you know, they named the record after one of my favorites. They've been extremely respectful of what I did. And just the fact that I write more songs now means that I'm going to wind up having more songs on the records and more songs in the live set. As far as the rest of the guys go, they've definitely been going through a whole lot of changes that don't necessarily have anything to do with the line-up of the band but do affect the overall atmosphere of being on the road and then effect the records and the shows too. You know, they're having kids and... then Patterson since I've joined the band has gotten married and had a child. Cooley's had a child, about to have another one. Brad's gotten married. I think it's a matter of their whole atmosphere changing, their whole live around them is changing. They're getting older and growing up and I guess I am too. I hope so. But the records are probably growing up too I think. I think records are at least maturing at the very least, you know. The thing I can say fairly definitely is that the music we record in the studio is becoming more mature and more... varied in its influence. And by influence, I mean musically and just... environmentally, influenced by the environment that we're in because we're definitely going to so many different places that we've never been to before and doing so many different things, family wise and otherwise and dealing with the problems and the... (sighs) The good things and the bad things about aging and getting older in a rock and roll band and playing all over the world and actually having a little bit of success with it. I think that's causing our music to grow up too.
Q: Other than music influences, how conscious is the band of traditional Southern literature like Tennessee Williams or William Faulkner or Confederacy of Dunces?
JI: Well I've read a lot of that stuff, a whole lot of stuff. I don't know how much Patterson or Cooley really reads in there. And Patterson reads a whole lot of musical biographies and stuff, which I usually can't stand- I like some of 'em. I really like This Wheel's on Fire, The Band book I like a lot but a whole lot of them just really piss me off. And that's OK, I'm not saying that it's a bad thing but I'm saying that if going into... If I'm going to have to read a 1000 of pages of you, you better be able to turn a phrase.
But... as far as that goes, I don't know. I've read... I don't want to say all of that stuff 'cause there's a great deal of it but I've read a whole lot of that stuff. And it definitely has a lot to do with the way that I make music.
I know they're researchers. I know that when the Rock Opera was being made, everybody in the band when through, read and gathered as many things about Skynyrd and about their rise and fall and about that time period and what was going on in music and the South in general and all that. But I don't necessarily know how influenced Cooley or Patterson would be by... Eudora Welty. I can't really see that as a direct connection.
Q: But for you, it did have an influence?
JI: Yeah, they do. They really do. It's... The ones that I feel like are the best ones and even the ones that aren't have an influence on how I work because I don't want to make the same mistakes that they made in a lot of books that I didn't like. And I'm not going to name any names of Southern authors that I don't like but there are a lot of them who are good authors but that's a different thing from being a good Southern author because you have to walk a very, very, very, very fine line between having a Southern voice, a Southern literary voice and being believable to a Southern literate reader. I have such a redneck in me (laughs). The place where I grew up was extremely red and I was and I grew up that way. So I know what a good ol' boy is supposed to eat. You know what I mean? It really kind of crawls all over me when somebody gets it just a little bit wrong. I'd rather them totally miss it all together and give 'em unsweet tea than make it Milo's. (laughs)
Q: That's everything I had. Thanks for your time.
JI: Yeah, that was a good one of those. I do a lot of shitty ones and that was a good one. (laughs)
Also see the official Drive-By Truckers website
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