Wednesday, October 13, 2021

What If: Jason Isbell Never Left Drive-By Truckers


[purchase Live at the Shoals Theare

If you know me, or have read my blog posts (and frankly, there are too many to link to), you probably know that I’m a huge fan of both Jason Isbell and Drive-By Truckers. I first became aware of both of them when I received a copy of the Truckers’ album Decoration Day as a bonus from a record club. That serendipitous freebie helped to change my musical tastes, and led me to a number of bands and musicians that are now amongst my favorites. It’s a great album, and it was hard not to be impressed by the two songs written and sung by Jason Isbell, “Outfit” and “Decoration Day.” I later discovered that Isbell was new to the band, and was only in his mid-20s, younger than the other songwriters in the group, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. Although Isbell was only in the band for three albums, I think that many fans consider this to be one of their best periods, and possibly their best. 

It has been reported that Isbell had been asked to take a break from the band because his alcoholism and drug use had made him unreliable; when he refused, he was forced out of the band. Isbell began a solo career, sobered up, and eventually released Southeastern, a masterpiece, which, along with his subsequent albums, has solidified him as one of the best, if not the best, singer-songwriter in the Americana field, and he has the awards to justify that. 

After the departure of Isbell, the Truckers went through a period of lineup changes, and the release of a number of albums whose quality varied, but all of which were good, until the release of a run of fine, politically charged albums, the best of which, in my opinion, was 2016’s American Band. The Truckers, particularly Hood, were at the vanguard of a reassessment of southern identity, what Hood had called “the duality of the Southern thing,” in interviews and in articles in the press and online.

Isbell, too, hasn’t shied away from political statements on his albums, and on analyzing what being from the South means, and he recently became the poster child for artists insisting that venues require COVID testing for admission. 

So, what would have happened if Isbell had stayed a member of the Truckers? I’ll try to keep it simple, and when I post this in some fan groups on Facebook, I’m sure that people more knowledgeable about the people and situations involved will have their own ideas, but that’s sort of the point of alternative history, right? 

The darkest, saddest, timeline would have had Isbell clean up just enough to stay in the band, but never truly get clean and sober. While he continues to write great songs, and play great guitar, at some point, he gets in too deep with his addictions, never marries Amanda Shires, and like his close friend Justin Townes Earle, overdoses. 

I’d hope, though, for a better outcome—pressured by the members of the Truckers and other friends, Isbell cleans up and becomes an equal songwriting partner in the band, which goes on to greater success, as the 3-4 Isbell songs per album replace some of the weaker cuts, and albums such as American Band, which have little or no filler, become epic double CDs that receive both commercial and critical acclaim. Maybe, at some point, while the band is on a hiatus, Isbell releases a solo album or two, which highlight his individual talent. Maybe he eventually decides to leave the band to go solo, or maybe he’s happy in the band setting, with the occasional solo release or collaboration. 

Luckily, in the real world, Isbell and the Truckers reconciled. Back in 2013, right around the time that Southeastern came out, I went to the Clearwater Festival where both Isbell and Hood were scheduled for solo sets, and they sat in with each other for a song. In 2014, Hood, Cooley and Isbell performed at a benefit at the Shoals Theatre in Florence, Alabama, and there have been a few other instances of Hood and Isbell popping on stage during gigs. 

A couple of weeks ago, Isbell curated a two day festival, ShoalsFest, where both his band, the 400 Unit, and the Truckers, were scheduled to perform. So, if you want a sense of what it might have been like had Isbell had never left the Truckers, the video above is a performance of the song “Decoration Day,” featuring Hood and Cooley joining Isbell and the 400 Unit. But maybe an even better example is the video below, from the night after ShoalsFest, where Isbell joined the Truckers for a couple of songs. The sound isn’t great, but, damn. Just damn.

0 comments: