Many Braves followers have been fans of singer-songwriter Jason Isbell’s music for a decade, first during his years as a guitarist with the Drive-By Truckers and then with his own band, the 400 Unit. What some folks might not know is that Isbell, a lifelong Alabaman, is a passionate Braves fan.
When not on the road or recording, he’ll drive from his Muscle Shoals home to attend a game at Turner Field, where he might be spotted in the bleachers in a Chipper Jones T-shirt. In the song “Stopping By” off his recent album Here We Rest, Isbell sings, “Driving to a baseball game/on a Friday afternoon/hotter than hell in Atlanta, Georgia…”
I caught up with him recently between shows in St. Louis and Kansas City, during a long tour that’s taken his band across the United States and Europe, and will include stops in Australia and New Zealand in February and March.
O’Brien: Thanks for taking some time to chat in the middle of the tour, Jason.
Isbell: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Dave.
How would you characterize your level of Braves fandom? And as a kid growing up in Greenhill, Ala., outside Muscle Shoals, who was your favorite Brave and your fondest memories of the team?
I played ball growing up, and obviously the Braves are the closest team to us, so it made sense. Also, being able to watch the games on TBS helped that along. I didn’t really start out as a Braves guy, though. When I was between 7 and 9 years old, the youth team I played on was the Dodgers, so I linked up with them. Even made my parents sit on the visitors side when we caught Atlanta-LA games at Fulton County Stadium. I passed out waiting on an autograph once — from the heat, of course — and Fernando Valenzuela’s mom (I think) carried me into the stands to locate my folks.
What really solidified my love of the Braves was my grandparents’ love of the Braves. Never baseball fans in their earlier years, they learned the game by watching me play in school. And since they were very conservative folks — my granddad was a Pentecostal preacher — baseball was one of the only things we could watch together on TV. They both watched those games until they died, making up nicknames for all the players and coaches and picking out their favorites. Watching Sid Bream struggle around third base made our whole family jump up and scream. My grandmother loved Rafael Belliard because he always had a smile.
I know you’re back on tour, have been for most of this year. When I talked to you at your show at The EARL in Atlanta in April, you asked about the upcoming Braves season, a lot of questions that indicated you were more than a casual fan. Were you able to keep up with the Braves on tour in Europe during the summer?
It was tough to keep up in Europe, but I wasn’t there long. What really makes me mad is when I’m in the U.S. and I have to watch two other teams because the Braves games aren’t all nationally televised like they used to be! I was home through a lot of the playoff push — or lack thereof — so I watched those sad games.
Did you ache along like so many other Braves fans during the September collapse? Did you hurry to check the score of that night’s game after shows?
I was very disappointed, of course, and I was keeping up every night. I might have even checked a score on my phone while we were onstage. But I shouldn’t reveal that, I guess.
A lot of rock musicians are baseball fans, many of them hardcore fans like Craig Finn of The Hold Steady, Will Johnson of Centro-matic, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo, Steve Wynn, Mike Mills of R.E.M. Revered Atlanta rockers The Black Lips even led a Tomahawk Chop in tribute to retiring manager Bobby Cox at a Lips show in 2010. Who are some of the others, and do you have any idea what draws indie rockers and other musicians to baseball?
David Barbe, who’s a great producer in Athens and played bass in Sugar with Bob Mould, knows as much about the game as almost anybody. He even keeps baseball-themed tarot cards in his studio to start off the day. I know Will Johnson is a big Cardinals guy, so he had a good year. Kevin Kinney from Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ loves the Braves like I do. I think the pace of the game, along with the intelligence involved, keeps a lot of us artsy types interested. Somehow baseball doesn’t seem as “jock” centered as other major sports.
It’s been said that a lot of ballplayers want to be rock stars, and a lot of rock stars would like to be ballplayers. At least for a week or two. Any truth to that?
I would love to be able to play just one more game. I think that’s true for all of us fans of the game who used to play. I also see big similarities between the life of a traveling ballplayer and a touring musician. You spend months on the road every year, build relationships with teams or bands that seem like family until you’re traded or dropped, and try to keep the folks back home as happy as possible while you upend their lives by moving around so much. If I could only run a little faster, maybe pick up some bat speed….
Unlike major league ballplayers, most working musicians aren’t taking charter flights from city to city and staying in the finest hotels. Can you tell us a little about your recent misadventure, where your van was stolen with all of your band’s equipment? Was there a happy ending to that story?
I thought the ending was gonna be a happy one, but alas, it wasn’t. We had our van and trailer taken in Dallas in broad daylight. The thieves left the vehicle about a mile away, so we got it back, but the gear was all gone. We were insured, thank God, but it’s still a big hassle and a heartbreaker for us.
You’ve recorded as many albums with your own band now (three) as you recorded with the Drive-By Truckers. I remember seeing you play a solo show at a dive bar in Orlando during Braves spring training in 2007. It was a week or two before it was announced you were leaving DBT, which surprised a whole lot of us. Can you talk about how long it took to get comfortable leading your band and if you’re happy with the direction you’ve taken your music since leaving the Truckers?
I’m very happy with the music I’m making now, and I’m starting to see life on the road get a little easier. That’s really my only barometer for the amount of
success we’re having, so it’s nice to know. It took me a while to get used to singing all night and keeping the audience engaged, but over the last few years it’s gotten much easier. I’ve learned how to pace myself as a singer and become more comfortable under the lights.
I’ve always heard a Neil Young vibe in many of your songs. But your album this year, Here We Rest, reminds me more of the soul music that Muscle Shoals is known for, and also the storytelling of classic country guys like Haggard. Can you talk a little about who’s influenced your music, and how much you think you’ve changed stylistically in recent years?
I grew up listening to a combination of traditional country and arena rock, with a healthy dose of 80’s mainstream radio thrown in. My parents loved Merle, Hank, Waylon, Prine, as well as Free and Queen and those big loud bands. I started focusing on Muscle Shoals recordings as a teenager, when I met David Hood and Spooner Oldham and some of the musicians who worked with them in the area’s heyday. The older I get, the more that music means to me and the prouder I am that I grew up here. I don’t really think my musical goals have changed, but the style shifts as my interests do. Lately I’ve been going back to that storytelling tradition, as well as the R&B groove. It just feels natural for me.
Coming from such a fertile place for terrific, eclectic music as Muscle Shoals must be as good as it can get for an aspiring musician. How old were you when you began playing music, and when did you realize Muscle Shoals was a special place?
I guess I touched on that in my last answer, but it took me 18 years or so to realize what great music had been recorded here. I credit that to the fact that the old guys were still out playing in the same bars I started playing as a kid. They treated me with respect from the start, and those relationships lead me to discover their work in the 60’s and 70’s.
Who are some of the artists you listen to when you’re home or on the road, when you’re just kicking back or driving around Muscle Shoals? Are your tastes as wide-ranging as your music indicates? I hear rock, soul and country in your music, particularly the recent album.
I listen to all kinds of stuff. I love Centro-matic, My Morning Jacket, Wilco, Band of Horses, etc. but I also spend a lot of time on more traditional “songwriter” music like Todd Snider, James McMurtry, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen. I also love Atlanta hip-hop, and the great rap that was coming from Houston a few years ago.
You’re still playing places like the 40 Watt in Athens and Showbox in Seattle where you played with the Truckers, but you’re also in some rooms like The EARL, and Antone’s in Austin, The Troubadour in L.A. Even the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur [Calif.], where you had a sold-out show with Ryan Adams. Are the smaller, more intimate places a better fit with the music you play now, to connect with the audience?
I don’t mind the smaller venues, so long as I can hear myself in the monitors. But since the bulk of my income comes from touring, it’s important to gradually move into larger places. That’s going to be the key to longevity for me. Theaters sound better, in my opinion, and they make for a better experience for people of different ages.
Speaking of Ryan Adams, what’s it been like for you to tour with some of the singers and songwriters you’ve played with in recent months. Ryan, Justin Townes Earle, James McMurtry, John Prine — I mean, dude, it doesn’t get much better.
I’ve had an amazing year on the road. To be able to listen to Ryan or Justin or James or Prine every night was a real blessing, and they’re all good people. Seriously. Not a bad egg in the bunch.
I just want to ask you about a few songs from Here We Rest. First, what was the inspiration for “Save it for Sunday,” which seems sort of like a document for the difficult times that a lot of folks are in these days?
When I wrote “Save It For Sunday,” I was thinking a lot about how many people are having the same troubles these days. I know every generation says the world is going to hell, but I truly believe we’re in tough times right now. It can be harder to find sympathy in a bar now, since the guy next to you just lost his job, the guy next to him has cancer, and the girl on the corner is going through another divorce.
“Tour of Duty” is the third song you’ve written about war, or rather the folks who fight and the price some have paid. [“Dress Blues” and “Soldiers Get Strange” were the others, from previous albums with the 400 Unit.] What draws you to those stories? What motivates you to tell them in a personal way, to get beyond the obvious, easy stuff, the jingoism that many others — particularly some country acts — put into songs?
I try very hard to write what I know, and I’m familiar with the effect war can have on a small town, whether it’s a soldier coming home and trying to adjust or one who never comes home at all. I also have a hard time loving something without examining it. I think it’s great to live in America, but it’s our job as Americans to examine and re-examine how we treat each other and the rest of the world. All the things we do as a country aren’t perfect, and I’d have a tough time sleeping if I ignored that fact when I write a song. I seriously don’t think we need more rallying cries right now. We should be looking more closely than that.
“Codeine” has a jaunty vibe but is actually quite a dark song lyrically. So many couplets in that song, beginning with the opening: “There’s one thing I can’t stand, is this bar and this cover band / Trying to fake their way through Castles Made of Sand.” And this: “There’s one thing I can’t take, it’s the sound that a woman makes / About 5 seconds after her heart begins to break.”
The subject is dark and the song so listenable. How’d you come up with that one?
“Codeine” came from a tough night alone. Big surprise, I know. I wrote it in about the time it took to actually write it down. I like to say our band has fun playing very sad songs, and I think the differences in tone between the melody and the lyric in this song gives a good example of that.
Here We Rest is showing up on some best-of-the-year albums lists; I saw it at No. 12 on the American Songwriter list, sandwiched between albums by Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams. I know you told me before that you don’t care much about those lists and awards, that kind of thing. But it’s still got to be cool being between Waits and Lucinda on a list, huh?
Sure it was. Waits’ new record amazes me, and Lucinda’s is very strong, even for her. Just to see my name between those two was exciting.
How much longer does this leg of the tour go, and will that be it for a while? When will you and the fellas in 400 Unit get back in the studio for another album?
Tour is winding down for the winter, but we’ll be back at it pretty early next year. I’m writing a lot these days, so I imagine another record isn’t too far off. No timeline yet, but probably a few months.
You mentioned doing some recording last weekend with your girlfriend and Todd Snider. Can you tell us anything about that project?
Todd’s making a great new record, and Amanda Shires is playing fiddle and singing on it. I initially dropped by the studio in Nashville to hang out with her and I got wrangled into playing some. Todd didn’t have to twist my arm too hard, though. I love his songs and this is a particularly good batch.
You’ve lived your whole live in Alabama around Muscle Shoals, never moved away to one of the coasts or even to Nashville or Athens, Ga. What keeps you home?
I stay here because my family’s here.If I did move, it wouldn’t be too far. I have a 15 year-old brother and a 12 year-old sister. As a matter of fact, my little sister’s in ‘The Nutcracker’ tonight and it starts in an hour, so I need to get ready for that.
Thanks again for giving us some of your time, Jason. Been a pleasure.
Thanks, Dave. Have a good one.
♣ “Decoration Day” was among the signature tunes Isbell wrote for Drive-By Truckers. Click here to see him do it with the 400 Unit at the Orange Peel in Asheville, N.C. Watch him shred on guitar mid-song. Here’s the link if you want to put it in your browser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bBw66wIepiE&feature=related Also, you can follow Isbell on Twitter at @JasonIsbell. He’s something of a serial tweeter, (very) candid, and interacts a lot with fans.
“DECORATION DAY” by Jason Isbell
It’s Decoration Day.
And I’ve a mind to roll a stone on his grave.
But what would he say.
“Keeping me down, boy, won’t keep me away”.
It’s Decoration Day.
And I knew the Hill Boys would put us away,
but my Daddy wasn’t afraid.
He said “We’ll fight till the last Lawson’s last living day”
I never knew how it all got started
a problem with Holland before we were born
and I don’t know the name of that boy we tied down
and beat till he just couldn’t walk anymore.
But I know the caliber in Daddy’s chest
and I know what Holland Hill drives.
The state let him go, but I guess it was best
cause nobody needs all us Lawsons alive.
Daddy said one of the boys had come by
the lumber man’s favorite son.
He said, “Beat him real good but don’t dare let him die
and if you see Holland Hill run.
Now I said, “they ain’t give us trouble no more
that we ain’t brought down on ourselves”
But a chain on my back and my ear to the floor
and I’ll send all the Hill Boys to hell.
It’s Decoration Day
and I’ve got a family in Mobile Bay
and they’ve never seen my Daddy’s grave.
But that don’t bother me, it ain’t marked anyway.
Cause I got dead brothers in Lauderdale South
and I got dead brothers in east Tennessee.
My Daddy got shot right in front of his house
he had noone to fall on but me.
It’s Decoration Day
and I’ve got a mind to go spit on his grave.
If I was a Hill, I’d have put him away
and I’d fight till the last Lawson’s last living day.
I’d fight till the last Lawson’s last living day.
I’d fight till the last Lawson’s last living day.
– David O’Brien, Braves/MIB blog