It’s like looking at old pictures of your college roommates and then looking at the people that are sitting around your living room now, says Jason Isbell of the songs he wrote during his days with the Drive-By Truckers that remain part of his live set with his current band, Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit. The latter’s new release, Live From Alabama, includes a handful of Isbell-penned Truckers tunes, like Outfit, Decoration Day, and Danko/Manuel, along with songs from the three studio albums he’s cut since splitting from the Truckers in 2007.
I haven’t listened to those old arrangements of those [Truckers] songs for so long, says Isbell, compared to how many times I’ve heard this band play them, that I really don’t remember exactly what they sounded like [originally]. The songs still conjure up the same images for me, and I still think about the same things that inspired me to write the songs in the first place, but I guess it’s just different because I’m up there with different people.
While Isbell harbors no ill will towards his old bandmates, he’s definitively living a separate life from them these days. I don’t really have a relationship with ˜em, he says. We get along when we see each other, I talk to Patterson [Hood, DBT frontman] every once in a while. I saw him a couple of months ago in Nashville at the Americana Awards. We get along fine, but I don’t think there’s any need to have a working relationship at this point. They’re all busy, and Lord knows I am.
Listening to Live From Alabama makes it clear just how busy native Alabaman Isbell and his current accomplices have been. Over the last five years they’ve built up a worthy repertoire, a loyal audience, and a sound that has some relation to that of Isbell’s former band but bears its own identity. Both bands blend influences from alt rock and Americana to classic soul, but The 400 Unit shaves off some of the Neil Young & Crazy Horse fuzztone frenzy of the Truckers in favor of a more singer/songwriter-oriented approach to framing the tunes.
That doesn’t make them any less of a cohesive unit, though. Their all-for-one aesthetic is even apparent in Isbell’s account of the band name’s provenance. It was a mental treatment facility in Florence Alabama, he explains, it was the crazy house. I’ve had lots of family members in there over the years. I think we were downtown and saw the van get out one day with the folks that were day patients, they would give them 10 or 15 bucks and put a name tag on ˜em and let ˜em got to Subway or something. It occurred to me that it looked just like a band on the road for six or eight weeks trying to get out and find some food in a small town. Isbell reiterates that he often feels that way when he’s on the road with The 400 Unit, observing, I can tell we’re causing discomfort in the locals sometimes when we stop and get out.”
Explaining the thinking behind releasing a live recording now, Isbell says, I wanted to document the band like it is at this point in time. I think we’re connecting really well musically, we’re playing really well, we’re all having a good time. I wanted to capture that before it changed into something else, as it always does. And from a practical viewpoint, a lot of those songs that I did with the Truckers, people come up now who’ve never heard the Truckers records and say, ˜Where do I find this, how do I get this song?’ Personally, I’d rather sell ˜em something myself than steer ˜em to a record that [DBT’s label] New West put out.
Some think of Isbell as sort of the Bruce Springsteen of the South, in terms of his knack for chronicling the tragedies and triumphs of the region’s working-class denizens, but there’s little of the E Street Band-style onstage pageantry in The 400 Unit’s onstage m.o. Whether they’re tackling a Truckers tune like Outfit, in which Isbell receives some sardonic advice from his father, or a newer song like Tour of Duty, chronicling a soldier’s return home, the band squanders nary a note.
There are different kinds of energy that an audience can give you, says Isbell of his stage experience. You can usually tell if it’s gonna be a rowdy crowd, or if it’s gonna be a listening crowd, or if it’s just gonna be a crowd that’s not paying any attention to you whatsoever. I handle rowdy crowds and attentive crowds very differently but I feel like they’re pretty equal in value from a performer’s perspective. I love playing for people who are having a good time and I equally love playing for people who are studying everything you say and really paying attention. As long as they’re with me, as long as they’re in the room for a reason, doing something different than they would be doing at a bar next door, it’s always positive for me. The shows go better when people are with you, when they’re participating.
Turning philosophical about the prospect of live performance, Isbell calls up an unexpected analogy. I remember going to see Radiohead a long time ago, he says, when I was probably 21, 22 years old, and thinking, ˜Man I’m surrounded by a huge group of people who are very similar to me right now — all about my same age, and they all seem to be the nerdy kids from high school.’ And that felt really good to me. I think if you make yourself part of the experience, there’s still reasons go to see live music.
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The headliners at this year’s FloydFest”including Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, Ricky Skaggs, Brandi Carlile, and the Drive-By Truckers”were as amazing as you’d expect from internationally known and much-lauded musicians. But the real treat at the 11th Annual FloydFest, a four-day world music festival in Floyd, Virg., was arguably the array of up-and-coming artists certain to burst into prominence not too far into the future.
Amber Rubarth was clearly at the front of that line. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider she’s a fixture on New York’s indie scene and has won such accolades as the Grand Prize in NPR’s Mountain Stage New Song Contest. Her recent album A Common Case of Disappearing, which features duets with Jason Reeves and Jason Mraz, debuted at No. 13 on iTunes. Watching her spin her musical web of alt-country, folk tunes on various stages at FloydFest, one couldn’t help but be struck by her poise and warmth, which translated into her music.
“I was really shy growing up,” said Amberth when discussing her set. “Music gave me the outlet to be able to get out my feelings and get out things I wanted to say that were more personal, even if I couldn’t say it in a conversation. It’s really powerful for me. It’s a way of healing, releasing, really.”
Those feelings translated to the audience, too, when Rubarth joined the Ivy League Hillbillies set that had nine up-and-coming musicians on stage and when she played her own sets”including a brand new song “The Maiden and the Ram,” that got the audience dancing.
Or maybe it’s more apt to liken his attitude to that of someone who worked and worked and then finally solved the New York Times‘ Saturday crossword puzzle ” in ink, first time through. Sure Lucero has always had a cool punk, alt-country sound that won them fans well beyond the band’s Memphis, Tenn., home base. But now think of Lucero’s punk, alt-country sound as super charged, thanks to the addition of new players and instrumentation. You can hear it all on the band’s new release Women & Work, on ATO records, home of the Drive-By Truckers, My Morning Jacket, and other like-minded musicians.
“When we [recorded] Women & Work all eight pieces had been on the road for a couple years,” said Nichols of the group’s cohesive musical direction. “We had time to gel, as a complete unit and it was the first time everyone had been involved [in recording a Lucero record] since day one. We had discovered what was possible and went into this record knowing exactly where we stood and exactly what sound we were going for.”
Not that Nichols and the other original members of the 14-year-old band didn’t have the determination or talent or enthusiasm to find that musical sweet spot before. It’s just that, like solving a puzzle, they needed to find the key to the tricky questions. In this band’s case, it was how to whip Otis Redding soul into Lucero’s punk country sound and have a pleasing result.
If you’ve ever wondered how band members can spend all their time together without wanting to kill each other, alt-country pioneers Drive By Truckers have the answer. They’ve been together more than fifteen years, released nine highly-acclaimed studio albums, and despite near-constant touring they’ve managed to not get sick of each other . Their latest release, Go-Go Boots, continues where 2010’s The Big To-Do left off, showcasing the band’s foot-stomping southern soul and rich storytelling. Drive-By Truckers bassist Shonna Tucker sat down with OurStage last month to talk about the album, as well as her tips for staying sane on the road and how excited she is that vinyl is back in style.
OS: DBT was recently the subject of the documentary The Secret To A Happy Ending. How was the filming experience?
ST: It’s actually very strange to have someone follow you around. I guess it ended up being about three years or more of filming us, and it’s just very strange to have someone there all the time. Barr [Weissman]”the man who made the movie” he’s just a super cool dude. He’s as cool as it gets as far as not being obnoxious being there with the camera”he’s pretty much invisible. But it’s a little odd having that much of your life on video. Some of the things that you’d like to forget about you can’t, ˜cause it’s a movie now. But it’s cool, it’s great. The movie is great, and people seem to like it. I’m glad it’s out there.
OS: There’s one line in the film I really like “ If you wrote down on a piece of paper the idea for this band, nobody would do it.
ST: It’s true! I mean, it’s a ridiculous idea. People ask me all the time about being the girl in the band and all that, and I pretty much tell them that everything about this band is ridiculous, that’s just one more thing that you shouldn’t do that’s working out right. [Laughs]
OS: So it isn’t tough for you to be the only girl in a band that’s kind of a boy’s club?
ST: Not really. Only occasionally, and I think that’s more of just being with the same group of people for so long in a tiny space. Sometimes I just want to take off walking by myself. Only occasionally is there too much dude stuff.
ST: I heard [Mike] Cooley [guitar] and Patterson [Hood, frontman] answer this question with, Never rehearse. Practice will break up the band. I guess that’s true, ˜cause we don’t really rehearse. We tour so much that we don’t do that. And when it’s time to go home, everyone goes their separate ways and has their own personal lives now. Everybody seems to be happy and healthy for once, and that helps. If you have something good to go to, you can take a break physically and mentally from the road. Then when you get back together, everyone’s refreshed and ready to go. And we’re all very honest, and we respect each other as musicians and writers and all that, and that’s key. You can’t get along in a situation like this with someone you don’t agree with. And I got lucky, I came along later when they had already weeded through a lot of the situations that weren’t really working.
OS: What can you tell me about your latest album Go-Go Boots? What’s it like?
ST: That’s a good question. It’s great. [Laughs] We had a blast making this record. We went into the studio for the last record and recorded, like, thirty songs. It was too much for one record, and we didn’t want to make a double album, so we decided to just make it the next record and just keep working on it. The songs fell in place naturally. It wasn’t like we had to sit around and say, Which songs go on this record and which songs go on this one? It wasn’t like that. It all happened very organically. I think it’s a little more soul and maybe a little bit more country, but the rockers are a little bit more rockin’ too.
OS: Well, you guys definitely have a lot of different influences in your sound.
ST: Yeah, it’s like we were talking about earlier. The idea on paper doesn’t seem realistic. We all come from different backgrounds, even though most of us come from the same town right outside Muscle Shoals, Alabama. That was such an influence on us, as far as growing up there with all the soul music and all that. The other guys are a little bit older than me, and part of their teenage years and rebellion came from punk rock. That’s what you were supposed to do, and everything else was lame. I came along a little bit after that, so I didn’t get so much into that until I was in my twenties or so. And I never really got that into it anyway. I have a soul and country background, mostly. Some of the other guys” Johnny on the pedal steel”he, of course, came from a lot of country. All together it makes for an interesting sound.
OS: You’ve said that you’re a bass player first, but you’ve also written songs for DBT. Did you do a lot of the writing on this album?
ST: Yeah, I have… well let me think about it. [Laughs] Two of my songs are on there, and I do another song, an Eddie Hinton song. So I have a couple of songs on there. That’s usually the way it works. I am not as prolific as, say, Patterson is. He’s just insanely prolific. There’s no shortage of songs within the group, it just works out to where they always have more songs than I do on the record. I don’t write as much.
ST: Ninety percent of the time we each come with a song pretty much complete. The way we work is we come in, someone has a song and plays it”grabs a guitar maybe and just sings it and plays it. Then everyone goes and does their thing on it. No one tells anybody what to do. We just get the chords down in our head, then it’s free range. Whatever you want to add, it’s all good.
OS: You guys have always pushed your label to release your albums on vinyl. Are you psyched that records are becoming popular again?
ST: Oh, yeah. It’s been amazing to watch that happen over the last couple years. Record stores seem to be coming back alive after near-extinction a couple years ago. It seems like more and more places are hanging in there. It’s because people think records are cool again. We put ˜em out, and in our experience, people buy ˜em. So it’s good. We all really do love to listen to vinyl. We all have our record players and we tour sometimes” if it works out”with a record player in the back lounge. We all break off and go shopping for records, then come back and listen. We’re all pretty dorky like that. We want other people to by records too.
OS: So what else is going on with DBT this year? You’re touring, of course.
ST: Yes, plenty of that. [Laughs] That’s about it. The record [came] out here [February 15] and we’re heading to New York and kicking it off, and then we’re just going all year. We have a couple of European tours in store. Just touring and stuff.
So what’s the rush?
“It is going to be our Valentine’s Day record,” Chief Trucker Patterson Hood says. “We are really excited about it because we think this is the one that’s hopefully going to take it to the next level.”
Not that Drive-By Truckers have been any slouches. The Big To-Do debuted at No. 22 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart and No. 1 on the Indie Chart. Credit Hood, co-founder Mike Cooley and their band mates for not wavering from the band’s distinctive three-guitar line up since the band’s 1998 formation. The result has been an ultra-loyal fan base that has propelled the alt-country, southern-rock band up the charts and onto a growing number of critics “best of” lists.
“You know, I wouldn’t trade [the song] ‘Birthday Boy’ for a dozen of ‘Faithfully,'” says Hood mentioning a top-charting ballad by the rock band Journey. “The thing about the ballads is that you play them at those moments when you have an arena full of screaming girls. We don’t have either the ballads or the screaming girls.
Perhaps not now but we’ll see what happens when the fan base grows even stronger especially now that the Truckers’ spent part of the summer touring with their personal musical hero Tom Petty.
“That was a great experience and I think everyone really enjoyed it,” says Hood noting that at one time the Truckers’ had vowed not to take more opening gigs but quickly relented when Petty came calling. “I think it made us a better band, too.”
Fans will see that during the tour for Go-Go Boots when the band’s set list will draw heavily from the rock sounds presented on The Big To-Do and what Hood calls “the country, soul, murder ballad record” Go-Go Boots.
“We’ve worked real hard and I feel like it’s been rewarding and rewarded, too,” says Hood. “You know the economy is stuck right now and¦.we have built up a good enough set that people feel a little better spending their hard earned [money] to hear us. You know, we’re pretty consistent. Our show changes every night..and there are a lot of things about it that are in constant flux. We take it pretty seriously to make sure it’s 100% every night.
Most of the songs for both records were recorded at the same time, says Hood. The band decided to make two albums out of the works rather than leave some songs out or release a “ridiculously long, sprawling record.”
The songs on Go-Go Boots were influenced heavily by the band’s love for the music of Bobbie Womack, Eddie Hinton and soulful music often classified as the “Muscle Shoals (Alabama) sound.”
In fact, the band covers the Hinton songs “Everybody Needs Love” and “Where’s Eddie?” which Hinton wrote and the British singer Lulu recorded in 1969.
“‘Everybody Needs Love’ doesn’t sound like something I’ve ever written, but it sure sounds like something I wish I could have written,” says Hood. “I feel as strongly performing that song as anything I’ve written. It’s kind of fun shining a light on [those songs] and hopefully encouraging more people to check Eddie’s music out¦.It was a labor of love recording those songs.”
[Editor’s Note: The Drive-By Truckers will release a 10-inch record with the songs “Thanksgiving Filter” and “Used to Be a Cop,” on November 26 in celebration of Record Store Day. Both songs will be included on Go-Go Boots. The band will also release a film, The Secret to a Happy Ending, about how the American South shaped rock ‘n’ roll. For more details, check out the band’s Web site.
By Nancy Dunham
Nancy Dunham writes about music for Country Weekly, AOL Music’s site The Boot, The Washington Post, Relix and other publications.