Band: Jason Isbell
Date: Friday, May 20, at 5 p.m.
Venue: Surf Stage
When Lagniappe last spoke with Jason Isbell, this Alabama native was fresh from parting ways with Drive-By Truckers. Isbell was on the cusp of his solo career, his audience anticipating his debut. Since then, Isbell has become one of the alt. country scene’s most notable artists, with five studio albums, two live albums and two Grammy Awards. Not only do his fans laud his aural Southern poetry, but also icons such as John Prine and Bruce Springsteen.
When Isbell reminisces about his solo career, he is extremely humble and grateful to have found success as a solo artist — particularly as he recalls the early days when his shows sometimes drew sparse crowds. These memories remind him of the methods and techniques that have brought him this far.
“It’s a good place to be,” Isbell said. “I think the things that I’m known for on whatever scale that I’m known are the things that I’m proud of. That’s the trick. You have to be known for doing things that you enjoy doing. If I was a famous pop singer, then I’d probably be pretty miserable.”
Over the years, Isbell has maintained an extremely loyal cult following. However, he has remained comfortably outside the mainstream, according to Isbell. Even now this talented songwriter’s goals run parallel to those of many up-and-coming performers, which is to avoid the generic 9-to-5 job.
Isbell recognizes being a mainstream artist also has other requirements he doesn’t find appealing. For example, he enjoys the independence of making decisions that otherwise might be influenced by a major-label affiliation. Isbell finds the obligatory radio tours another unattractive aspect of the mainstream lifestyle. For him, the time spent appearing on the radio could be filled with live performances.
“I have some friends in that world, who are people who have been really successful,” Isbell explained. “Some of them are really good at it, and some of them are happy with it. I admire that, but I don’t necessarily think that I would be.”
When it comes to modern alt. country, Isbell joins Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson as the scene’s most prominent artists. All three have one person in common, producer Dave Cobb. Cobb joined Isbell in the studio for the creation of his 2013 release, “Southeastern,” and his latest album, “Something More Than Free.” Isbell notes many benefits of working with Cobb, who he calls an idea man with a wealth of suggestions for arrangements and instrumentation. In addition to being a great producer, Isbell said, Cobb is “a pleasure to be around” — a combination of studio skills and friendliness that is a rare commodity in the production business.
“Usually your best producers are kind of over it,” Isbell said. “They aren’t really the best people to hang out with in certain situations. Dave has that perfect combination of being a good guy to work with and also add to the project.”
With Cobb’s assistance, Isbell filled “Something More Than Free” with 11 tracks of poignant honesty. Typically, a coming-of-age event is associated with youth, but in his song “24 Frames,” Isbell maintains people come of age at several points in their lives. The song details Isbell’s analysis of sharing his life with violinist Amanda Shires (400 Unit, Todd Snider). This song also details the continued struggle for family normalcy that comes from the life of a touring/working musician, which Isbell sees as a never-ending challenge.
“I was thinking about how quickly time passes a lot when I was writing that song, and also how you don’t really have control and how you have to let go of certain things and not waste your time trying to plan your life,” he said. “At the same time, I was also thinking about how to support somebody who you’re in a relationship with without exerting too much of your will with that person.”
“Something More Than Free” ends with “To My Favorite Band.” While the song itself is ambiguous as to who this “favorite band” is, Isbell explains this song is dedicated to the group Centro-Matic. He became acquainted with the band during his early years touring with Drive-By Truckers. After spending a great deal of time touring alongside Centro-Matic, they became what Isbell considers some of his greatest friends. A year ago, Centro-Matic parted ways, which inspired Isbell to pen their requiem.
“People write about their favorite bands breaking up, but it was something that required a bit of a grieving process for me,” he said. “They had been a big part of my life for a decade and a half.”
Isbell is a Hangout Fest veteran and considers the event “a beautiful place.” It being a festival environment, Isbell says the crowd can expect a high-energy set with rock ‘n’ roll overtones. Isbell also says he is bringing his wife and daughter with him on this tour, and members of his immediate and extended family will also be enjoying his set along with the Hangout Fest audience.