by Brenda Hillegas
“I hope you’re not staying in one,” Isbell says during our phone call. He’s referring to the low-cost Super 8 Motel chain, a brand I stumbled upon while booking an upcoming trip. “Super 8”, a song off his new album out today, Southeastern, starts with Isbell shouting the line “I don’t wanna die in a Super 8 Motel”. It’s certainly straightforward and became stuck in my head all afternoon. I thanked him for the super catchy earworm and demanded to know why he was hoping not to die in that particular motel.
“It’s a combo of three or four hotels,” Isbell explains. Uh-oh, which chains? “While I was touring with the Drive-By Truckers, we wound up in a lot of situations- up late, not completely sober. [We would think] ‘is my life in danger, how did I end up here…'”
Where Isbell has ended up, though, is far from being in danger. No longer a singer/songwriter for the country-southern rock band the Drive-By Truckers, Isbell has been flying solo since 2007. He stopped by Philadelphia for a brief set at the 13th annual Non-Comm, a radio and music industry gathering where today’s most popular and up-and-coming artists are given a small set to preview their new songs.
“[It’s] a lot shorter,” says Isbell of these industry shows, “but you get it all out. I like it and make a lot of friends. I wouldn’t want to do it exclusively, though.”
No one would want Isbell to do just a short set. Southeastern is a twelve-track album that, if heard live, would only be considered a preview of Isbell’s many talents. Twelve is not enough. From love ballads to straight up country rock to songs you want blasting through the house with windows wide open for all the neighbors to hear, Isbell’s newest release should keep you waiting around for a longer performance. Isbell, in my opinion, could play all night. I cursed Philadelphia’s regional rail system for not running to the suburbs in the middle of the night and Non-Comm for putting Isbell in a 12am-2am spot with two other singers.
“At least you guys have public transportation,” Isbell laughs.
Isbell is getting in his fair share of traveling this summer. This week, he’s headed to Bonnaroo and then he’ll be wandering through the US to perform at various music festivals (Monterey Americana, Newport Folk, Whispering Beard to name a few) and more intimate theatre venues. Last month, he performed alongside a plethora of musicians at Stones Fest in NYC, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the band (Isbell performed “Moonlight Mile”, one of his favorite Stones songs at the moment). After a summer filled with shows, Jason will be boarding a ship to the Bahamas in November as part of the Rombello music cruise.
“It’s fun, I like tropical,” says Isbell. “But another thing I wouldn’t want to do too much of!”
So is this music cruise going to be considered Isbell’s relaxation and downtime? “Downtime is spent at my house,” Isbell says of his way to relax. “I was in Costa Rica in February for my honeymoon with no instruments. I freaked out.” He’s so used to touring as a musician that the idea of getting on a plane without his guitar did not seem plausible. “I thought we left them behind!”
Isbell will be back in Philadelphia on August 7th at the World Cafe Live, where he’s doing one of a handful of shows with his wife, singer and violin player Amanda Shires, as a supporting act. Until then, it’s absolutely necessary for you to grab a copy of Southeastern now. Isbell is truly a musician who performs for his fans. Barr Weissman’s documentary The Secret to a Happy Ending follows the Drive-By Truckers over a course of three years. Toward the end of the documentary, Isbell says “after a song is written, it’s just as much theirs as it is yours.”
“The audience,” Isbell says, referring to the quote. “When you’re done, a song doesn’t belong to you anymore. If someone says ‘what’s that song about?’ then you aren’t finished writing. Fans should have a bit of their own lives in a song.”
Well said, Jason. This sums up your lyrics perfectly.