Stockier and more muscular than your average pampered pop star, Jason Isbell has the candid gaze of a man who's had to face down demons to get this far along, and isn't afraid of confrontation. But when he speaks, the natural politeness of a well-mannered son of the South tempers that initial physical impression. On his left forearm, a tattoo in Gothic script peeps out from beneath the cuff of his leather jacket. It's the last lines from Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather": "Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled/From across that lonesome ocean."
It's a sentiment reflected throughout Isbell's new album Southeastern, which is peopled with characters trying to get home, to find their old friends, their old lives, their old selves: the trucker tired of "Traveling Alone"; the singer scared of dying in a "Super 8" motel; the traveler hijacked by love in "Stockholm". While the underlying impetus undoubtedly stems from Isbell's time on the road, both with his own band and Drive-By Truckers, his characters are rooted in reality but grown in fiction.
"That's one of the good things about writing songs, as opposed to novels or journalism," he says. "Three or four people will become one character, from the parts I find the most interesting. Then I just try and let those characters behave as naturally as possible."
In some cases, that's not a good thing. Take the schizoid protagonist of "Live Oak", scared that his lover has fallen for the wrong part of him: eventually, his dark side wins out, and the song ends with him burying her. The song arose from Isbell's own fears battling alcoholism.
"When I quit drinking, got married and got my life together, I was worrying about that thing I might lose," he says. "Because there is something, some kind of an effectiveness, that you think might go away when you stop doing those things: you might become a sort of person that you never set out to be. Part of you says, 'Well, I don't know if I'll be any good if I clean up, maybe I won't clean up, not just yet.' That's how the addictive mind works: there's a little truth in it, and you stretch it till it becomes huge.
"I don't know if I could write that song now because most of those fears turned out to be unfounded. I'm pretty comfortable with who I am at this point. But that did come from a worry I was having, and I separated myself into two very different personalities: in the song, the bad guy wins and returns; but hopefully that won't be my story too."
Born in Alabama, Isbell was raised on a rich and varied musical diet. His parents' arena-rock, singer-songwriter and classic country tastes were augmented by the rootsier leanings of his grandfather, a fiddle-playing Pentecostalist preacher. "My parents would be at work and I would spend time at my grandparents' house," he says, "and to keep me occupied they taught me to play musical instruments. Music is more in the foreground of people's lives in the South: it's the reason that people gather together. And it keeps families close: every family function, people would be playing music."
But it was only when he reached his teens that Isbell realised people could actually make a living from music. "When I realised people could make a living from this, and didn't have to go work at the tool-and-die plant, from then on nobody was going to discourage me from that."
The sparse folk and country settings of Southeastern represent a change of approach for Isbell, whose previous albums have reflected the gritty R&B and funk grooves he learnt as a teenager. A local licensing quirk that required drinking establishments to sell more food than alcohol meant he was able to get into "restaurants" underage to watch local musicians such as David Hood and Spooner Oldham, who played on legendary soul sessions at Fame and Muscle Shoals studios.
"My parents would drop me off at the restaurants and I would stay there for hours," he says, "just watching those guys playing covers of songs they had originally recorded. And sometimes they would get me up to play with them. I didn't know a lot about the history of the area at that point, but when I was around 16 or 17 I started going back and researching the music they had made, so I got real big into The Staple Singers and Aretha and Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding and Percy Sledge and Eddie Hinton."
It was through these gigs that he met David Hood's son Patterson, whose band Drive-By Truckers were just putting together Southern Rock Opera. "He and I got to talking and playing music together round the dinner table, and played a few shows, then that spot came open in the Truckers, so I joined his band. I'm really glad I did. Some parts weren't easy, especially towards the end, but any time you're trying to do something meaningful you're gonna have hard times, the process is not easy. But I loved the experience overall, in hindsight."
It was the start of his career as a travelling musician, which took him around the US and brought him to Europe – something of a culture shock.
"Some of it may be to do with the polite Southern ways I'm used to at home," he says. "If you're having a conversation with someone in Scandinavia or Holland, they can be very direct. In Holland one time after a Truckers show, we were about to go to Germany, and this guy came over and said, 'They'll love you in Germany – they're behind on their music'! How about that!"
Though now happily returned from across "that lonesome ocean" to his native south-eastern homeland, Isbell's creative muse seems firmly fixed on the darker side of life. Besides its unhappy wanderers, Southeastern also features songs about murderers, revenge plotters, and people dying of cancer. Is that just the way, I suggest, that his imagination leans?
"I guess so," he says. "I hope there is hope in my material – it's not tragic or bitter, I don't think it comes off like a disaster this record – but it's very dark. It's a cathartic kind of thing for me: I write best when I'm doing it for therapy, to explain the way I feel about things to myself. Usually when I'm happy that doesn't need any explaining – if I'm feeling good about something I'd rather not mess with it, just leave it off the page. Maybe in the future."
The album 'Southeastern' is out now. Jason Isbell tours from 18 to 25 NovemberReuse content