The fall and rise of Jason Isbell: From getting booted by Drive-By Truckers to becoming Americana music's favorite son
The 41-year-old alternative country artiste Jason Isbell has often been heralded as one of the most talented American singer-songwriters of his generation.
Emerging into the spotlight thanks to his celebrated six-year stint with the popular Southern rock outfit Drive-By Truckers, Isbell was unceremoniously booted out of the band in 2007 due to his then-troubling addiction issues that also saw his marriage with bandmate and bassist Shonna Tucker unravel in the public eye.
Since then, however, Jason Isbell has been on a magical redemption story arc, fulfilling his potential as one of the most prodigious songwriters alive today, earning him comparisons to his hero Bob D.ylan, and his friend, the late great John Prine in the process.
Jason was a fresh-faced 22-year-old out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, when he joined the Drive-By Truckers in 2001, once described by Rolling Stone as "the boldest 'n' baddest Southern band in the land."
Over the course of three brilliant studio albums, he wrote some of the group's most enduring songs, including the title track of their 2003 album, 'Decoration Day', the sagacious 'Outfit', the fearless 'Never Gonna Change' and the melancholic, yet beautiful 'Goddamn Lonely Love'.
What set him apart from the other talented members of the Drive-By Truckers was the heartfelt nature of his songs. Jason wrote with searing insight and burning soul, pouring out his emotions on the page with his elegant turns of phrase.
However, the hard-living and relentless touring lifestyle of the Drive-By Truckers made Jason burn out relatively quickly over the next six years. His relationship with his wife Shonna Tucker, who had joined the band in 2003, began to deteriorate making for some ugly public scenes until they finally divorced.
Jason's fondness for cocaine and Jack Daniel's whiskey also did not help his cause, making him unreliable and a liability to the band's future plans. Patterson Hood, a mainstay of the Drive-By Truckers revealed, “Some people get drunk and become kind of sweet... Jason wasn't one of those people."
The drug-addled and always-high Jason was asked to leave the band in 2007, with the band saying that the split was amicable. But the reality was that Jason had way too many drug and personality issues that needed sorting out.
To his everlasting credit, Jason did seek his way back to the greener side after finding himself adrift in a wilderness of his own making.
He soon cleaned up his act and released six (out of seven solo efforts) critically-acclaimed albums with his backing band The 400 Unit, picking up four Grammy awards in the process.
Even more poetically, Jason found new love again in 2011 after falling for singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, his current wife who also contributes violin and backing vocals to The 400 Unit.
Amanda also played a critical role in Jason giving up booze forever in 2012, calling his manager and fellow musicians like Ryan Adams to hold him accountable and ensuring he never fell off the wagon again after entering rehab.
Almost immediately after that, his career resurrected. The single 'Alabama Pines' won Song of the Year at the 2012 Americana Awards. His last two albums, 'Something More Than Free' (2015), and 'The Nashville Sound' (2017) both debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Rock and Country charts.
Amanda and Jason aka the premier power couple of Americana music got married in 2013 and now raise their four-year-old daughter Mercy together in Nashville, the spiritual heartland of country music.
Even though Isbell's numerous years of hard living have inevitably formed an integral part of his creative process, his songwriting has increasingly matured to talk about the state of the world around him.
When asked in 2017 by a fan, "Why do we have to inject politics in every aspect of our life, can't we just enjoy the music and the football games?". Jason responded in immortal fashion: "Until you are the one being treated unfairly, that's easy to say."
"Jason has become one of the best writers in the country," hailed David Crosby, who guest stars on 'What've I Done to Help?' the first track on the upcoming LP 'Reunions'.
"And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. His singing is emotional. It's honest. He's really trying to tell you the story."
Jason's new album, 'Reunions', due May 15, includes 'It Gets Easier', a rousing song that talks about staying sober for eight years. Also on this album is 'Maybe It’s Time', a ballad made famous by Bradley Cooper's drug-addicted character in the Oscar-winning film, 'A Star Is Born'.
One of our favorite Jason Isbell performances in recent memory is when he turned out for NPR's Tiny Desk Concert. Three stellar moments from this video encapsulated in a nutshell why Jason is one of the greatest down-to-earth musicians in Southern music today.
Besides lovingly checking out his wife Amanda's nose after she confessed she might have boogers, Jason also invited a young audience member called Ashwin on stage to play with his band. It was an unprecedented generous gesture that might easily have gone awry had Ashwin not performed so creditably.
But it was the third thing that Jason did that will forever set him apart from a multitude of his peers. He actually stopped right after launching into a rendition of the song 'Molotov' because he sang a wrong word during the intro section — just one solitary word!
Most musicians would just shrug it off and continue, but not Jason. "I spent so much time on that word," he confessed, willing to abort a passable performance because he wanted to deliver the song exactly right, the way it was written, the way it was meant to be to be heard.
And that, my friends, speaks of a whole other breed of musicianship — Jason's exacting attention to minute details goes a long way in explaining why he is so rightfully cherished by fans and critics alike.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit's seventh studio album, 'Reunions', will be released this weekend on May 15. To commemorate the happy event, Jason will be live-streaming a gig from the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville, accompanied by his wife Amanda Shires (but no audience, sadly, due to Covid-19 restrictions).
The free-to-air acoustic livestream concert will be broadcast on the site fans.com at 8 pm ET on May 15 so make sure you catch Jason and Amanda in this special performance.