Jason Isbell has seen a lot of miles in his twenty-nine years. Born and raised near Muscle Shoals, Alabama, he came up in the fertile scene that sprung up around FAME Studios, playing in local bands with any number of characters, including American Idol flash-in-the-pan Bo Bice. He arrived on most people’s radar when he was scooped up by Athens, GA rock juggernaut Drive By Truckers as the third guitar necessary for their Skynryd themed Southern Rock Opera tour, literally learning the songs in the van as they started tour. Even at his young age, Isbell seemed to be an old soul. I remember seeing him at Brownies on one of the early dates and he seemed pretty nonplussed about the whole thing, ripping off solo and slide parts like the hot shit that he was. He looked a whole lot younger than his twenty-two years and we all joked that he was going to get a whole lot older quick touring with that lot.
I saw a lot of the Truckers in those days and I never knew he had songs. It was only when he busted out “Decoration Day” at a house show in North Carolina and floored everyone in attendance that we began to realize what a problem Isbell was going to be. Evidently Patterson and Cooley knew the kid had songs up his sleeve, as “Decoration Day” became the title track to the next record. That tune and songs like “Outfit” were instrumental in DBT taking the big step into being the successful touring machine they are today. Isbell also brought Shonna Tucker into the band when longtime cohort Earl Hicks left the bass slot. They married soon after, making for an awkward situation when Isbell was ousted from the band in 2007 on the eve of releasing his first record Sirens Of The Ditch. Isbell and Tucker are now divorced, although the dissolution of that union has a much vaguer time frame.
Isbell hit the road with his new band The 400 Unit and found himself trailing DBT on the touring circuit, no doubt hounded by everyone within asking distance about his separation from his old band and ex-wife. The songs on Sirens were decent, but the Iraq war commentary “Dress Blues” was the tune that got the most notice. The 400 Unit were good, but they were definitely eclipsed for me by the concurrent release of DBTs Brighter Than Creation’s Dark.
That said, The 400 Unit toured pretty hard behind Sirens, coalescing into a formidable road unit. Isbell has been quick to point out that the new self-titled release is a band record, which may account for the eponym. The 400 Unit sounds a lot more cohesive; even more so it sounds relaxed. Isbell co-produced the record with Centro-matic‘s Matt Pence in between road dates. In listening to the eleven tracks, there is no question that this is a Muscle Shoals record. While the debut may have been tainted by the dark days of the A Blessing And A Curse-era DBT, The 400 Unit finds Isbell rejuvenated and eager to move on. A number of the songs seem to address his personal and professional splits with his old band, whether it be the wistful “Cigarettes and Wine” or the more acidic “Sunstroke”. Both moods are handled with a practiced ease. As happens in the Muscle Shoals tradition, The 400 Unit features keys, in this case in the form of Derry deBorga (ex-Son Volt), and that steamy Southern vibe really makes The 400 Unit shine. The sultry organ and soulful vocals set Isbell and band apart from the current gang of reverb-obsessed Americana folkers. Isbell and company have released one hell of a record. If there is any justice in this world, 2009 should see The 400 Unit making waves on the level of tour titans DBT and Lucero.