Jason Isbell

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Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell at Bowery Ballroom.JPG
Isbell with the 400 Unit at Bowery Ballroom, NYC in Jan. 2013
Background information
Born (1979-02-01) February 1, 1979 (age 36)
Green Hill, Alabama
Genres Singer-songwriter
alternative country
classic country
southern rock
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter
Instruments Guitar
electronic keyboard
Years active 2001–present
Labels Lightning Rod Records
New West Records
Associated acts Drive-By Truckers
Website jasonisbell.com

Jason Isbell (/ˈɪzbʊl/;[1] born February 1, 1979) is an American singer-songwriter and guitarist from Green Hill, Alabama, in Lauderdale County. He is best known for his solo career, and as a former member of the Drive-By Truckers for 6 years.[2]

Early life[edit]

Isbell was born in Green Hill, Alabama, two miles from the Alabama/Tennessee state line,[3] the son of interior designer mother, Angela Hill Barnett, and house painter, Mike Isbell.[4][5]

Isbell's parents divorced, and he has half-siblings, Chantry Barnett and Emily Isbell, who are much younger than he.[1]

Isbell grew up in rural North Alabama, a childhood where he said his family had cows in the backyard. While being taken care of by his grandparents (while his parents worked), who had horses and sheep as well as chickens, ducks and geese on their farm, Isbell learned how to care for (and kill) fowl—an easy job for a kid—at an early age of 6 or 7 years old. His grandparents lived right down the street, next to the school that Isbell attended.[1]

Almost all of Isbell's family, except his parents, were musicians, and his father was an avid music listener.[6] On his family and music: "Grandparents, uncles, aunts, great-uncles, and cousins, we all played music together once or twice a week," he recalls. "The music that I make and the way I make it has a lot to do with where I came from. I might have also made good music if I was from a different part of the country or a different part of the world, but I'm really happy to be from there, I think I'm a lucky person to be from there."[7]

Isbell's paternal grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher and played guitar in church. His grandfather had 7 or 8 brothers, and most of them played instruments either professionally or recreationally.[1]

Because his father was Pentecostal, he went to the Pentecostal church with his grandparents, but said that when his parents got a divorce, his mother's family attended Church of Christ, which Isbell describes as being very strict. Musical instruments were not allowed, only "human voices." Isbell said he switched back and forth between the two churches.[1]

Isbell said his last name is originally Spanish.[1]

Isbell spent a lot of time as a child being taken care of by his grandfather, who along with his uncle, took the time to teach young Isbell how to play multiple instruments. Isbell jokes that "I grew up playing music with my family as a form of child care."[8] Isbell said he first learned how to play the mandolin when he was 6 years old, since he was so young he could play the smaller sized instrument better. The music was mostly gospel, bluegrass, and the humor performers from Grand Ole Opry.[1]

He started playing in a garage band and a country cover band (Keith Whitley, Garth Brooks, Alan Jackson) when he was 14, 15 years old with his good friend, songwriter Chris Tompkins.[9] They even played at Grand Ole Opry when he was 16.[1] In high school Isbell played trumpet and French horn.[1]

Isbell attended University of Memphis,[10] studying English and Creative Writing. Isbell was in a fraternity there, but did not graduate - he is short one class: "Human Fitness and Wellness."[1]


Isbell turned in demos and eventually got a publishing deal with Muscle Shoals, Alabama recording studio, FAME Studios, the oldest studio in an area rich with rhythm and blues history, where he stayed from the age of 21 until he joined the Drive-by Truckers.[11]

When he was just a teenager, Isbell said many of the musicians took him under their wing, "taught us how to play, and how not to play."[11] Isbell said he knew Patterson Hood's dad, David Hood, really well because Hood Sr. was in the Florence, Alabama area and played around town on Friday and Saturday nights in restaurants and local bar and grills. Patterson and Cooley were older and had moved out of town by then.[1]

Isbell said when he was 16, 17, 18 years old he would to go see David Hood and others play. When he finally got up the nerve to tell them he played, they'd have him sit in with them, ultimately becoming good friends.[1]

Drive-by Truckers[edit]

Jason Isbell performing with Drive-By Truckers in Auburn, Alabama in 2005.

After working as a songwriter, in 2001 at the age of 22, Isbell joined the rock band Drive-By Truckers while they toured in support of their album Southern Rock Opera.[12]

Patterson Hood recalled that meeting Isbell was a "life-changing moment in time," saying they met through a mutual friend, Dick Cooper, a Muscle Shoals guy.[13] Hood had gotten to know both Shonna Tucker and Isbell beforehand, but it wasn't until an acoustic house party when guitarist Rob Malone didn't show up—and Isbell sat in with the Drive-by Truckers—becoming their third guitarist and beginning a songwriting collaboration that was lauded by many as a fertile time for the band.[14]

Isbell recorded and wrote with the Truckers for their next three albums, 2003's Decoration Day, 2004's The Dirty South, and 2006's Blessing and a Curse. The song that named the album Decoration Day Isbell revealed in the 2014 Live from Lincoln Center concert is a true story about his family members.[15]

For most of his time as a band member Isbell was married to Shonna Tucker, who joined the band as a bassist (after Isbell). The two were part of the band's documentary, The Secret to a Happy Ending.[16] The two later divorced.[17]

On April 5, 2007, Isbell announced that he was no longer a member of Drive-By Truckers. The following day, Patterson Hood confirmed the break on the band's official site. In his letter to the fans, Hood described the parting of ways as "amicable" and expressed the hope that fans would continue to support Drive-By Truckers as well as Jason's solo efforts.

Jimbo Hart (left) and Jason Isbell at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco, October 5 2014

Solo work[edit]

Jason Isbell released his first solo album, Sirens of the Ditch, on July 10, 2007.

Emergence of the 400 Unit[edit]

Isbell's current band, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, is primarily made up of Muscle Shoals, Alabama-area musicians.[11] The lineup is currently:

The band's name comes from the "400 Unit," a former colloquial name of the psychiatric ward of Florence, Alabama's Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital, which is now named the Behavioral Health Center, or One North, and is located on the hospital's first floor.

On the name Isbell said: "There is a mental treatment facility here in Florence called The 400 Unit. About once a week they would drive downtown and take, I guess, the six or eight healthiest people in the facility and let 'em go downtown. Give 'em all like $15 apiece to go get some lunch. You'd immediately recognize who it was and why they were there; they all had nametags on, saying kinda strange stuff to everybody."[18] "We had been on the road for about a month. We stopped somewhere and we all got out of the van and we were drinking pretty heavily and not getting a whole lot of sleep, and it was the middle of the day and we were all hungover and smelled pretty bad, and I handed everybody 10 bucks because it was their per diem for the day, and we all went to get a sandwich, and I thought, 'Man, that reminds me so much of something I've seen somewhere before.'" Jason Isbell, Fresh Air[19]

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit's eponymous album was released on February 17, 2009, on Lightning Rod Records. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit was Isbell's second solo release and his first release with his band The 400 Unit. Matt Pence of Centro-Matic co-produced and engineered the record, as well as playing drums on the record.

Isbell and the 400 Unit released their second album, Here We Rest, on April 12, 2011, on Lightning Rod Records. The album was produced and recorded by the band. The song "Alabama Pines" was named Song of the Year at the 2012 Americana Music Awards.

In 2012, Isbell supported singer-songwriter Ryan Adams on his tour. Both played solo, acoustic sets.

On June 11, 2013, Isbell released his fourth solo album, Southeastern. Produced by Dave Cobb and featuring accompanying vocals by Kim Richey and Isbell's wife, Amanda Shires, Southeastern received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews, earning a score of 88 on Metacritic.[20] Southeastern led to Isbell's clean sweep of the 2014 Americana Music Awards with Album of the Year, while Isbell was named Artist of the Year, the song "Cover Me Up" was named song of the year, and Isbell was named artist of the year.[21] NPR rock critic Ken Tucker listed Southeastern at No. 1 on his top ten albums of 2013.

Isbell's music video for the song "Traveling Alone," features the Jackson House, a historic home in Moulton, Alabama.[22]

In 2014, his song "Cover Me Up" was used as the Weather for the Welcome to Night Vale episode "Visitor".

In early 2015, it was announced that Jason Isbell would perform at the Boston Calling Music Festival in May 2015.[23]

Isbell's fifth solo record, Something More Than Free, will be released July 2015 on Southeastern Records. Dave Cobb produced, continuing the partnership created with Isbell on Southeastern. They recorded the album at Nashville’s Sound Emporium studio.[24] In April 2015 Isbell released dates for a North American summer Tour to promote the up-coming album. The tour will end with 4 consecutive night concerts at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on October 23rd through the 26th.[25][26][27]


Studio albums[edit]

Year Title Label
2007 Sirens of the Ditch New West Records
2009 Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit Lightning Rod Records
2011 Here We Rest Lightning Rod Records
2013 Southeastern Southeastern Records
2015 Something More Than Free Southeastern Records

Live albums[edit]

Year Title Label
2008 Live at Twist & Shout 11.16.07 New West Records
2012 Live From Alabama Lightning Rod Records


Year Title Label
2015 Sea Songs Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires
"I Follow Rivers" & "Mutineer"
Southeastern Records (digital only)

Musical influences[edit]

On the importance of Isbell's Northern Alabama roots: "I definitely don’t feel like I would be the musician that I am, or the type of songwriter, had I not come from that particular place," he says now. "The soul music that came out of there, and a lot of the soul-influenced rock and roll and country music that came out of the studios in north Alabama in the '60s and '70s had a big influence on me."[28]

Guitar equipment[edit]


  • Duesenberg Starplayer TV Goldtop
  • Fender Stratocaster
  • First Act Custom Delgada w/ Bigsby
  • First Act Custom Delia LS w/ Bigsby
  • First Act Delia LS (standard fixed-bridge version)
  • Gibson Les Paul Standard
  • Gibson ES-335
  • Reverend Buckshot
  • Reverend Flatroc w/ Les Trem
  • Harmony Archtop[29]
  • Fender Telecaster


  • Sommatone Roaring-40 head & 2x12 Cabinet

Other gear[edit]

Notable performances[edit]

Personal life[edit]

Isbell married the singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires, with whom he'd worked on and off for a decade, in February 2013, two days after they finished Southeastern.[8][30] Musician Todd Snider married them.[1]

Previously Isbell was married to Shonna Tucker in 2002, a fellow musician from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama community, and a former bass player from Drive-By Truckers.[4]

In February 2012, Isbell's wife, Shires, "with the help of his manager Traci Thomas and the musician Ryan Adams, got him into rehab. Isbell spent two weeks in Cumberland Heights, an alcohol-and-drug-treatment center in Nashville."[4] Isbell has discussed getting sober extensively, saying he drank Jack Daniel's and did cocaine.[19][31] Isbell said he didn't start binge drinking until his late 20s, when he started touring with the Drive-By Truckers.[1] Isbell said "I'm lucky to have a second chance at all this. I don't remember a lot of the good times from my days with the Truckers." This time around, he says, "This time I want to remember it all."[4] Southeastern, Isbell's 2013 solo album, is reflective of his newfound sober lifestyle.[32]

Isbell has a tattoo on the inside of his left arm, words that are lyrics from Boots of Spanish Leather, the Bob Dylan song: "Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled, from across that lonesome ocean." Isbell said: "For me when I read those words, it has to do with travel and keeping something about yourself intact, not letting those pieces get pulled away as you make your way around the world."[8]

Isbell has lived in Nashville, Tennessee since 2011.[14][33][34] He is a huge Atlanta Braves fan.[35]

Works or publications[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Maron, Marc (March 26, 2014). "Episode 482 - Jason Isbell" (PODCAST). WTF Podcast. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  2. ^ Monger, James Christopher. "Jason Isbell - Biography". AllMusic. All Media Network, LLC. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  3. ^ "Jason Isbell". Spin It Loud. 2009. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c d Garner, Dwight (May 31, 2013). "Jason Isbell, Unloaded". New York Times. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  5. ^ "Carthel E. Isbell" (OBITUARY). Florence Times Daily. September 19, 2002. 
  6. ^ Dodds, M.S. (June 28, 2007). "Jason Isbell interview". Illinois Entertainer. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  7. ^ Booth, Jared (May 11, 2011). "Jason Isbell talks writing, war, and family life". Charleston City Paper. Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  8. ^ a b c Lacher, Irene (September 7, 2013). "The Sunday Conversation: A sobering change for singer Jason Isbell". L.A. Times. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  9. ^ Sullivan, James (August 1, 2013). "Jason Isbell: 'There's Still Just as Much Awe' in Sobriety". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  10. ^ DeYoung, Bill (March 19, 2014). "SMF review: Jason Isbell". Connect Savannah. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c Helton, Eric (18 March 2011). "SXSW Interview: Jason Isbell" (VIDEO INTERVIEW). Rolling Stone. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  12. ^ Schmergel, Daniel Patrick (April 24, 2006). "An Artist Revealed: Interview with Jason Isbell". Lost Writers. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  13. ^ Maron, Marc (March 28, 2014). "Episode 483 - Patterson Hood" (PODCAST). WTF Podcast. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  14. ^ a b Leahey, Andrew (September 17, 2013). "Jason Isbell Keeps on Truckin'". American Songwriter. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  15. ^ "Live From Lincoln Center - Jason Isabell: Moving Forward". PBS. April 11, 2014. Retrieved May 6, 2014. 
  16. ^ Weissman, Barr (2011). "The Secret to a Happy Ending" (DVD RELEASE OF THE 2009 MOTION PICTURE). The Secret to a Happy Ending: A Documentary About the Drive-By Truckers. Full House Films / ATO Records. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  17. ^ Mitter, Siddhartha (July 15, 2007). "He'll keep on trucking, but solo". Boston Globe. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  18. ^ "Jason Isbell - Current Artists". FAME Music Group. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  19. ^ a b Gross, Terry (July 17, 2013). "Jason Isbell Locates His Musical Compass On 'Southeastern'". Fresh Air. NPR. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  20. ^ Parton, Chris (19 August 2013). "Jason Isbell Leaves a Mark at Ryman". CMT. Country Music Television, Inc. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  21. ^ Ann Powers (18 November 2014). "Jason Isbell, Live at the 2014 Americana Music Awards". NPR. Retrieved 19 November 2014. 
  22. ^ Qualls, Meredith (August 24, 2013). "Isbell's music video filmed in Moulton". TimesDaily (Florence, AL). Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  23. ^ Ollman, Jonah. "Boston Calling Announces May 2015 Lineup". Sound of Boston. Retrieved 15 January 2015. 
  24. ^ McKenna, Brittney (16 April 2015). "Jason Isbell Announces New Album ‘Something More Than Free’". American Songwriter. Retrieved 17 April 2015. 
  25. ^ "Jason Isbell 2015 North American Summer Tour Schedule". May 5, 2015. Retrieved May 5, 2015. 
  26. ^ "Jason Isbell’s New Album ‘Something More Than Free’ Coming in July". April 16, 2015. Retrieved May 5, 2015. 
  27. ^ "Jason Isbell Summer Tour Dates Announced". May 4, 2015. Retrieved May 5, 2015. 
  28. ^ Bailey, Rachel (November 28, 2012). "Jason Isbell: That New Southern Style". Flagpole Magazine. Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  29. ^ a b c Oz (April 5, 2011). "An Interview With Jason Isbell – Here We Rest.". Hear Ya. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  30. ^ Kerns, William (July 25, 2012). "Happily engaged Shires makes return appearance in hometown". Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Retrieved January 1, 2014. 
  31. ^ Bialias, Michael (May 2, 2013). "Hangout and About, Part 1: Jason Isbell is Solo, But Not Alone". Huffington Post. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  32. ^ Block, Melissa (June 10, 2013). "Jason Isbell: A 'Southeastern' Songwriter's Path To Sobriety" (AUDIO INTERVIEW). All Things Considered. NPR. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  33. ^ Portman, Jed (December 7, 2012). "Down South: Southern Rock Star Jason Isbell on Cracker Barrel, Cornbread Poetry, and More". Serious Eats. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  34. ^ Shelburne, Craig (July 25, 2012). "Jason Isbell Finds Americana in "Alabama Pines"". CMT. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  35. ^ O'Brien, David (December 15, 2011). "For Jason Isbell, Braves fandom runs in family". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 

External links[edit]