Jason Isbell

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Jason Isbell
Isbell with the 400 Unit at Bowery Ballroom, New York City in January 2013
Isbell with the 400 Unit at Bowery Ballroom, NYC in Jan. 2013
Background information
Birth name Michael Jason Isbell[1]
Born (1979-02-01) February 1, 1979 (age 36)
Green Hill, Alabama, U.S.
Genres Rock, alternative country, classic country, Southern rock
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter, guitarist
Instruments Guitar
electronic keyboard
Years active 2001–present
Labels Lightning Rod Records
New West Records
Southeastern Records on Thirty Tigers
Associated acts Drive-By Truckers
Website jasonisbell.com

Michael Jason Isbell (/ˈɪzbʊl/;[2] 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 six years, from 2001 to 2007.[3]

Early life[edit]

Isbell was born in Green Hill, Alabama, two miles from the Alabama/Tennessee state line,[4] the son of interior designer mother, Angela Hill Barnett, and house painter, Mike Isbell.[5][6]

Isbell's mother was only 17 years old (and his father 19 years old) when he was born,[7] and is the subject of a song, "Children of Children."[8] Isbell's parents divorced, and he has two much younger half-siblings, Chantry Barnett and Emily Isbell.[2]

Isbell grew up in rural North Alabama. His grandparents lived on a farm down the road, next to the school that Isbell attended and looked after him while his parents were at work. His grandfather and uncle taught him to play various musical instruments,[9] including the mandolin when he was 6 years old as it was easier for him to grip as a small child. They enjoyed gospel, bluegrass, and the Grand Ole Opry. In high school he played trumpet and French horn.[2] Isbell's family would get together and play music every week, sometimes twice a week, which Isbell said has a lot to do with where he comes from and the family's focus on music.[10][11] Isbell's paternal grandfather, who came from a musical family, was a Pentecostal preacher who played guitar in church. He spent his childhood attending both the Pentecostal church and the stricter Church of Christ, which permitted only singing (no musical instruments).[2]

He started playing in a garage band and a country cover band when he was 14 or 15 years old with his friend songwriter Chris Tompkins.[12] They even played at Grand Ole Opry when he was 16.[2]

Isbell attended University of Memphis,[13] studying English and Creative Writing. He did not graduate.[2]


When he was a teenager, Isbell said many musicians took him under their wing.[14] Isbell got to know Drive-By Truckers Patterson Hood's dad and legendary session player, David Hood, 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. By this time, Patterson and Cooley were older and had moved out of town. The young Isbell would go watch Hood Sr. and others perform. It took a while but once he finally got up the nerve to tell them he played, they'd have him sit in with them, which resulted in friendship and mentorship.[2]

Isbell submitted demos and eventually got a publishing deal with FAME Studios of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, when he was 21 years old. He stayed working for FAME until he joined the Drive-by Truckers.[14]

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.[15] The band operates out of Athens, Georgia, where Isbell lived while with the Drive-By Truckers.

Patterson Hood recalls that he met Isbell through Dick Cooper, a mutual friend from Muscle Shoals.[16] Hood already knew Shonna Tucker, and invited Isbell to join the Drive-by Truckers after he sat in with the group at an acoustic house party when guitarist Rob Malone didn't show up.[17]

Isbell recorded and contributed many songs to the Drive-by 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.[18]

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.[19] The two later divorced.[20]

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.[21] Isbell had been with the Drive-By Truckers for six years.[8]

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

In a full circle type of reunion, in August 2015, Hood joined Isbell onstage and played a couple of Drive-By Truckers songs together onstage in Hood's new adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon.[22]

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 band, Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, was primarily made up of musicians from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama-area.[14] The lineup was:

The band's name comes from the 400 Unit, a colloquial name for the psychiatric ward of Florence, Alabama's Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital, which is now named the Behavioral Health Center, or 1st North, and is located on the hospital's first floor. It was originally called the 400 unit because it was in a separate building from the main building's 3-story hospital. After renovation in the 1980s the name was changed.[23]

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.

Solo records[edit]

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.[24] 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, and the song "Cover Me Up" was named song of the year.[25] NPR rock critic Ken Tucker listed Southeastern at No. 1 on his top ten albums of 2013. Isbell's record received praise by artists like Bruce Springsteen and John Prine.[26]

Isbell's music video for the song "Traveling Alone," features the Jackson House, a historic home in Moulton, Alabama.[27]

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

Isbell's fifth solo record, Something More Than Free, was released on July 17, 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 with a full band.[28] During the summer of 2015, Isbell was on a North American tour to promote the album, with four consecutive sold-out nights at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville at the end of October.[29][30]

Isbell said that compared to Southeastern, Something More Than Free has a feeling of celebration,[31][32] which reflects his upcoming fatherhood and a forward-facing momentum.[33] One track on the record, "To a Band I Loved," is a love-letter to the band Centro-Matic, a now defunct band from Denton, Texas Isbell played with back in his Drive-by Truckers days.[31]

Something More Than Free debuted at number 1 on Billboard Magazine's rock, folk and country record charts.[8][34] Although he had had critical success in the Americana genre, this was the first time Isbell received such high ranking across genres.[35] The album was well received.[36]

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."[37] Isbell said that working at FAME Studios was everything to him, that it was a gateway towards the music that he wanted to play.[8] In addition to citing Neil Young as a big influence, Isbell is a fan of singer-songwriter Ben Howard and guitarist Blake Mills.[7]

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.[38][39] Musician Todd Snider married them.[2] The couple had a baby girl, Mercy Rose,[40] on September 1, 2015.[41][42]

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.[5]

In February 2012, Isbell's wife, Shires, manager Traci Thomas, and Ryan Adams, did an intervention and got Isbell treatment at Cumberland Heights in Nashville.[5] Isbell has discussed getting sober extensively, saying he drank Jack Daniel's and did cocaine during his time with the Drive-By Truckers in his late 20s -- a time he does not remember very clearly.[43][44] Southeastern, Isbell's 2013 solo album, is reflective of his newfound sober lifestyle.[45]

Isbell has a tattoo on the inside of his left arm with a quotation from the lyrics of the Bob Dylan song Boots of Spanish Leather.[38] He said that the quote reminds him about the idea of salvaging things, that for him it evokes the idea of loss as well as learning and growing from the experience.[8] During the 2015 Newport Folk Festival, Isbell cited Dylan as a huge influence on his writing.[46]

Isbell has lived in Nashville, Tennessee since 2011.[17][47][48] He is a huge Atlanta Braves fan.[49]


Studio albums[edit]

Title Album details Peak chart positions
US US Heat US Indie US Country US Folk US Rock UK
Sirens of the Ditch 10 33
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
  • Release date: February 17, 2009
  • Label: Lightning Rod Records
131 3 17
Here We Rest
  • Release date: April 12, 2011
  • Label: Lightning Rod Records
79 15 24
  • Release date: June 11, 2013
  • Label: Southeastern Records
23 5 7
Something More Than Free
  • Release date: July 17, 2015
  • Label: Southeastern Records
6 2 1 1 1 17
"—" denotes releases that did not chart

Live albums[edit]

Title Album details Peak
US Indie
Live at Twist & Shout 11.16.07
Live from Alabama
  • Release date: November 19, 2012
  • Label: Lightning Rod Records
"—" denotes releases that did not chart


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



  • Martin HD 28
  • 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[50]
  • Fender Telecaster


  • Sommatone Roaring-40 head & 2x12 Cabinet
  • Magnatone Super Fifty-Nine

Other gear[edit]

Notable performances[edit]

Works or publications[edit]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ "Songwriter/Composer: Isbell Michael Jason". BMI. Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Maron, Marc (26 March 2014). "Episode 482 - Jason Isbell" (podcast). WTF with Marc Maron. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  3. ^ Monger, James Christopher. "Jason Isbell - Biography". AllMusic. All Media Network, LLC. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  4. ^ "Jason Isbell". Spin It Loud. 2009. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  5. ^ a b c Garner, Dwight (31 May 2013). "Jason Isbell, Unloaded". New York Times. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  6. ^ "Carthel E. Isbell". Florence Times Daily. 19 September 2002. 
  7. ^ a b Bialas, Michael (10 August 2015). "During the Long, Hot Summer, Jason Isbell Warms Up to Become One Glad Dad". Huffington Post. Retrieved 11 August 2015. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Mason, Anthony (9 August 2015). "The fall and rise of Jason Isbell". CBS News. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  9. ^ Mason, Anthony (8 August 2015). "Jason Isbell on his musical education (web extra)". CBS News. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  10. ^ Booth, Jared (May 11, 2011). "Jason Isbell talks writing, war, and family life". Charleston City Paper. Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  11. ^ Dodds, M.S. (28 June 2007). "Jason Isbell interview". Illinois Entertainer. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  12. ^ Sullivan, James (1 August 2013). "Jason Isbell: 'There's Still Just as Much Awe' in Sobriety". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  13. ^ DeYoung, Bill (19 March 2014). "SMF review: Jason Isbell". Connect Savannah. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  14. ^ a b c Helton, Eric (18 March 2011). "SXSW Interview: Jason Isbell" (video interview). Rolling Stone. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  15. ^ Schmergel, Daniel Patrick (24 April 2006). "An Artist Revealed: Interview with Jason Isbell". Lost Writers. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  16. ^ Maron, Marc (28 March 2014). "Episode 483 - Patterson Hood" (podcast). WTF Podcast. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  17. ^ a b Leahey, Andrew (17 September 2013). "Jason Isbell Keeps on Truckin'". American Songwriter. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  18. ^ "Live From Lincoln Center - Jason Isbell: Moving Forward". PBS. 11 April 2014. Retrieved 6 May 2014. 
  19. ^ 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. 
  20. ^ Mitter, Siddhartha (15 July 2007). "He'll keep on trucking, but solo". Boston Globe. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  21. ^ Hyden, Steven (4 March 2014). "Drive-By Truckers Carry On". Grantland. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  22. ^ Baker, Jeff (9 August 2015). "Jason Isbell plays Drive-By Truckers songs with Patterson Hood at amazing Portland concert". The Oregonian. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  23. ^ "Jason Isbell - Current Artists". FAME Music Group. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  24. ^ Parton, Chris (19 August 2013). "Jason Isbell Leaves a Mark at Ryman". CMT. Country Music Television, Inc. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  25. ^ Ann Powers (18 November 2014). "Jason Isbell, Live at the 2014 Americana Music Awards". NPR. Retrieved 19 November 2014. 
  26. ^ Doyle, Patrick (7 August 2015). "Jason Isbell's New Morning". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  27. ^ Qualls, Meredith (24 August 2013). "Isbell's music video filmed in Moulton". TimesDaily (Florence, AL). Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  28. ^ McKenna, Brittney (16 April 2015). "Jason Isbell Announces New Album ‘Something More Than Free’". American Songwriter. Retrieved 17 April 2015. 
  29. ^ "Jason Isbell’s New Album ‘Something More Than Free’ Coming in July". 16 April 2015. Retrieved 5 May 2015. 
  30. ^ "Jason Isbell Summer Tour Dates Announced". Grateful Web. 4 May 2015. Retrieved 5 May 2015. 
  31. ^ a b Leahey, Andrew (26 March 2015). "In the Studio With Jason Isbell Making 'Celebratory' New Album". Rolling Stone. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  32. ^ McGregor, Nick (6 May 2015). "Jason Isbell's Workmanlike Genius". FOLIO Weekly. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  33. ^ Wildsmith, Steve (6 May 2015). "Freedom Songs: Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell builds a better album than 'Southeastern'". The Daily Times (Maryville, TN). Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  34. ^ Kellmurray, Beth (27 July 2015). "Jason Isbell Celebrates the Chart Success of ‘Something More Than Free’". Diffuser.fm. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  35. ^ Hight, Jewly (5 August 2015). "Country Star (and Expectant Dad) Jason Isbell 'Glad to Have My Baby on the Brain'". Billboard Magazine. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  36. ^ Mazor, Barry (4 August 2015). "‘Something More Than Free’ by Jason Isbell Review". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 13 August 2015. 
  37. ^ Bailey, Rachel (28 November 2012). "Jason Isbell: That New Southern Style". Flagpole Magazine. Retrieved 29 March 2014. 
  38. ^ a b Lacher, Irene (7 September 2013). "The Sunday Conversation: A sobering change for singer Jason Isbell". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  39. ^ Kerns, William (25 July 2012). "Happily engaged Shires makes return appearance in hometown". Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Retrieved 1 January 2014. 
  40. ^ "Amanda Shires Isbell on Twitter". Twitter. Retrieved 2015-11-17. 
  41. ^ Spevak, Jeff (19 May 2015). "Jason Isbell: The craft of sadness at Water Street". Democrat & Chronicle. Retrieved 1 June 2015. 
  42. ^ Isbell, Jason (1 September 2015). "jasonisbell on Istagram: "Today"". Instagram. Retrieved 1 September 2015. 
  43. ^ Gross, Terry (17 July 2013). "Jason Isbell Locates His Musical Compass On 'Southeastern'". Fresh Air. NPR. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  44. ^ Bialias, Michael (2 May 2013). "Hangout and About, Part 1: Jason Isbell is Solo, But Not Alone". Huffington Post. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  45. ^ Block, Melissa (10 June 2013). "Jason Isbell: A 'Southeastern' Songwriter's Path To Sobriety" (Audio interview). All Things Considered. NPR. Retrieved 7 May 2014. 
  46. ^ "Watch: Jason Isbell Plays Bob Dylan’s Guitar from the 1965 Newport Folk Festival". Relix. 6 August 2015. Retrieved 9 August 2015. 
  47. ^ Portman, Jed (7 December 2012). "Down South: Southern Rock Star Jason Isbell on Cracker Barrel, Cornbread Poetry, and More". Serious Eats. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  48. ^ Shelburne, Craig (25 July 2012). "Jason Isbell Finds Americana in "Alabama Pines"". CMT. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  49. ^ O'Brien, David (15 December 2011). "For Jason Isbell, Braves fandom runs in family". Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Archived from the original on 5 January 2012. Retrieved 30 March 2014. 
  50. ^ a b c Oz (5 April 2011). "An Interview With Jason Isbell – Here We Rest.". Hear Ya. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 

External links[edit]