by Roy Kasten
When you think of the music of Jason Isbell, as a solo artist or with Drive-By Truckers, the first influence that comes to mind probably isn't John Prine. But the dean of tragic-comic songwriters has served as a kind of mentor, or at least a role model, for Isbell.
Finding the unconventional poetry in small, pure, utterly conventional moments of everyday life is what the Chicago native has been doing since the '70s. And it's what Isbell is aiming for, in his own way and in his own voice, in his mostly spare recent songs. And Prine is there in the melodies as well. Just listen to the standout track "Traveling Alone" from Isbell's breakthrough album Southeastern. The tune pays tribute to Prine's classic song of human isolation "Hello in There."
In this week's print edition, RFT Music's Roy Kasten dug into the career of Jason Isbell, who performs Saturday, February 14, at the Peabody Opera House. On this tour he's not traveling with John Prine, but the songwriter's presence won't be too far away.
"We've done a few short tours with him, and a few long ones," Isbell says of his and his wife Amanda Shire's connection with Prine. "He's as close to a hero as we have in our house. We have a 'What Would John Do?' saying, if we have to make a major decision. He's still writing and making beautiful music. He has a beautiful marriage, good-looking kids, and he goes to the movies when he's not on the road. That's something I'd like to have. And it is kind of what I have now, without the kids.
"We were playing Charleston recently, and Bill Murray came to the show," Isbell continues. "He came up to the merch table. He bought some CDs and stuck them down the front of his shirt. He came backstage to say hello and introduced himself. I said, 'I can get you a pass backstage if you like.' He was like, 'I'm fucking Bill Murray!' [Laughs] So, OK, I can understand that. So he came back and introduced himself to everyone. He and John started talking. Back in Chicago in the early days, John played directly across the street from Second City, and he'd go over and watch the Second City players -- Bill Murray, John Belushi, Andy Kaufmann. And then they'd walk across the street to see John play.
"John is a sweet man, incredibly intelligent and witty, and he's been good to me and my wife, that's for sure."
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