Singer, songwriter and guitarist Jason Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers in November 2001, and nothing has been the same since. The band was on the edge of Rolling Stone's radar with the double album Southern Rock Opera, but they were still known as white-trashy, borderline novelty rockers led by two close college friends, Patterson Hood and Michael Cooley. But with the addition of Isbell and bassist Shonna Tucker, the band's songwriting and musicianship revived a petrified Southern rock genre and earned them the "Best American Band" death-kiss from many an absurdity, save that their new album, A Blessing and a Curse, somehow makes their Southern grease sparkle, and their ruthless touring drowns out the buzz every night.
In LA for a festival on Sunset Boulevard, Isbell sniffles a bit on the phone. He's thoughtful and unguarded, his drawl dry and earnest. Isbell lives in Green Hill, Alabama, near his native turf of Muscle Shoals, where he's lived and made music all his life. "The cost of living is a whole lot less here," he says. "And we're close to our families. And it's also good to vanish when you get off the road. In the beginning, it was easy [for me] to fit in. We all grew up in the same place, had pretty much the same musical tastes, political stances and family difficulties. There was something cohesive there. [Patterson and Cooley] paid attention to what I was doing from day one."
The Drive-By Truckers' bond is their Southern roots: the sounds and the places, the pride they take in a culture that created country, blues and rock & roll, and the deep knowledge of culture's darkest flaws. Though A Blessing and a Curse steps back from obvious Southern rock trappings, they know what home means. Hood lives in Athens, Georgia, and Cooley in Birmingham. They like being close to where they're from but not too close to each other.
"We don't rehearse, but we can meet up if we need to," Isbell says. "Cooley has a theory that practice kills bands. We play so many shows, so if we need to learn something we do it at sound check or in the studio. We've always done it that way. The last week of the last tour we learned 'Glad and Sorry,' the Faces' song."
Power-pop, British Invasion, '70s singer-songwriter insinuations: Curse is more a rock album by a Southern band than a Southern rock album. They've reined in their sprawling character studies for a tighter focus on the conflicts underlying them. They know what it takes to stay in touch with who they are and where they come from without letting it define them. But they don't turn their backs on it, either, because that's who they are. The Truckers might try to outrun their roots, but at the finish line they find the South is still staring them right in the face.
"We still try to write about what we know and we're all Southern people," Isbell says. "We tried to keep from making a Southern record. It's not as story-driven. That wasn't on purpose. We all just want to keep ourselves interested in what we're doing. You have to walk a fine line between making fun of yourself and presenting it in an honest way. Those early Trucker albums did that pretty well. They were funny, but they dealt with serious problems. You have to come to terms with things by writing about them staying a certain kind of person and learning from what is going on around you."
As compelling as Southern Rock Opera can be, Isbell's songwriting contributions to the follow-up albums Decoration Day and The Dirty South seemed to push Cooley and Hood towards the well-woven lyricism and precise story-telling that's now their signature. Isbell penned the title track to Decoration Day, a brutal remembrance of the South's secret war dead and also wrote one of the band's finest ballads, "Danko/Manuel," a song of chilling empathy with two of rock & roll's most tragic voices and best-known casualties.
"I don't know," Isbell says when asked if the band still belongs to founder and forceful presence Patterson Hood. "I don't think he would agree with that. I don't know. I don't think it's his band anymore, any more than it belongs to the rest of us. It started out that way, but even Cooley wasn't writing as much as [he] is now.
"But Patterson had the vision and he's very prolific. It certainly couldn't exist without him. He has a connection with the audience that not a lot of people have. He has a way of bringing the crowd in on the experience that I can't do and that even Cooley can't do. Wayne Coyne can do that, but I can't. A lot of the impact of the show comes from the connection that he creates."
Given three talented and prolific songwriters, one wonders how long the band can last, how long before artistic and personal differences transform cliché into a fact. All three songwriters have solo albums in the works (Hood has already released the stripped-down Killers and Stars), but no one should place bets on the Truckers' retirement just yet.
"I think about it," Isbell says. "We don't have plans to stop. But people get older, things happen. People aren't able to tour forever, unless you're Willie Nelson. I guess space can be an issue. Traveling and keeping the bus from being too crowded, keeping the vibe on the bus the right way, making sure everyone gets their own space before and after the show. That's our biggest area of concern now, figuring out how we can all be happy touring with a house trailer, basically. We don't disagree on the musical aspects of stuff. If we don't agree on something immediately, it's not worth messing with.
"We know each other well enough now that we know when to stay out of each other's way," Isbell adds. "It's just like playing with three guitar players in a band. It works that way personally off-stage too. You have to listen to the parts that others are adding and get in where you fit."