Jason Isbell hit the ground running when he joined Drive-By Truckers in 2001, just as the band's breakthrough album Southern Rock Opera was blowing up. He soon proved that he could hold his own as one of the Truckers' three singer-songwriters on 2003's Decoration Day, ushering in a streak of brilliance unbroken through last year's A Blessing And A Curse. But Isbell stunned many this April with the abrupt announcement that he'd be quitting the group to put more effort into his imminent solo release, Sirens Of The Ditch—though fans of Isbell's scant yet stunning contribution to the Truckers' oeuvre knew that his decision was far from career suicide. Released this month after three years of on-again, off-again recording, Sirens cements Isbell's stature as a gritty, truth-slinging troubadour yearning to push the Southern-rock envelope while hewing close to his Alabama roots. Isbell recently spoke with The A.V. Club about creative differences, moving on, and the drawbacks of democracy.
The A.V. Club: You've been working on Sirens Of The Ditch for the last three years. Why did it take you so long to finish?
Jason Isbell: I toured so much with the Truckers, I never had the opportunity to record. On the road I was usually working on another Truckers record. I wound up spending a total of three weeks in the studio, but it was spread over a period of three years. I just didn't get the time to go in there and do it all at once.
AVC: As you were writing songs during that time, was it clear in your mind which were going to be Truckers songs and which were going to be solo ones?
JI: Yeah, it was usually really clear. I don't know exactly why or exactly how I made those decisions. I've tried to explain it, but it really comes down to instinct more than anything else. When you hear these songs, you don't really think they would've worked in Drive-By Truckers. I think it's pretty obvious they're for another project, even if I don't know exactly what makes them that way.
AVC: Did making the solo album help you come to the decision to leave the band?
JI: Well, the record was already finished before any of that happened. It was already scheduled for release. I don't know if the fact that it was coming out had anything to do with [my decision]. It might have, but more than anything else, it was the fact that I was going to want to tour and travel and work so much. Those other guys have families and kids and stuff now. They don't want to spend as much time on the road. I think that probably had as much to do with it as anything.
AVC: The phrase "creative differences" has been thrown around a lot, as well.
JI: I hate to say it, but it's usually true. We were kind of going in different directions, musically, and that's probably pretty obvious from the way this new record sounds.
AVC: Do you think there are any clues about those differences that can be heard in some of the recent Truckers stuff? For instance, your song "Daylight" off of A Blessing And A Curse seems like your attempt to stretch the Drive-By Truckers formula a bit.
JI: Yeah, I was trying to push what the band was doing at that point in time, just something a little bit different. I'm not sure if they were ready to go that direction or not. Not because what we were doing wasn't working, but
AVC: Three guitarists and three songwriters working on concept album seems like it could be kind of restrictive, too.
JI: Democracy can tie your hands in a rock 'n' roll band, you know? [Laughs.] It can be a great thing, but if you've got a certain amount of vision and you write a lot of songs, it's sometimes better to have your own band and make your own decisions. I love all the records that we made as a band, for sure, but at the same time, there can be a lot of fighting back and forth to get certain songs on the record or to get certain decisions made. I don't want to fight with anybody. [Laughs.]
AVC: You've said that your new album is more hook-oriented and not necessarily as story-driven. You're just talking matters of degrees, though, right? Those elements have always been strong in your songs.
JI: Yeah, both of those things will always be there to some extent. They're the focal points of how I write. The Truckers was a thing where storytelling and that Southern mythos was part of what we did. It's not necessarily as big a part of what I'm doing. It's there, but there are more elements combating with it.
AVC: A couple of songs on the album, "Dress Blues" and "The Devil Is My Running Mate," are pretty political. How comfortable are you with putting messages in your songs?
JI: I don't have any problem with it. If you're somebody who writes songs or writes fiction, a writer that people pay for your opinion in any way, you shouldn't be the least bit uncomfortable giving it to them. People want songwriters to tell them how they think and how they feel. That's what a song is. That's what I want to hear in a song.
AVC: In a recent interview about Sirens, you said, "I have to stop calling it my solo record and just call it my record." Have you come to terms with being on your own, yet still closely associated with Drive-By Truckers?
JI: That's strange—I dreamed last night of being back in the band. [Laughs.] I've been on this medicine to quit smoking, and it makes me have really vivid dreams. Anyway, as far as putting work into this new record, I never viewed it as a side project. It never got secondary-quality songs, and I've spent just as much time and effort on this as I have Truckers records. But for a while there, it was going to be considered a side project. I don't know how long or what it's going to take for this to seem more like my whole thing. But I definitely don't mind being associated with that band. We did really good stuff; we stuck to our guns and did things for the right reasons. I'm proud of that. I hope that's always something that comes up in conversation.