Notes from the Ditch

So here’s the not-so-surprising scoop: Jason Isbell—until last April, the decorated guitar and songwriting filly of those Dixie ragamuffins, the Drive-by Truckers—is getting a little weary of chatting about his former band.

Keep on … you know: Amid significant controversy, ex-Drive-by Trucker Jason Isbell strikes out on his own.

It remains, however, a pertinent matter due to the ample Trucker presence all over his commendable freshman solo record, Sirens of the Ditch (Trucker Patterson Hood helped produce it, and most of the band appears somewhere on its 11 tracks). And like it or not, the Isbell split remains more than an aside, if only because rock fans love to gossip more than the regulars at grandma’s biweekly bridge club.

This latter point is a particularly sore one with the 28-year-old Isbell, who also recently parted ways with DBT bassist Shonna Tucker, his wife of several years. For those obvious reasons (and others not-so obvious), Isbell would just as soon see the Internet-gossip hounds talk less about his personal life and more about his new record and band, the fashionably titled 400 Unit.

“Even with the bands I love, I never really had the time to go through and delve into personal s**t like some people do,” Isbell laments.

Still, if you search the Web long enough, you can pretty easily find dumbed-down, chat-room pontificates convinced of various tall tales, like how no-frills Trucker Mike Cooley and Isbell got into a Balboa-quality, bar-house brawl over who’s the best damn Trucker in this bar.

Needless to say, Isbell wanted to get the Trucker stuff out of the way during the first part of his chat with Xpress, “while I still remember all my standard, memorized answers.”

In six years with DBT, Isbell wrote a half-dozen or so of their best songs (songs he’s still playing with The 400 Unit). He chooses to share the gentlemanly candor of his former band mate Hood on the matter, allowing little room for gossip. The occasionally ornery Hood insisted in an Xpress interview last month that all was more or less peachy where the split was concerned: Isbell simply found a new road, and the band was supportive of that decision. They would be just fine without him, thank you very much.

It’s a fine PR kind-of-answer. It’s also boring as hell, and probably only half of the story. But it’s still the pat response Isbell echoes today: “I still care a lot about those people … but if you live in an apartment with the same five or six people for six years, you might decide you want to move down the hall.”

“Or out of town,” he adds, after a pause.

Isbell now has his sights fixed on somewhat busier highways than the Truckers. Talking to Xpress from somewhere in the Pacific Northwest en route to yet another gig, he mentioned a European tour booked for the end of the year and promised that he’s already written a chunk of new material, including tunes that could be in rotation by the time he arrives in Asheville.

Even if these songs aren’t quite ready for debut by the time he rolls through town, there’s plenty on Sirens that is as sweet as anything you’ve heard from Isbell. Tunes like “Dress Blues” and “Down in a Hole” bring on the sin and sorrow, while “Brand New Kind of Actress‚” shows Isbell’s knack for a distinct narrative voice stewed in rock ‘n’ roll.

The most apparent turn from Trucker flair is the album’s occasional heavy-pop guitar hooks, perhaps picked up from Tom Petty, who Isbell says he’s been listening to a lot lately. In addition to catchy rock hooks, the album swings from country stomp to singer-songwriter mellow, and even includes a few stand-up ballads to showcase Isbell’s Duane Allman-kin slide work.

One unavoidable question nibbling on the line while trolling the waters of Isbell’s sometimes-breathtaking Sirens: Why weren’t these songs included on the last Trucker record, A Blessing and a Curse? Isbell’s three contributions to A Blessing seemed like the most mediocre of his Trucker career, while the superior tracks on Sirens have been sitting around on the shelf for more than two years.

Isbell insists there is no controversy about the tunes. It’s a little disappointing, but even without a fresh batch of juicy gossip, Isbell’s considerable talent still gives folks plenty to blog about after the show.

[Stuart Gaines is a freelance writer and former Xpress music columnist.]

Jason Isbell plays The Grey Eagle on Wedneday, Aug. 22. 8 p.m. Centro-matic and Barton Carroll open. $12. Standing room only. or 232-5800.

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