This past May, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit were nominated for four Americana Music Association Awards (Album, Song, Artist and Duo/Group of the Year), the most for any artist. But don't ask Isbell to define Americana.
"With any genre today, it's not easy to pinpoint," says the former Drive-By Truckers member. "What's country music anymore? The Rolling Stones could have been called an Americana band, even though they're not American. You've got the Avett Brothers and Robert Plant making Americana records. It's a hard thing to define, but I'll take it. You never really expect those kind of things. It's good to know that people are listening to you."
The acclaim for Isbell's songwriting is well-deserved. The musician first started to gain notice after joining the Drive-By Truckers and becoming one of three primary writers in that group (along with Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley). After six years touring and recording with the group, he went off on his own, primarily because he was writing more songs than the Truckers could accommodate.
As frontman for the 400 Unit, which takes its name from a mental hospital close to where he grew up, Isbell has, if anything, become an even stronger songwriter.
"I do think if you practice something, you get better at it, especially if it doesn't make you rich," he says. "A lot of people make a lot of money and get soft. They lose their connection to everyday life. Luckily, that hasn't happened to me, at least not yet."
Many of Isbell's songs evoke specific people and places, becoming musical short stories as it were. "People like Calexico, James McMurtry and Springsteen have done that really well over the years," he says. "I like to know where people are from."
Isbell's most recent studio collection, Here We Rest, came to fruition after Isbell finished his second album and decided to spend some time in his hometown near Muscle Shoals. Settling back to life in northwest Alabama, he began talking with family, friends, and patrons at his favorite local watering hole.
"After a while I really started to realize that if I paid attention to the people that were around me and really started listening to their stories, there was a lot of inspiration there for these new songs," says Isbell of a region hit hard by recession.
So Isbell channeled that kind of frustration into song. "Save It for Sunday" finds a bar patron unwilling to hear the troubles of another person because "we got cares of our own." "Tour of Duty" is the tale of a returning soldier whose relationship and his prospects for a productive life have been damaged by war. "Alabama Pines" is about an everyday Joe who has become disconnected from his life and his lover and isn't sure how to find his way back on his own.
"It used to be that if somebody came into a bar upset about losing his job, everybody else would buy him a shot and try to make him feel better," says Isbell. "But now there are five other people who have dealt with the same thing, within a week or two, at the same bar."