Jason Isbell talks ‘Truckers, guitar tones & stashing a priceless ax

Back in February, I visited Jason Isbell’s place outside Nashville to talk guitars and the big role they play on his new album, Reunions, for Guitar Player. Ever the gracious host, Isbell spent the next couple of hours digging deep into his musical past to show us how he arrived here today.

The Guitar Player profile is coming soon, but here are some of my favorite moments that didn’t make the story.

On what it was like growing up around living musical legends in Muscle Shoals:

“It was nuts, man. There was this one Mexican restaurant where every weekend this guy Barry Billings played, and David [Hood] and Spooner [Oldham] and Donnie [Fritts] and those guys would come in from time to time. We would go in from 15 or 16 years old, and since it was a restaurant, they couldn’t kick us out. So, we would stay there all night and buy cheese dip and chips and a Coke and watch them play. Barry would get us up to play a bunch, and then anytime we saw David and Kelvin Holly, who was in Little Richard’s band at the time, after they got to know us, they would get us up on stage to play and it’d give them a break. They would disappear. At first it was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they’re getting us up to play.’ And then as the years went by, we were like, ‘Oh shit, they’ve been gone for like 45 minutes every time they get us up here.’ They’re going out in the parking lot to hang out, but it was a really good way to grow up and learn how to play with a band. I studied those guys, man. Kelvin and Barry Billings were huge influences on me growing up and I played with them any time I got the chance.”

What Patterson Hood taught him about rock ‘n’ roll:

“I think a lot of people think that either you make it or you don’t in the music business. And when I was in [Drive-By Truckers], I was watching Patterson book shows himself in a notebook on the dashboard. He had a cell phone that we all shared, and as we were going down the road, he’d be calling six months out, talking to promoters, booking our own shows. We didn’t have a record deal when I joined that band and they’d put out Southern Rock Opera themselves. It got picked up pretty soon after that, but they were just selling it out of the back of the van. I think they sold 20,000 of them. So it was a really great place to be for me, because I saw first and foremost that you don’t have to stop. Even if you’re all in a van, with all your gear, no trailer, no crew, driving yourselves down the road, they can’t make you stop. And if you feel you’ve got something worth saying, then it’s worth it to continue even when people are telling you not to. That was really great for me, because had I not seen that firsthand, who knows what music I would be making. There were some real lean years after I left that band, where we couldn’t afford any help on the road, and we were loading our own gear and driving ourselves from town to town. If I hadn’t been in the Truckers, I very easily could have stopped and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to try to write songs for somebody else to sing because I need some money and I need to be an adult.’ And because I’d seen Patterson do that with that band, I thought, man, I can keep going. I don’t have to stop yet. That was invaluable to me. And also writing and singing about things that are not comfortable, things that don’t paint you in the best light. Learning that it was okay to sing about your inner life, even more so when you are embarrassed by it because that’s how you really connect with people. They hear those songs and they think, okay, I’m not as weird as I thought I was. Somebody else feels this way, too.

How being out of tune gave Drive-By Truckers their menacing sound:

“With three guitars, especially on the Southern Rock Opera stuff, it just sounded so huge. It made this cacophony of sound. It’s not just the drop tuning, though, it’s the out-of-tune drop tuning. That’s a big part of it, man, because those records wouldn’t have sounded the same if everybody was in tune. Those are things that you can’t really replicate, that looseness. It always felt like the train was about to derail, and that’s a hard thing for me to try to get back to now with my band because we’re all up there sober and we’re playing everything the right way, and it can come across as more slick than I want it to sometimes. So I have to try to do things to throw people off. I don’t play the same set list from one night to the next, and we’ve got such a broad catalog now that I can go back and pull things from 10 years ago that the band hasn’t played, and just throw it in there for the set and see how we do.”

On howlin’ with The Highwomen:

“I really enjoyed doing the cover of “The Chain” that the Highwomen did because I got [to play a] resonator. Charlie Worsham was on that, also, and it was like two different resonators doing the main part. Then the outro solo idea just with ‘Red Eye’ [the famed 1959 Gibson Les Paul once owned by Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Ed King] and that 50-watt metal-panel Marshall with a 4×12. I went into the recording room and stood in front of the amp and just turned every knob to ten for that outro. When you hear it punching in, you can hear the PAF howl. That’s one of my favorite things on Earth, just that WHUMP. When it first kicked in, it’s like, something awesome is about to happen.

“The funny thing about that was I dimed every knob and then used my volume knob on the guitar, and whoever was assisting that day marked the knobs on the amp, like took a piece of tape and put a little black line with a sharpie and so every knob was marked on 10 when I came back in the next day and they wouldn’t tell me who had done it. I was like, ‘Which one of you idiots marked this so we could get back to that tone with every knob on ten?’ The stickers are still on there because I was like, ‘Don’t take those off. I want to look at that and laugh every time.’

“I was in there with [Red Eye] every day, and they wouldn’t let me leave it in the studio. This is RCA Studio A—there are other things of that value in that room. One day I left it because I was going to do something after the studio and I didn’t want to take the guitar. So I hid it behind the huge Platinum plaques for Chris Stapleton’s Traveler album and I covered it up with those gigantic Platinum plaques.”

Why he went back to his first guitar love on Reunions:

“When I was about 10, I got a [Fender] American Standard Strat for Christmas, and it was all my parents could do to get up the money to get me that guitar but I still remember opening the case. I remember the way it smelled. I remember everything about it. It was the best day of my life to that point and I played it 10 hours a day, every day. They would have to make me put it down to eat or sleep.

“All the Strat players are most definitely in my musical DNA. [Eric] Clapton first, but also [Mark] Knopfler. Then I got older and the [Gibson ES-] 335 stuff was my favorite, and then the Les Paul stuff was my favorite, but what really got me first [was Clapton] and his guitar tones, that out-of-phase tone. He didn’t use it a whole lot. He loves a middle pickup but the out of phase tone—Just One Night, the live record that came out in the late ‘70s where he’s got Albert Lee in his band? Albert Lee is of course just smoking as he always was, but there’s a solo on a slow blues on that record and Clapton’s playing on it in the out-of-phase position and he gets so quiet, just like barely even touching the string. I think he’s hitting the string with the pick and his finger at the same time. So he’s getting this kind of little harmonic thing and that just stuck in my mind, man. That was like a drug when I was 12 years old. I just kept looking for that sound forever.”