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.”

Digging for Analog Gold at Dial Back Sound

Inside Dial Back Sound’s unassuming walls, the stories are as memorable as the music. When Iggy and the Stooges dropped by to record a cover of Junior Kimbrough’s “You Better Run,” the punk/rock icon menaced the studio, shirtless just like at a show, his Stooges blasting back at him through the monitors while he barked his vocals.

“We do that a lot,” laughed Matt Patton, co-owner of Dial Back and bassist for Drive-By Truckers and The Dexateens. “Especially if we’re having trouble getting a singer to come out of the shell, we’re just like, forget about all this, we’re gonna blast this track at you.” Continue reading

How Convergence is Revolutionizing Transportation AV

The convergence of audio and video with control systems is shifting both the role and potential of AV technology in transportation facilities.

From the control room to the concourse, the integration of AV into IP networks—traditionally the domain of IT managers—is changing how transportation facilities communicate with passengers. While in the past AV was limited in its ability to reach transportation audiences in real time, now the industry is embracing the benefits of full-scale convergence. Continue reading

Greg Iles’ ‘Unvarnished Truth’ About Racial Tension Culminates in ‘Mississippi Blood’

Tearing open the wounds of the past is an uncertain business. When that past involves smoldering racial tension and injustice, it can be incendiary.

Author Greg Iles has learned, however, that dealing with the past also can cauterize what would otherwise fester. When Natchez Burning, the first book in a trilogy that deals bluntly with the complexities of race in Mississippi, began bringing black and white folks together, he felt relief.

“Until it came out, nobody had any idea what would happen,” he said. “But John Evans from Lemuria (Books in Jackson) told me, four months after it came out, ‘You’ve done something that nobody else I’ve seen come through here has done yet. You’ve got white people and black people reading about race.’” Continue reading

Drive-By Truckers’ Matt Patton Rides the Great Divide

Matt Patton was reading the Curtis Mayfield biography “Traveling Soul” on a recent flight home from Denver, following the first Drive-By Truckers shows of the year, when a profound coincidence hit him.

It was the weekend leading into the Martin Luther King Jr., holiday, and the chapter he was on happened to deal with Mayfield’s reaction to the assassination and aftermath of the Civil Rights leader. On top of that, he was traveling in support of his band’s most overtly political album, the latest in a 20-year history filled with songs about controversial political figures, such as George Wallace.

Patton, who plays bass in Drive-By Truckers, may have been groggy after the late-evening flight and drive back home to Water Valley, but his disbelief at the confluence — and how history seems to cycle — was palpable. Continue reading

Vasti Jackson: The Soul of Mississippi

There’s no sensory experience like an empty nightclub waiting for its moment.

The way the neon hangs in the room, drawing attention away from the dark corners where revelries past collect. The way the hurried staff burst from double-doored corridors to set a centerpiece or load beer into a cooler, the anticipation rising as guests arrive.

The event on this particular night, 10 years in the making, celebrates the Mississippi Blues Trail, the maze of 194 signposts throughout the state marking significant artists, places and events in the development of the blues. And there’s hardly a person alive who understands the significance of the blues, what it is and what it’s not, more than Vasti Jackson. Continue reading

Three Things You Didn’t Know About The Beatles

Looking back with Geoff Emerick as the classic ‘Revolver’ marks its golden anniversary

Geoff Emerick arrived at EMI studios in London as an assistant engineer right around the same time The Beatles inked their first recording contact. While George Martin gets credit for being the “fifth Beatle,” Emerick was also there from the beginning and had just as much influence over the band’s evolving sound.

As chief engineer on the most groundbreaking recordings The Beatles made, beginning with Revolver—which turns 50 this month—Emerick pioneered recording techniques like tape loops and backwards recording, helping usher in the modern recording era.

During a recent talk at the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi in Cleveland, Emerick drew back the curtain on some of the band’s most important recording sessions. Continue reading

Historic Trail Celebrates Success of Country Music in Mississippi

Nashville might get credit for being the hub of the country music industry, where the deals are made and records are cut, but the music itself doesn’t always come from Music City. A lot of times, the music comes to it.

Country music’s roots begin farther south along the Natchez Trace Parkway, across two state lines and deep into Mississippi, where the organic, traditional music of Appalachia intersected the rural blues music of the Delta. Continue reading

Every Piece Tells a Story

Giving new life—and preserving histories—through antiquities trading

Eric Nielsen had just turned the corner down a dark and neglected hallway when the backhoe began ripping away the exterior of the historic Hayes Funeral Home, the first African American-owned business in Memphis. He had, at best, an hour before the building would be uninhabitable. Continue reading

Ramblin’ Man: Luther Dickinson Returns to His Hill Country Roots

Sound check is running long at Ruby Diamond Concert Hall in Tallahassee, Fla., where Luther Dickinson is playing alongside friends JJ Grey, Anders Osbourne and Marc Broussard.

Tonight is a one-off gig for their band, Southern Soul Assembly. In less than a week Luther will play a handful of solo dates, and in two weeks he’ll be back on stage with the North Mississippi Allstars, the gig that has made it all possible.

It’s the life of a traveling musician circa 2016—and despite his successes bringing the musical style pioneered by Hill Country forefathers R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and Otha Turner to new audiences, being a bluesman still isn’t easy. Continue reading