True — if pressed, he’s technically a Bama fan (family connections). But Jason Isbell — Muscle Shoals (sound) evangelist, Matthew Stafford doppelganger — does admit that, at the moment, Auburn is riper than Tuscaloosa for the style rock ‘n’ roll (“… I don’t mind [calling it] ‘Americana’) he and the 400 Unit do best.
Isbell, 31, came to roots-rock-ish, Americana-ish fame as lead guitarist for that band you hear about, Drive-By Truckers. He left them in 2007. It was amicable. But his ex-wife was the bass player. That never helps.
I think it’s the exchange about a rock ‘n ‘roll moment right before he left that best illustrates his confidence in that decision, or at least that he knew things were probably going to be all right.
TWER: Do you think being from Alabama as opposed to like, Portland or something, gives you a certain street cred in the Americana-alt-whatever scene you’re in?
Jason: I think so… Muscle Shoals more than Alabama, really. Definitely being from this town, a place that’s put out a lot of great music in the past, has helped us a lot as far as people paying attention to what we’re doing, and also the legitimacy concern. We all grew up around rock ‘n’ roll and country and soul music, around a lot of the people who made the best records from those styles. Being from the South helps a lot, too, I think. A lot of the original rock ‘n’ roll and blues musicians were obviously from this part of the country. And there’s something about being a southern American artist, when you’re playing overseas… people really seem to take to it.
TWER: So what’s been the biggest kind of ‘dude…’ moment for you in this business? The biggest professional compliment? Ever looked out into the crowd and seen Willie nodding along, something like that?
Jason: Well, yeah, there’s a lot of that kind of stuff. I got a phone call from Neil Young once. I had this song “Dress Blues” that he wanted to put up on his Living With War website. And at the time, [Drive-By Truckers] were out with The Black Crowes, and I was backstage in the dressing room with Chris Robinson and Marc Ford and so I turned off my phone like anybody else would, and when I turned it back on there was a message from Neil. It took forever to get back with him. He calls you. Trying to call him is not an easy thing to do and I didn’t wind up seeing him and talking to him until that Heart of Gold show in Nashville. We sat down and talked and he liked the music. That was probably tops for random musicians and celebrities and really just, you know, legends. But Slash was at a show, Gene Simmons was at one. Sometimes you hear from people in the country world, but the Neil Young thing was definitely the biggest. It really doesn’t get it any bigger.
TWER: So wait – you’re saying you got a call from Neil Young while you were hanging out with The Black Crowes?
Jason: Yeah, it was great. It was a moment. On the one hand, I kind of wish I had my phone on, but nobody would have their phone on. I couldn’t have expected that to happen right then. It was right after I recorded my first solo record.
TWER: So… does a southern man actually need him around, anyhow?
Jason: Haaaaa – no, he doesn’t need him around. I think the people we need around are better high school teachers.
Who: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.
When: Friday, May 21. 8 p.m.
Where: The Strutting Duck (the old Auburn Ale House), 124 Tichenor Avenue, downtown.
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