Monday, July 22, 2013

A Late Night Chat with Jason Isbell

In the past I've talked about a wide variety of subjects related to the arts and creativity.  More recently I have been delighted to see the rising star of a singer-songwriter who I have long believed to be one of the best in America - and that's Jason Isbell.  Jason's most recent Cd "Southeastern" has been gaining rave reviews and we have seen him on shows like David Letterman, and heard him on NPR's Fresh Air, among other places.  Jason is also now married to another of my favorite songwriters Amanda Shires, who will have a new CD out in August.  Good fortune has it that I met Jason twice, and I thought it might be fun to tell the story of those encounters.

Sometime around 2003 a friend gave me a CD by an Alabama band called the Drive by Truckers.  There were good songs all throughout the CD, but one stood out strongly and that was the now legendary song "Outfit."  This was one of Jason Isbell's breakthrough tunes with the band, and he went on to pen other knockout songs like "The Day John Henry Died", "Danko/ Manuel", "Goddamn Lonely Love" and "Never Gonna Change."

Not too long after he went solo, I was happy to hear that he and his band were going to play Club Congress in downtown Tucson.  I made plans to go and even took Jason a small gift - a laminated bookmark made out of the actual autograph of the author Chuck Palahniuk.  I remember seeing Jason stepping into the club and at some point pulled him aside, said hello, etc and asked him if I had heard correctly that he was a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk.  He said yes - and I gave him the autographed bookmark, and let him carry on getting ready for the show.  He was gracious, mellow, and very thoughtful.  When he got on stage he put on a killer good show and we talked once more before we left.  By that time I had a few beers in me and was feeling chipper - but I still remember what I told him when I left him that particular time - I told him "You are a poet.  Like Townes Van Zandt or Ray La Montagne.  Keep up what you are doing."  

The second time Jason and his band played Club Congress I made plans to be there, and again Jason put on a helluva show.  I remember he had a cold or sore throat and was coughing pretty hard - not just a smoker's cough, but a sick man's cough.  Poor guy was pretty sick it seemed, but then he jumped on stage and threw down again and it was a great show.  You'd think his vocals would have suffered but you couldn't tell a lick of difference.  I guess after those years of hard living and traveling with the Drive by Truckers he had gotten a good taste of what it meant to carry on and be a road warrior.  Sick. Well.  Hungover, or anything else.

After that show it was very, very late and I was gonna say hello to Jason but he had disappeared outside the backstage door at Club Congress.  It was a chilly night out - an odd night for Tucson for sure, quite cold.  On my way out I decided to walk around the side of the building and could see a group of people by the backstage door.  Jason was among them and I walked up to them, stuck my hand out and said "Hey Jason - I'm the artist Neil Myers.  Just wanted to say a quick hello."  And he said "Oh yeah.  I remember you.  I think I've seen some of your work online."  People were starting to dissipate and go home and he said "How's the art business?"  And I told him a little about how things were going.  He listened intently, smoking his cigarette and coughing hard from time to time - still suffering his sore throat.  At times I can be a bit of a talker, so we leaned against the rails and I talked about art and songwriting and he mostly listened.  It's hard to describe the vibe of Mr Isbell.  But perhaps the best way to say it is the feeling that he is absorbing stories - yours and other people's.  Behind the glow of his ever present cigarette, there in the dark were two keen eyes paying close attention.  He wasn't shy.  Not in the slightest.  But he listened to even small talk with a sense of acute attention.

For the next twenty or thirty minutes the survivors of the late night show came and went, some said hi to him and asked him about the meanings of some of his songs.  I remember someone asking him about "Chicago Promenade" and he didn't really seem to feel he could explain what it meant.  He just sort of gently brushed the issue aside and was very sweet to the person who asked it.  He always thanked people who came to the show, and those who popped around back of the club to wish him well.  We stood for a while and chatted with Jimbo Hart - and Jason introduced me to Browan Lollar, his guitarist who is also an artist and a friend I still chat with here and there.  We talked about songwriters and the Dillinger gang, who were caught all those years ago right there at club congress.  And at one point there was nobody left out there behind the club.  It was getting bitterly cold and though Jason gave every indication he was happy to chat all night - I remember telling him that he better get back inside before the cold made his throat worse.  I didn't want to be the reason his throat went to hell for the next few shows.  We shook hands and parted very amicably - and I remember telling him as he went in the door "Oh, I forgot to ask you - do you know the songs of Justin Rutledge?"  He said he didn't and I told him to check him out if he got a chance.  He said "Justin Rutledge", to make a mental note and we parted ways.

I drove home still shivering from the freezing cold desert air.  But I had that great satisfaction of having had an enjoyable talk with someone who I knew was very special.  And in turn, when critics and so many others now find themselves getting on the long train of Isbell appreciators - I am almost amused at how long many of us had been following his work before his latest CD.  And how many of us knew that this songwriter was unique.

Jason if you read this, I want to congratulate you on your sobriety, your continually beautiful and meaningful songs - and for that cold night by the railroad tracks at 1am talking about songs and life.  You have proved yourself the poet I always thought you were, and we thank you for sharing your talent with the rest of us.