Skip directly to content

Jason Isbell

Greg Schmidt, Auburn University
Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell (1979- ) is a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter, and guitarist from Alabama. His songwriting and musical style are deeply connected to his north Alabama roots, and his carefully crafted lyrics often touch upon his personal life and the lives of the people of the region. Isbell's musical style has been described as "Americana," but it combines elements of the Muscle Shoals sound, southern rock, punk rock, country, blues, and folk. A prolific writer and touring artist, Isbell has developed a large national following, and in 2015 his fifth solo album, Something More than Free, simultaneously debuted at No.1 on the Billboard Top Rock Albums, Folk Albums, and Country Albums charts. Prior to his successful solo career, Isbell was a member of the southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, for which he penned several of the group's most iconic songs.
Michael Jason Isbell was born in Green Hill, Lauderdale County, on February 1, 1979, to Angela Hill Barnett and Mike Isbell, who were both teenagers when he was born. He grew up in the Muscle Shoals area in an extended family that played music together at family gatherings and was immersed in music from a young age. He began playing the mandolin at age six and soon after received his first guitar, which he learned to play while being cared for at his grandparents' farm during the day. His paternal grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher, played country, bluegrass, and gospel on guitar with Isbell for hours every day and also introduced him to the music of blues legend Robert Johnson. By the time he was a sophomore, Isbell was so adept with the guitar that his mother allowed him to earn money by playing with bands at local bars. Around the same time, he formed a country cover band with his friend, songwriter Chris Tompkins. The band played at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee, when Isbell was 16.
Drive-By Truckers, 2004
Through playing in Muscle Shoals music venues, Isbell befriended many of the professional musicians in the area, including David Hood, the bassist for the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section and father of Patterson Hood, a founding member of the band Drive-By Truckers. Isbell left the Shoals to study creative writing on an academic scholarship at the University of Memphis but returned to Alabama before graduating to pursue his musical career. At age 21, he took a job at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals as a songwriter for $250 a week. A year later, in 2001, he left FAME to join the Drive-By Truckers as they toured in support of their album Southern Rock Opera.
Between 2001 and 2007, Isbell contributed to the Drive-By Truckers vocally, musically, and lyrically on three albums: Decoration Day (2003), The Dirty South (2004), and A Blessing and a Curse (2006). His songs for the Drive-By Truckers often included references to Alabama with themes of family, poverty, and struggle. In 2002, Isbell married bassist Shonna Tucker, who became the Drive-By Truckers' bass player the following year. Although this period of his life was marked by musical successes, with hit songs "Decoration Day" and "Outfit," it also was a time of personal turmoil and increasing alcohol abuse. The band members' heavy touring schedule combined with their whiskey-fueled lifestyle led to conflicts and animosity between Isbell and his band mates, including Tucker. By 2007, Isbell and Tucker were divorcing, and on April 5 of that year, Isbell announced that he had left the band.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Isbell then embarked on a solo career, releasing the album Sirens of the Ditch (recorded at FAME Studios) in July 2007 on New West Records. The following year, Isbell brought together a group of musicians from the Muscle Shoals area to form The 400 Unit. Their first album, the eponymously named Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit was released in February 2009 on Lightning Rod Records. The band's second studio album, Here We Rest, was released in April 2011, also on Lightning Rod Records. The album received positive reviews and was nominated for Album of the Year for the 2012 Americana Music Awards; the single "Alabama Pines" won the Song of the Year. Americana music is defined as a contemporary mix of American roots-style music incorporating elements of country, roots-rock, folk, bluegrass, R&B and blues.
During this time, Isbell's binge drinking worsened and family and friends began to fear for his health and life. In February 2012, Isbell's girlfriend Amanda Shires (who played fiddle on Here We Rest), manager Traci Thomas, and fellow musician Ryan Adams convinced him to seek treatment. He spent two weeks in an alcohol and drug abuse treatment center in Nashville, and in the months following rehab, Isbell rebounded and began writing songs that would make up his fourth solo album, Southeastern. Two days after completing the album, on February 23, 2013, Isbell and Shires married; they have one child. On the album's introspective opening track, "Cover Me Up," Isbell sings poignantly of his newfound sobriety. Southeastern was released in July 2013 on his own label, Southeastern Records, and met with critical acclaim. The album debuted at No. 23 on the Billboard 200 and No. 7 on Billboard's Top Rock Albums. At the 2014 Americana Music Awards, Southeastern was awarded Album of the Year honors, and Isbell won Artist of the Year. The track "Cover Me Up" also won Song of the Year. Following upon the success of Southeastern, Isbell and his band appeared on the television shows Austin City Limits and Live from Lincoln Center.
Isbell quickly began working on his next album and in July 2015 released Something More than Free on Southeastern Records. It debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard Top 200. Critically praised, the album went on to receive the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Americana Album, with the song "24 Frames" winning the Grammy for Best American Roots Song. Songs in the album include several tales of life in the modern South, with themes of struggle and hope. In September 2016, the album and song won top honors at the Americana Music Awards. In support of the album, Isbell has toured North America, Europe, and Australia. He maintains a heavy touring schedule as he continues to work on new material for upcoming albums. Isbell has also released two live albums, Live at Twist & Shout (2007; New West Records) and Live from Alabama (2012; Lightning Rod Records). Isbell and his family live in Nashville, Tennessee, but his extended family remains in the Muscle Shoals area.
Additional Resources
Garner, Dwight. "Jason Isbell Unloaded." New York Times Magazine. May 31, 2013.
Published:  January 15, 2016   |   Last updated:  January 15, 2016