Stumbling upon the music of Jason Isbell is like finding a favorite book filled with short stories that you keep going back to, either to reread or to jot down and share a favorite line from.
The guitar player and songwriter hails from the deep South, where Faulkner and Eudora Welty laid their literary trails. And like them, the boy from Muscle Shoals, Ala., weaves his knowing tapestry of tunes from a deep and abiding connection to his roots.
He turns others' stories into anthems of the ever-soulful working class by delving into the emotion of life, juxtaposed cruelly between a bedrock of beliefs and the realization that the foundations have turned to dust. This talent has earned him stellar reviews in Rolling Stone Magazine, critical acclaim at Texas' annual South by Southwest Festival, collaborations with established musicians like Ryan Adams and an appearance on David Letterman's show.
It's Isbell's willingness to hang with the pain, not attempt to outrun it, that makes him a standout in storytelling. Isbell empowers the listener. He looks at a person and all the coping mechanisms without judgment and with a raw honesty that says, "Come, sit with me and tell me what it is that breaks your heart today and I'll tell you mine" and then he writes about it.
"There's a whole lot of mediocre songwriting in the world," Isbell said last week. "That's why it's called mediocre, I guess. The majority of it is what I call generic, somebody singing about whiskey and heartbreak. But good creation comes from stepping into someone's shoes for a while."
His interpretation of navigating this world has secured him a place in genre that has transcended state lines, as venues across the country have filled with those willing to spend a few of their hard-earned dollars to sit a spell in his company.
"Nowadays, it's not as simple as doing the work and having the ability, you have to pay attention to a lot of different things and you have to be willing to put your experience into the mix. Not every drunk guy with a bunch of tattoos can write a good country song. You gotta be able to listen and relate to people."
Isbell got his start with Drive By Truckers, and though the transition out on his own has taken a few years, 2011 was his most successful yet as he toured with his much-heralded album "Here We Rest."
Spin gave the record an 8 rating out of 10, saying "Isbell's third solo album is earthy and unpretentiously eclectic—bluesy shuffles, gospel tinges ... ." Another reviewer noted this is one of those albums that "grab you by the throat and demand your undivided attention."
< Isbell said that while it's nearing time to get back to some studio work, touring has invigorated his stage show, which he will also be taking abroad this year.
When it comes to music, Isbell said, listeners fall into two groups: the social kind who show up to a bar every Friday, no matter who is playing, pay $5 and get drunk, and people seeking an escape, who are willing to pay more because they want an experience.
He hopes it's the latter that fills the crowd when he and the 400 Unit take the stage this Friday at Whiskey Jacques' because then he can "shrink" the room with a more acoustic set that's "more like playing in someone's living room." But if not, he's got the ammunition to rock a rowdy crowd.
It's that adaptability and attention to details, rather than simply honing a show and sticking to it that distinguishes Isbell from other traveling bands.
Isbell said there is no holy grail for him in terms of success, "For me, it's not having to do this and another job honestly. I feel like I am very successful right now. It's a lot easier when everybody gets on a bus and people are paying a higher price, you know they aren't just coming to get hammered. They are in it for the music."
A friend of mine in Alabama has a game we play when we are feeling ignored, want to be heard, apologize for what wasn't or what shouldn't have been or otherwise reassure one another's place in our hearts.
It started nearly 25 years ago by calling each other's answering machine, playing a pointed or poignant song into it, and hanging up with no more communication needed. These days, we fire off YouTube links to songs over Facebook.
We've relied on pop cheese like Phil Collins, Simply Red or Tracy Chapman and, for darker times, pulled out the suffering songs of Tom Waits, Robert Earl Keen or Lyle Lovett.
But when middle aged lament is at it's pique, there is nothing better than Isbell.
"She smelled like cigarettes and wine, but she kept me happy all the time. I know that ain't much of a life, but it's the gods' honest truth ... . She lives down inside of me still, rolled up like a $20 bill. She left me alone with these pills and the last of my youth. Lost on the dry side of town, my memories slowing me down."
Or, "Go It Alone," which was included in the hot series "Sons of Anarchy" that haunts. "It's realizing how close you've come to death and rearranging accordingly. I'm realizing what I've lost and what I've left and taking it home to go it alone again."
It's lines like these that make Jason Isbell what you send when you care enough to send the very best.
Get lucky on Friday the 13th
What: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Where: Whiskey Jacques' in Ketchum
When: 9 p.m., Friday, Jan. 13
Tickets: $12 in advance, $15 at the door