The singer and the song

Jason Isbell and Dwight Yoakam to play Rose Music Center

By Rusty Pate

Photo: Jason Isbell will open for Dwight Yoakam June 5 at The Rose Music Center in Huber Heights

The singer-songwriter has become a mythic figure in modern popular music. The songs of Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt and Joni Mitchell helped write the American songbook. Contemporary voices like Elliott Smith, Ryan Adams and Jeff Tweedy continue to use story and melody to reflect upon the frailty and vibrancy of the human condition.

Jason Isbell has certainly staked his claim in that pantheon.

He first came to prominence as a member of Drive-By Truckers, penning “Decoration Day,” “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love.” After leaving the Truckers in 2007, he formed his own band, The 400 Unit, and embarked on a solo career.

His most recent effort, Something More Than Free, hits stores July 17. It follows the masterful 2013 offering Southeastern—an album fans and critics alike lauded as the best of his career. Isbell says he is often asked about the pressure of delivering again on the heels of such success, but it is a concept he doesn’t really buy into.

“There’s pressure until you start thinking about people who have real problems,” Isbell says. “Having a really good album and then having to make another really good album is not really a problem. You just have to ignore that stuff and just do your job. It’s just like anything else—spend the time doing the work and the work will be good.”

He said his songwriting process hasn’t really changed, but a bigger recording budget allowed the band to record basic tracks in a room together.

“We haven’t always been able to do things that way,” Isbell says. “Luckily, the band is really good and quick. It only took us about three weeks to do this record. I think it just gives it a better feel. It makes the groove a little bit more important on the song. The rhythm section works together really well when they’re playing off each other. It’s more fun.”

The band will open for Dwight Yoakam for this run of shows. Isbell says they are honored and excited to play with Yoakam and applauds the singer’s fresh take on traditional country music. While sometimes pegged in that same genre, Isbell seems more concerned with telling real stories than fitting into some box.

“If all this had happened 30 or 40 years ago, we might be called a rock and roll band,” Isbell says. “I’m a country person, so everything I do is going to have an accent of some sort. I don’t think I have a lot in common with what’s played on country radio. In that sense, I wouldn’t think of myself as a modern country artist. But, is John Prine a country singer? That’s a hard thing to decide. Is [Kris] Kristofferson a country singer? The Highwaymen, obviously you would say is a country group, but, individually, Waylon [Jennings] and Willie [Nelson] are country singers… but what was Johnny [Cash] exactly? What was Kris? I think Johnny transcended those things, and I think Kris confused them.”

It is this love and knowledge of music that pours from Isbell’s songs. A storyteller in the truest sense of the word, he weaves tales and parables that speak directly to the listener. No time or space is made for frivolity. The words and melodic lines carry a certain kind of heaviness.

However, just because a song rings true and reflects honest human emotions does not mean everything is autobiographical, which seems to be a problem unique to singers.

“It is interesting because they never do that with movie directors or screenwriters,” Isbell says. “They don’t think that all those things happened to Arnold Schwarzenegger—it’s just somebody made that up. What I do is try to go from experiences that either I’ve had or somebody close to me has had and write a story starting there. If it’s done right, it’s pretty easy for someone to think it’s autobiographical. I’ve had people that I’ve known for years think that my dad had gotten shot because of the song ‘Decoration Day.’ These are people that have been to my wedding with my dad there—it’s bizarre.”

It is that truth and honesty that places Isbell firmly in the long line of great American singer-songwriters and won him a faithful following of fans, one of whom is the recently retired David Letterman.

Isbell, along with wife Amanda Shires, were featured on one of the final episodes of the Late Show with David Letterman.

“It was real special for us,” Isbell remembers. “It’s been a really important part of my career to be on that show. I feel like that’s evidence to me and a lot of other people that I’m actually a professional musician and things are working.”

They performed the Warren Zevon song “Mutineer,” which Zevon sang on his final appearance on Letterman Oct. 30, 2002.

“Nobody really mentioned the fact that Zevon had performed it on his last appearance and passed away shortly thereafter—it was just understood,” Isbell says. “It really seemed like it meant a whole lot to David. And, certainly, Zevon’s music meant a lot to us, too, and specifically that episode of the Late Show. I thought that was some of the best television I’ve ever seen.”

Jason Isbell and Dwight Yoakam will perform Friday, June 5 at the Rose Music Center at the Heights, 6800 Executive Blvd. in Huber Heights. Show starts at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m. For more information, please visit or call 937.610.0288.

Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at

Rusty Pate
Reach DCP freelance writer Rusty Pate at

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