Jason Isbell Finds Americana in “Alabama Pines”

Singer-Songwriter Is Nominated in Four Americana Honors Categories

Jason Isbell says his hometown of Greenhill, Ala., is so small, there’s no post office. Those wide open spaces of northern Alabama have certainly crept into his music, first as a member of Drive-By Truckers and now as lead singer and principal songwriter in Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit.

The evocative video for “Alabama Pines” flickers with sweeping, cinematic imagery that captures the restlessness that every musician knows. Now living in Nashville and dating musician Amanda Shires, Isbell is still actively touring behind his band’s acclaimed 2011 album, Here We Rest.

The compelling project earned a nomination for the Americana Music Association’s album of the year. In addition, “Alabama Pines” is up for song of the year, and Isbell is also nominated for artist of the year. Meanwhile, Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit will compete in the duo/group category. The trophies will be handed out at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on Sept. 12.

During a phone interview, Isbell discusses his classic country influences, his fondness for Merle Haggard and the possibility of recording a surprising Alabama cover.

CMT: What were you hoping to capture in “Alabama Pines” when you wrote it?

Isbell: A whole lot of things. I was trying to focus on a sense of desperation and loneliness, but almost all songs do that, I guess. I was talking about the place I’m from and how important it is sometimes to put yourself back in that place.

For someone who’s never been to that part of Alabama where you’re from, how would you describe it to them?

It’s small-town, but Alabama doesn’t really have a major city, so everywhere down there is small-town. It’s pretty family-oriented. There’s a certain support system there that you don’t necessarily get in a bigger city. And the food’s good.

What prompted you to make the move up here to Nashville?

Well, [Shires] couldn’t really move down to Alabama. She does some session work when she’s not touring. I quit drinking a few months ago, and there wasn’t really a whole lot to do other than drink in Sheffield, Ala., where I was living. You know, there’s a lot more opportunities to keep yourself entertained in Nashville without just going to a bar.

What influence does country music have on the way that you write songs?

It has a big influence. I grew up listening to George Jones and Merle Haggard. Especially Merle. Merle was always my favorite as a kid. His songs always appealed to me more than anybody else’s. And Hank Williams and Hank Williams Jr. My dad listened to that stuff. … My mom, they even listened to some left-of-center country music like John Prine and John Hiatt. So it had a huge influence on me, and I consider myself to be a country person. That’s going to find its way into my music for sure.

What was it about Haggard that pulled you in?

I think great songs appeal to people at any age. Kids love the Beatles, too. Kids love Tom T. Hall. Of course, Tom T. wrote some things that were specifically for kids. But I think kids recognize quality more than they get credit for sometimes. At a very early age, I probably just liked the texture of his voice and the melodies. There’s something about those particular characteristics that appeal to people even if you don’t understand what they’re about.

He’s a good communicator, for sure.

Yeah, very much so. He sounds like your granddad. He always reminded me of my granddad.

While you were on tour with Ryan Adams, I heard you sang Alabama’s “Love in the First Degree” together. How did that come about?

That was Ryan’s idea. He wanted to cover an Alabama song. He wanted to do “The Cheap Seats,” but I decided against that one. I figured if they had 41 or 42 No. 1 hits — however many they had — we could find something better than “The Cheap Seats.” (laughs) I love baseball, but I don’t care much for songs about it.

Is there a chance you will record that together?

I don’t know. We might. I’ve heard tell of an Alabama tribute record, but I don’t know. You hear those things, and six months later, they either happen or they don’t, but I’d like to record that. I think that’d be fun.

For someone who’s never come to your show, what can they expect?

It’s a full-band rock ’n’ roll concert. I think it might surprise people how much energy and volume is at those shows because we really are a rock ’n’ roll band at heart. That might be a little surprising to folks. It’s definitely a rock show, unless I’m playing by myself. Then that’s a totally different thing. We try to have a good time. A lot of the songs are sad but we try not to be.

Do you feel you fit into the Americana world pretty well?

Yeah, I’m happy to be a part of that. Most of the time, artists don’t really like it when you put a label on them but if it’s got to be something, I would much rather affiliate with people like Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller and Gillian Welch. I think that particular genre is where the majority of your great songs are coming from nowadays. It’s a good thing to be a part of.

It’s been a while since the last record. Do you have anything in the works?

I’m writing, yeah. I write pretty much year-round, but I definitely do more when a deadline is looming. I think I may try to record some in September or October and get started on another record. I don’t know any details exactly yet. Right now, I’m just working on some writing. I’ll focus on the rest of it when a get I good set of songs finished.