Technically, the brand new album Live From Alabama is the second outside-the-studio recording from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, after 2008’s Live at the Twist and Shout. But Isbell doesn’t sound so convinced that the latter six-song set should count.
“That was really just for record stores, you know, to put out,” says the Alabama-born singer-songwriter, guitar slinger and bandleader. “That wasn’t an official release. And that’s been a few years ago. We didn’t have the same drummer then. We had another guitar player in the band. We were all seated in a record store when we made that, so it wasn’t your traditional live record.”
Many a band has made a live album as a stopgap measure, something to sell between studio albums and to keep their name out there. But Isbell clearly finds the idea of recording a performance in front of a flesh-and-blood audience more satisfying when there’s really something there to capture, and not getting it on tape would seem a regrettable omission down the road.
Long before Isbell was invited to join the Drive-By Truckers just short of finishing his bachelor’s degree — and even before he was the teenage kid pestering the big-name players in the Muscle Shoals, Ala., scene to let him sit in during their shows — he jammed with his kinfolk a lot.
“It was once a week for most of my childhood,” he says. “Everybody would come over, aunts and uncles and great aunts and great uncles and their kids, and it seemed like there would always be somebody new there that I’d not seen before, a cousin from somewhere. It was everything from guitars and fiddles and banjos and that kind of thing to … somebody would bring a saxophone. I remember one of my cousins brought a saxophone one time. That was the first time I’d ever heard a saxophone, like, right there in the living room.”
But at no point did Isbell’s family record, say, a Live in the Living Room album.
“We would just play, and that was it,” he explains. “Some of those folks now, with the hindsight that I have, I think were really talented people. … I think what my grandfather did was really, really, really cool, and I kinda wish that more of that was documented. I have a few cassette tapes. We gave him a dual cassette deck machine that would record, and he would take it and overdub using those two cassettes. He would play a guitar part and then go back and play a fiddle on top of it because he had no recording experience. To kill time in the day, he would make tapes like that and give ’em to us, and I still have some of those. But I wish it could’ve been better documented because I think he was really good at that stuff. Really good.”
In the case of Live From Alabama, a good bit of the material is already out there on Isbell’s three studio albums and those he made with the Truckers. Some, like “Tour of Duty” and the Americana Music Awards’ song of the year winner “Alabama Pines” come from 2011’s Here We Rest. As 400 Unit bassist Jimbo Hart points out, there was a loose, on-the-fly feel to the recording sessions for that album, even though they cut it in a studio.
“With us,” he says, “it’s kinda like Jason plays us a song, we go out in the room and we take a stab at it. And then we might take another stab at it and another stab at it, and then we move to the next song. It’s really, really quick. Here We Rest was done so fast that I was kind of like, ’Whoa, did I just make a record?’ Because, really, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time correcting anything. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time rearranging different tracks, cutting out things here and putting them in there.”
Suggest to Hart that this approach doesn’t sound all that unlike a live recording, and he’s quick to point out an important difference. They played their parts sitting down, like on that anomaly Live at the Twist and Shout. “When you’re standing up,” he says, “there’s a completely different ball of energy there.”
Isbell and the 400 Unit were definitely on their feet when they put on the back-to-back August club shows from which Live From Alabama was culled — one at Birmingham’s WorkPlay Theatre and the other at Crossroads Café in Huntsville. They stretched out the instrumental passages during some songs, giving Isbell room for searing yet lyrical, crowd-pleasing guitar solos.
With the stimuli and distractions of live performing, you’d think Isbell’s singing might be less intelligible than it is in the studio, but that’s actually not the case. He enunciated a tad more clearly live, perhaps because he’s such a lyric-focused, literary songwriter and wants audiences to understand the words to his story songs — even if they’ve got a buzz going from downing cold beers and enjoying the music with a few hundred of their closest friends.
The title Live From Alabama itself points to what gives the album heft. From Isbell’s song selection to the way he tailored his song intros to the audiences in his native state — noting which cover had originally been recorded at nearby Fame Studios and what song was inspired by a fallen, young Alabama veteran — he brought to life his music’s roots in a sense of place. It helped that he was face-to-face with fans from close to home and that nobody was banished to the nosebleeds.
“After you start playing sheds,” says Isbell, referring to sprawling arenas, “you can’t hear anything and you’ve got no connection with your audience. … If this were an option –which it probably never will be — I’d rather play four or five nights in a place that held two or three thousand people than play one night for 20,000 who can’t see me or hear what I’m doing.”