Jason Isbell Locates His Musical Compass On 'Southeastern': Fresh Air

Jul 18, 2013

When singer-songwriter Jason Isbell used to get drunk, he'd sometimes tell his then-girlfriend, the musician Amanda Shires, that he needed to quit the bottle — and that if it was going to take, he'd have to go to rehab. Eventually, she said the next time he told her that, she'd hold him to it. And she did. And he went. And, he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "The jury is still out on whether or not it worked, but it worked today and all the days leading up to this."

Initially, he says he was scared about what sobriety would do to his personality and his creativity.

"The changes can't all be good changes," he says. "There's got to be something that you're losing there, some kind of potency, or humor even, or some sort of attractiveness — not only to the person you're with romantically, but to your family, to your friends."

But his fears have thus far proven unfounded. Shires has since become his wife, and his new solo album, Southeastern — some songs from which he plays for Gross — has been turning heads. In these songs, Isbell, a former member of Drive-By Truckers and current frontman for The 400 Unit, lays himself eloquently and emotionally bare.

While long-recognized as a brilliant songwriter, Isbell credits sobriety with his newfound openness on Southeastern.

"I think there's an openness you really have to accept if you're going to make a change like that," Isbell says. "You have to be all right with saying, 'I have weaknesses.'

"[W]hen I've got a piece of paper in front of me, I feel like that's therapy for me in a whole lot of ways," he adds. "So I feel like I should go ahead and get it out and tell it all like it happened."