Jason Isbell grew up in northern Alabama and spent a few years as a University of Memphis student before quitting short of a degree and eventually making an unlikely splash as a (much-younger) new member in the ace Southern rock band the Drive-By Truckers.
That band already had two great songwriters (Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley), but Isbell’s introduction included penning the epic title song of what remains the Truckers’ best album, 2003’s Decoration Day, as well as the instantly iconic folk-rock anthem “Outfit,” which remains one of the band’s definitive songs, even if they can no longer play it.
This suggested Isbell might be a momentous new artist, but though there were some other great songs to come -- the Sun-scene remembrance “Carl Perkins’ Cadillac,” for the Truckers; the homefront eulogy “Dress Blues,” from after Isbell went solo -- his subsequent music didn’t quite live up to that initial promise. Until now.
What wasn’t clear to most fans was that Isbell’s off-stage life was troubled by alcohol abuse; that his departure from the Truckers after three albums wasn’t merely the result of a personal artistic ambition those first songs suggested.
This story is told, perhaps definitively, in a New York Times Magazine profile from earlier this year, which recounts not only Isbell’s problems, but his recovery at the instigation of then-girlfriend, now-wife Amanda Shires, a noted musician herself in the same folk-rock or Americana-if-we-must vein.
Southeastern, Isbell’s most recent album, is what he found on the other side. Sobriety and marriage proved dual inspirations for a redemptive, lovestruck career record, one of 2013’s best in any genre. The opening “Cover Me Up” is a love song of immense gravity, but also of subtle humor: “Girl, leave your boots by the bed/We ain’t leavin’ this room/Till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom.”
Suicide and cancer haunt the margins, the latter in the breathtakingly tough and compassionate “Elephant,” but Isbell also brings a sense of perspective to his personal stories. Confronting a host of problems around him, he squeezes his new love tight and strikes a concluding note of humility and gratitude: “You should know/Compared to people on a global scale/Our kind has had it relatively easy/Here with you there’s always something to look forward to/My angry heart beats relatively easy.”
Isbell returns to his old stomping grounds tonight to open for California roots-rockers Dawes at Minglewood Hall. Showtime is 8 p.m. Tickets $18 in advance/$20 at the door. Call 901-312-6058, or visit minglewoodhall.com.
Here’s Isbell performing “Flying Over Water,” from Southeastern, on Conan O’Brien earlier this year: