Trying to fit in as the newbie in an established band is a weird, awkward, disorienting task -- just ask Ron Wood what it was like to join the Rolling Stones or Steve Gaines what being the new kid in Lynyrd Skynyrd felt like (actually, you can't ask him because he died in that 77 plane crash, but you get the point). Such was the case when singer, songwriter and guitarist Jason Isbell joined nouveau Southern rock gods the Drive-By Truckers seven years and four albums after the band's 1996 debut.
A native of 60s music mecca Muscle Shoals, AL, Isbell took the bar-band route in high school, having studio session man and local legend David Hood as one of his mentors. In 1997, Isbell decided to study English at the University of Memphis. "I just wanted to write songs," he said in a recent phone interview. "I wanted to learn as much as I could about putting words on paper and making them mean exactly what you want."
Occasionally returning to the Shoals on weekends, he would stay at a local musicians' house and made some important connections. For one, he met Hood's son Patterson, who happened to be the principal singer and songwriter with the Truckers. "They were working on Southern Rock Opera (their epic fourth album, from 2001). Patterson was really excited about the record," Isbell remembered. "That was the first time I heard the Truckers and knowing Patterson helped me realize what that record was about."
Not long after, Isbell toured North Alabama and Memphis, doing acoustic shows with Hood and booking a solo show in Memphis. Isbell didn't have enough material, so he wrote a set of songs quickly and wound up getting a publishing deal in 2002 with the legendary Fame Studios, where a string of classic records were made, including Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally," Percy Sledge's "When a Man Loves a Woman" and the Aretha Franklin masterpiece I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You.
Before Isbell got a chance to pursue the deal, though, the Truckers came back into his life. "They were playing a party at that same house we stayed at," he said. "There was an empty chair there. Half-way through, Patterson said, 'Go ahead, sit down and play.' So I played and that's all the transition there was. It was a Saturday and we left Monday for an Oklahoma show. So I had about a day's notice to get my shit together. I learned most of Opera in the van."
Luckily for Isbell, the other members of the band accepted him, not just as the new guitar player but also a songwriter alongside Hood and co-founder Mike Cooley. "If I came in with a song that sounded like fucking Bauhaus, as long as it was a good song, they probably wouldn't mind, though Cooley would probably give me shit," Isbell said. He also found that the band had established a tight rapport. "If there's a song that's not strong enough for a Truckers' record, the person who wrote it will usually be the one to cut it. I think it's just a matter of the chemistry we have in the band."
When it came time to record his first Truckers album, Decoration Day, in 2003, the band had been bouncing around enough material to come up with a theme. "That caused a key to be turned in our head and made us write songs that would be along the same lines or along the exact opposite lines of our other songs," Isbell said. "Everybody was in the same shitty mood except for me -- I was just happy to be there. Everybody else was writing about relationship problems, having to start over and the fallout from the making of the Opera." By the time of 2004's The Dirty South, Isbell's songs were turning toward more personal matters: "I'd been writing about the things that I'd been dealing with -- going on the road, taking care of yourself and what happens if you don't."
Now, the Truckers are in the studio again, working on a new album tentatively titled A Blessing and a Curse. Isbell said the band has found itself taking yet another creative turn: "We just came into the studio and said, 'Here's one, let's do it.' That was a change because we didn't have any point-counterpoint thing to bounce off of." Isbell said he's also prepping a solo record for year's end, Silence of the Ditch. He said his and Hood's solo outings don't signal the end of the band. "We all need other ways to get our songs recorded and released," said Isbell. "If we didn't do solo records, we would probably drive each other crazier."
Drive-By Truckers play at Tremont Music Hall with opening band The Tom Collins, at 10pm Nov. 17. Tickets are $18, available at Etix.com.