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Jason Isbell's sober inspiration

Movies, books and East German tales help define singer's surroundings


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Jason Isbell may have a down-home, Alabama upbringing, but the alt-country troubadour revels in the most worldly of stories. One of his favorites is set in Germany, told by Thomas Lingstaedt, who coordinated Isbell's first European tour.

It was the tale of a youngster growing up in mid-1970s East Germany who, like countless citizens shut out by the Berlin Wall, longed to peek over that harrowing barrier. But as Lingstaedt grew older, the story took a sudden twist, as he was compelled to risk crossing that infamous "death strip," guarded by Soviet towers.

He was smuggling a special sort of contraband.

"It was inspiring for me to hear the story about him sneaking across the border with records, and bringing them back home," Isbell says of the gripping anecdotes that Lingstaedt shared. "I thought to myself: 'That's somebody that was very committed to listening to music.' It left a lasting impression on me."

"I was not allowed to bring 'capitalist music' to East Germany. So, we took our treasures in between our dirty, stinky clothes," Lingstaedt says, adding that he and his friends would've likely been banned from the university if they'd been caught travelling with such items.

Isbell, who will perform at the Neighborhood Theatre on Jan. 16, now spends much of his time immersed in other European crime stories. His favorite is Run Lola Run (he's a big fan of the film's star, Franka Potente). Isbell says these films "are so much more intelligent and original than your normal Bruce Willis kinda action movie."

For Isbell, it's not mere entertainment: "Movies and books are where a lot of my time has gone, now that I'm not going out at night."

Isbell says his newfound fanboy lifestyle suits him well. Onlookers may deem it to be dull, especially compared to the days he spent on the road with lauded country-rock troop the Drive-By Truckers, who partied as hard as they played. But Isbell says he's now much happier to be a homebody. These days he gigs solo, for only a few weeks at a time, in support of his lauded 2013 disc Southeastern. He is now nearly two years sober, after a stint in rehab in January of 2012, and he says his playing, along with his well being, are all the better for it.

"I feel like I have more stamina now. I'm singing on key most of the night, which was something I wasn't doing when I was drinking."

"I don't feel like shit all the time," Isbell goes on to say about his biggest incentive to stay sober. "A hangover's a strange thing. If you've never had anything to drink in your life, and you woke up one morning with a hangover, you'd think you were dying. But when you're drinking a lot, you figure 'well, I deserve that.' It's just a terrible thing to do to yourself."

But it wasn't a hangover headache that pushed Isbell to change. Heartache is what truly did his addiction in. He went to rehab on his wife's (fiddler Amanda Shires) insistence. Fans and critics have likened her love and support to the fiddle accompaniment she offers her husband onstage.

Not all of Isbell's fellow musicians have held so steadfast.

In 2007, he left the Drive-By Truckers. Rumors whirled that the split was due to creative differences. But Isbell told the New York Times that his bandmates had suggested he take some time off to rest and, more importantly, address his drinking.

Isbell says he isn't bitter about the fallout with his former fellow Truckers, especially now that a few years have passed. And yet, he's by no means eager to book any reunion gigs with them.

"I'm not opposed to playing with the Truckers on any moral level. I just don't think it would make any sense at this point," he says.

And Isbell doesn't exactly need The Truckers. Southeastern has drawn so much praise that his solo career might even eclipse his former tenure with the beloved country troop. Isbell admits that part of that recent success should be attributed to his candor, both in the studio and in interviews.

"It's not easy. But if you write creatively, you have a responsibility to let people in there and tell them how your life is going," Isbell says, adding such personal morsels are by no means the same as catering to gossip fiends. For him, it's a crucial way to forge ties with a like minded fanbase. "If you don't do that, you could wind up in a situation like the Dixie Chicks were in. Now I won't have to deal with people burning my records when I say something political or something personal."

During Isbell's last European tour, Thomas Lingstaedt told the former Drive-By Trucker about his most intense incident at the Berlin Wall.

Lingstaedt and his pals wanted to buy a tape deck, so that they could make copies of their risqué vinyl. But if decent LP's were scarce in East Germany at the time, it was safe to say that recording devices were nonexistent. They devised a brilliantly straightforward way to sneak such equipment across the border — placing it in the backseat and covering it with a roadmap.

"The guards checked our luggage but they didn`t realize our simple trick," Lingstaedt says, adding that initial approval was by no means universal. "Back home, a couple days later, my dad asked me what happened, because the Stasi (secret police) mentioned something about a tape machine to him. That proved to me, for the first time, that one of my classmates was working for the secret police."

Lingstaedt was troubled by the betrayal.

"I hope you can imagine that music was very important to us. And at this time it was easier for me to imagine a vacation on the moon rather than touring with American bands," Lingstaedt says, adding that coordinating tours for musicians like Isbell has finally made that dream come true.

Isbell marvels at Lingstaedt's Soviet Guard defiance, and his snubbing of Communist censorship. But, of course, the Alabama bred songwriter has no plans to pen militant anthems or socially conscious ballads anytime soon. He is, however, happy to inspire more modest fans. "Even though I'm not reaching people on a huge scale, I still like when alcoholics talk about their recoveries and how they made it through," he says of his confessional songwriting. "I think it helps other people to get sober and stay sober. And it helps me to talk about it too, it reminds me of the reasons I quit drinking in the first place."


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