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Jason Isbell

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A Shoals native son stays close to his rural roots

Critically acclaimed singer/songwriter Jason Isbell now lives in Nashville, but his lyrics and his heart are never far from the Shoals area of northwest Alabama, an area steeped in music history. Isbell grew up in tiny Green Hill, not far from the Tennessee line in Lauderdale County.

He’s a huge fan of and knows personally some of the legendary musicians of the Shoals. It was those longtime session players and songwriters, like Spooner Oldham, Donnie Fritts and Mickey Buckins (see story, Page 14), who helped shape Isbell’s musicianship.

With lyrics that are raw and reflective, Isbell has built a career and reputation as one of the country’s up-and-coming Americana acts; he cleaned up at the 2014 Americana Honors and Awards on the strength of his fourth album, 2013’s “Southeastern.”

Despite his success, he remains close to his rural Shoals roots. A song he recorded with the Drive-By Truckers, his former band, pairs a tender family memory with a story that recalls the hardscrabble way of life that was once predominant in the South.

The lyrics of “TVA,” in part:

My granddaddy told me when he was just seven or so,
His daddy lost work and they didn’t have a row to hoe …
He helped build the dam, gave power to most of the South
So I thank God for the TVA …
When Roosevelt let us all work for an honest day’s pay,
Thank God for the TVA.

“That’s one of those stories where it’s a lot of different sides to that, but that’s the one that came from family experience,” Isbell said in a 2014 telephone interview with Alabama Living’s Michael Cornelison.

Below is an edited transcript of that interview, in which Isbell reflects on his early years in and around Muscle Shoals and on the attention the area has received thanks to the recent documentary of the same name:

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Q: A lot of people don’t know what’s going on in Muscle Shoals, what has gone on and the history.

A: You know, I think the movie helped and the documentary that came out (in 2013), but it’s been a lot of really great music made there over the years. I think part of the nature of what they were doing was that they weren’t the stars, you know, they were more the people behind the scenes. So that made it a little more difficult to get the word out as to who was actually creating those hits.

Q: There’s still a lot of good things coming out of that area now, and even into the future.

A: Yeah, I see that for sure. John Paul White (formerly of the folk-rock duo The Civil Wars) has a lot of good things going. He’s not touring and he’s not doing the Civil Wars thing anymore, but he’s still making a whole lot of music. He’s got a studio with Ben Tanner, and that venue on Mobile Street. Ben, who’s also from Florence, plays with the Alabama Shakes from Athens. …

But you know, it’s the kind of thing where all those years ago it was the kind of studio focus. Most of the people who were working in Muscle Shoals were session players, and producers, and engineers and songwriters and those kinds of things. Nowadays, I think you see more of the independent recording artists. People who are actually going out and making their own records under their own name.

Like myself, I grew up around (FAME Studios session bassist) David Hood and Spooner and folks like that, and Rick Hall (founder of FAME Studios). I started working for FAME when I was like 21. You know, so I grew up around those folks. Honestly, I knew people like David and Spooner before I knew Mickey and Donnie, and before I was really aware of the work they had done. When I was a teenager I would go out and see them play, and since you can’t really have bars in Muscle Shoals, everything was a restaurant. That was great for me at that age because you didn’t have to be 21 to get in.

So I could go in, get dropped off by my parents and stay there for three to four hours to watch those folks play. You know, that was a great thing for me, and I had been playing, then, for a few years. Over time, they would start getting me up there to play with the band and they were always really helpful. They gave me good advice and kind of took me under their wing, even though that’s not something they were supposed to do. You know they don’t have to, they were still trying to get work themselves.

Q: What do you think is so special about Muscle Shoals?

A: Well, it’s just a special group of people. You know, I think Rick Hall was really the catalyst behind all that, because he had so much drive and so much ambition. Because he had been through a lot of difficult things in life. … I think a lot of that led him to be more ambitious than a lot of people were in those days. He was lucky enough to get the right people in the room, and to have people around that area who were interested in what everyone else called “black music” at the time.

You know, they were interested enough to learn how to re-create it really, really well. It still kind of surprises me. I think it was just sort of luck of the draw, as with anything else. It comes down to the people who were there when it all got started.

Q: The story we’re looking to write probably won’t be out until March. … It’s a little ahead of time, but that’s the way we kind of work here.

A: Right, right. That’s me too, usually. I’m a few months ahead of time. I have to be to keep up with everything. I’m guessing that around the time this issue is out, we’ll be going back into the studio to make another album. We made an album right at a year ago. It was a year ago this week, and it’s been real successful compared to anything else I’ve done in the past. So, we’ve been touring really steadily behind that but I think it’s time. I’m going home in August, so I’ll spend the fall and winter trying to write, and I bet by springtime we’ll be back in the studio again.

Editor’s note: Isbell and his wife, musician Amanda Shires, released a two-song recording, “Sea Songs,” in early February, available on iTunes. Isbell will be busy touring from mid-April through May.