It was Christmastime when we last heard locally from Jason Isbell. That was also our first glimpse of the new Jason Isbell.
The difference might not have been immediately evident to those who cheered on the versed Alabama rocker that Saturday in December at Buster's or even to fans who followed Isbell when he began playing the long defunct Dame a decade ago as a member of Drive-By Truckers.
In fact, last winter's show came on the heels of Live in Alabama, a then-new concert recording that neatly summarized the first few chapters of his career by including a mix of vintage Truckers songs (among them, the fearsome class anthem Outfit); the rapidly maturing tunes written for his own band, the 400 Unit (including the Americana Music Awards' 2012 Song of the Year Alabama Pines); and covers that were nods to his soul-savvy Muscle Shoals roots (the '70s Candi Staton hit Heart on a String).
But a new chapter also had begun, even though Isbell wasn't making a big deal out of it.
The 400 Unit was augmented at Buster's last winter by Texas fiddler and vocalist Amanda Shires, whom Isbell married two months later. There was also discussion of a nearly completed album, the first Isbell record not co-credited to the 400 Unit. Finally, there was this bit of information mentioned during an interview a week before the show: "I quit drinking."
Isbell made the pronouncement offhandedly, as if to make sobriety seem like a fairly minor deal. Flash forward to a recent New York Times Magazine feature that detailed just how paralyzing Isbell's drinking became and the interventions that were required for him to seek help.
"Getting sober is not an easy thing to do," Isbell said by phone last week. "It gets easier as time goes on. For me, once I saw the positive consequences of my actions, then it got a lot easier to make the right decisions. But the first few months were really challenging. They were really difficult."
This summer, that first recording by the fully sober Isbell was issued as Southeastern. It has gathered scores of favorable reviews, amassed impressive sales for an indie Americana act and reaffirmed Isbell as one of the great Southern songwriters of his generation.
"I'm very happy with the record," he said. "You know, I like all of them. But this one definitely has a special place for me because it is so personal. We've sold a lot more records, got a lot more people to the shows. People seem to feel they have a personal connection to the songs, too. That's about the best you can hope for.
"I just try to write the best songs I can. But there were the changes that I had gone through — quitting drinking, getting in a stable relationship and getting married ... those things had a lot to do with what was on my mind when I was writing these songs."
The entire tone of Southeastern differs from Isbell's four records with the 400 Unit. Dominated by themes of loss and redemption with a few really scary interludes thrown in (like the real-life nightmare of Super 8, which roars to life after the comparatively contemplative New South Wales), the album recalls the dark, scorched post- Harvest music cut in the early to mid-'70s by Neil Young. Southeastern isn't as ragged as that body of work, but it shares a strong emotional bond.
"I've listened to a whole lot of that Neil Young stuff," Isbell said. "That's probably been one of my biggest influences as a musician and a songwriter. So if I'm doing it right, that's going to find its way in there. But also, I spent some time with Bridge Over Troubled Water (Simon and Garfunkel's 1970 studio swan song album) before this record. That's a really interesting sounding record that could have been made at any point in time. Technologically, there is not a whole lot of advancement there. But a lot of things are ear- catching, and that interests me a whole lot.
"But, you know, Southeastern was just about a place I was in. Really, the focus went on the words. That's always the root of all of it. That's the only thing, really, that differentiates a good record and a great record. Production is really important. But if the songs aren't there, you're just not going to have a great record.
"I mean, I spent a year and a half writing the songs and two weeks recording them. So that shows you right there what's important."
IF YOU GO
Jason Isbell, Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons
When:9 p.m. Aug. 22
Where: Buster's Billiards & Backroom, 899 Manchester St.
Tickets: $17 advance, $20 day of show. Available at (859) 368-8871 or Bustersbb.com.
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com.