The road. To most working musicians, it's something of a traveling office, a winding stretch of highway or back way that leads to the next performance. It's a means of connecting with an audience and a source of artistic inspiration. It's also, depending on how long you stay out there, a pathway to burnout.
Jason Isbell recognizes all of these attributes. For this traveling, Alabama-bred Americana songsmith, the road has been a vivid inspiration that has triggered ideas for several songs on his sublime new album, Here We Rest. But it also is a sort of purgatory, an inescapable yet necessary evil for his chosen profession.
"The road is where I spend most of my time, for one thing," said Isbell, who returns to Lexington on Friday night to play at Buster's Billiards & Backroom. "So if I'm going to write songs about something I know, then I'm going to have to talk about being on the road because that's usually where I am.
"There is certainly a sense of camaraderie about being on the road. There are a lot of inspirational people that I run across and get to spend time with when I'm traveling. But it's all experienced through this filter of exhaustion. It's like you're not completely awake most of the time. So it turns into this sort of dream world. And, for better or worse, what's really more conducive to being creative than that?"
Life on the road plays different but very specific roles in the songs that bookend Here We Rest, Isbell's third studio album with the 400 Unit, the band he formed after amicably parting with another pack of rock 'n' roll road warriors, Drive-By Truckers, in 2007.
The opening Alabama Pines is like a call home, a wistful, country-ish tune that yearns for the kind of identity that weeks upon weeks on the road strips away. "I hardly even know my name anymore," Isbell sings over a sparse acoustic melody. "When no one calls it out, it kind of vanishes away."
"There is a character in that song. I'm not necessarily writing about myself. It's just one of those songs where I'm trying to tell a particular story. It's about someone who is despondent and has been stuck in the same rut for a long time. It's definitely one that came from spending a lot of time on the road and the need to recuperate emotionally."
Then there is the album-closing Tour of Duty, where the road inspirations are far less literal. In fact, the song began life as a postcard from the touring life with a happy ending: a return home. Then it developed into a very different road story.
"That one is bit more allegorical," Isbell said. "I started off writing about my own feelings about coming home from being on the road. Then it developed into a war song pretty quickly.
"I write about war a lot because I see the effect it has on small towns. I don't have the experience firsthand of being in the military. I don't know about combat or that way of life to really write about it. But I feel I do have quite a bit of experience dealing with soldiers who come home. Or don't. I see the effect it has on their families and their surroundings. So I write about that whenever it presents itself. To me, it's a pretty important issue."
The road is war and war is hell? That might be stretching the point, but Isbell certainly has found a dark undercurrent to touring. He also readily admits that any discontent he might sense from roadwork doesn't extend to the concert stage. His few hours of performance time serve as a reward for the seemingly endless but necessary travel that takes up much of the rest of his working day.
"The performance is always the part that's fun. The actual touring and traveling part is not. Touring sucks, to be blunt about it. Playing the shows? That will always be wonderful. But nobody wants to ride in a van for 10 hours a day. I'm sorry. That's not romantic and that's not cool.
"But it's like an arm or leg, you know? You have it and you have to work with it. But I don't want to spend all my time complaining about it either. What we're doing on the road is working. We're seeing bigger audiences. People are into the music, and they are into the new material. So that's really encouraging.
"And that's what you want. You want it all to work. It's all a process where you have to learn to pay attention. And that means you can't ignore it when things go well for you. I mean, you don't want to miss out on all the good stuff, do you?"