Chuck Eddy's 132-word, three-star Blender review of the sophomore record from former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell cuts quickly to the record's fault line: "[Its] fallback tempo amounts to a funeral waltz. And Isbell's recitation—defiantly unexciting in its averageness—doesn't help. But the thing is, the guy can really write."
Indeed, much of Isbell's second record with the 400 Unit is a swampy morass, a solemn affair that moans out for the shots of levity, balance and micro-specificity that old Trucker bandmates Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood so often provided. That three-guitar configuration of the Truckers took aim slowly, writing and recording albums that unfolded patiently through realism, detail and shading. They gave you room to laugh, to cry, to be pissed off. But Isbell seems to need them now more than they need him: His solo material generally falls somewhere between the last two registers, those of crying and bitching. And the music—generally sufficient and standard, occasionally cumbersome and coarse Southern bar rock—fails to offer much contrast or variety.
But "Seven-Mile Island" gives reason for hope, even if its lyrics detail unwanted pregnancy and a dead-beat dad hoping to find himself in an Alabama cave. Musically, "Seven-Mile Island" swings like one of those spry John Hiatt numbers, country sounds pounded into the dance floor's old wood. Handclaps, footstomps and multiple drum kits percolate beneath manipulated harmonica lines, slides across a Dobro's strings flashing in and out of the action. Isbell climbs atop the beat, charging the words with the realization that, even if you didn't think you'd found your way in, it's always possible to bust your way out. After all, at track's end, his protagonist cheerily asks that his daughter be told, "I just can't be saved." Back when he was innocent, he probably hoped he'd never be lost, too. Indeed, the guy can really write.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: Seven-Mile Island is a wildlife preserve in Alabama, I've read.
JASON ISBELL: Yeah, now it is. It's a location that's right out in the middle of the Tennessee River. It's close to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. When I was a kid, everybody used to go out there and hunt arrowheads. Now that it's a national location, you have to turn them all in. You're supposed to turn them all in. We used to find some cool stuff out there. There's a big cave that a few hundred years ago was a location that a lot of Native Americans would come through and stay when they were wandering away from the tribe. Somehow they all managed to kind of get along out there. That was very interesting to me. I guess that kind of sparked the idea.
Which idea, specifically?
Just the idea of writing a song about that place. I set up a modern narrative, but there's a lot of references to the fact that it was a location where tribal people that didn't normally coexist were able to do that pretty peacefully.
There's the image of this group of people in an Airstream trailer. What's an Airstream mean to you?
There's something about the Airstream that kind of represents the American style of traveling. I don't know when those things first came about, but I imagine the Interstate Highway System had a lot to do with it. When you're traveling as kids, you count them. You don't really see as many as you used to, but the Airstream to me was always a symbol of freedom.
Did your family vacation in them?
No, we didn't. We didn't back in those days. I've spent some time in them since then.
Have you toured in an Airstream?
I've never toured in one, but I've traveled in one a couple of times. I've got a couple of friends that own them, and I've spent some nights in those. Sometimes they'll set them up for backstage areas. There's a little place in Auburn, Ala., The Strutting Duck. We play there. They've got an Airstream for the backstage.
In the song, Mary's pregnant, correct?
How does that play against the narrative, of this father going off to try and pull himself together?
I think it's more about the father in the son, really. He's really I guess kind of despondent about the whole situation. That thing that has happened, nobody planned. So he's really looking for a way out more than anything else. I guess that's, you can say, pretty similar to the people who left their groups, the natives that left their group and for whatever reason just gave up their lives and travelled by themselves or in a smaller group. I guess that location: He was looking for kind of an asylum from what was going on his life.
And that's Seven-Mile Island?
You used to go to Seven-Mile Island with your own father, but did you ever escape anything there by yourself?
No, I couldn't get there by myself because it was surrounded by water, at least until I got a little bit older. We fished out there and stuff. I don't think I've ever been without my dad.
How far did you grow up from Seven-Mile Island?
Probably 20 minutes, I guess. That's a really, really good fishing spot. They have tons of tournaments there. It's one of the best places in the country for smallmouth bass.
What's your favorite kind of fishing?
I like to fly-fish a lot. That's probably my favorite, but I haven't had much time for any of it recently. I'm hoping this year I can break away and get a little time on the water.
Is there a lot of fly-fishing in Alabama? I wasn't aware of it.
Not much. You have to travel. There's some in some of the foothills in eastern Alabama, but the best stuff really is in northern Georgia and on up through Asheville and Boone.
It's interesting that you pull images from your childhood into an adult context here. Does that happen often with your songs?
Yeah, I guess so. I do. I guess those things, things from my childhood, come back when I'm in that place when I'm actually working on something creative. I think I probably use a lot of that as motivation. I've written a lot about that, about when I was a child. Like "Outfit" was one of those songs. I definitely focused a lot on that stuff. I don't know why. I think maybe my career and the way I live now is probably a little bit of a continuation of that. It's probably an extended childhood in some way.
I recently finished a story about a Chapel Hill band, and the gentlemen were talking about getting older but how the band helped to counter that.
It can serve that purpose for you. I mean it can make you feel old but act young. That's for sure.
Does that process ever make you anxious?
Yeah, I guess sometimes I think about that, but there's just so many different things to do in the music business, and there's so many different avenues to take. But probably by the time I get to the age where I don't want to tour anymore, I'm hoping something else will appear and make itself available for me. I mean I've kind of gotten into some producing stuff now. That's a lot of fun and pretty fulfilling to me creatively, so maybe at some point I'll have a studio and not have to travel quite as much.
The sound of "Seven-Mile Island" is different than anything else on this record or anything on the last solo record. The drums and Dobro and a harmonica, I believe. It's not straight-up band rock.
Yeah, there's a harmonica part on there, and the drum thing on that song is something very different.
How were the drums played and recorded for this track?
There's a lot of different kits. I think there was like 3 or 4 different drum kits at some points in that song. Then there's stomps and claps that we did with road cases and 5 or 6 people huddled around a microphone. It's just pretty much everything and the kitchen sink as far as the rhythm section.
There's even a section of hand claps. All of those sounds together give the song a pretty bright, feeling. Someone even called it "a briny, shuffling porch song." But this is a pretty dark tune.
There's a lot of that on the record, I think. There's a lot of happy instrumentation and kind of uplifting sounding music and a lot of pretty sad lyrics. I think that comes from the fact that, when I wrote the record, the things I was writing about and the state I was in at that point when I allowed myself to be in that place was very different from the atmosphere in the studio. We were having a whole lot of fun in the studio, actually, making this record happen.
When you were making the record itself, did that ever cross your mind: "Wow, I went to a pretty dark place for this?" And did you have reservations?
Yeah it did. I mean there's some really kind of acidic stuff on this record. You always look back and say, "Well, should I have done that? Should I have put that out?" and I guess my overall rule is that if you feel like writing it and it rhymes, go ahead. But you know, I don't know if that's the best thing to do or not. I just kind of stay in the dark.
During "Outfit," are those instructions—"Don't pretend that your family's a joke" and so on—actually from your dad?
Most of them, yeah. A lot of them were stolen from a tirade, but yeah, those were all things he actually referenced and talked to me about while I was a kid. There was a lot of that. My dad was very hands-on and very present when I was younger. He was always there, which is kind of a miracle when I think back to how much work he had to do to keep us fed.
Which line remains the most salient to you?
Well, let's see. What's today? Is today the 20th?
Today's the 19th.
Well, my sister's birthday is on the 21st, so I'll have to remember that. You know, I don't know. I don't know which one's the most important. I'm trying to get that song in my head. I guess actually "Don't give it away" was something that I kind of brought together from the way [my father] did business with people and the way he had a certain amount of pride in how hard he worked and how much he was able to do for his family and his self with very limited education. So yeah, that one. That's pretty important to me.
What did he do?
He works construction now. He works at a hospital. He does maintenance at a hospital, but he was a house painter for a long, long time until my granddad passed away. They had a family house painting company.
What's his reaction to your songs about him?
He loves it. He absolutely loves it. People normally like it if you write a song about them. But that one, he's just overjoyed about that.
How does he feel about you recalling Seven-Mile Island in this new track?
That one's not about anybody in particular. It's about 3 or 4 different people, and I don't think any of them have caught onto it yet. [Laughs.] So we'll see how that works.
Correction (Nov. 27, 2011): Seven-Mile Island is in the Tennessee (not Mississippi) River; see comment below.