9. A Blessing and a Curse – The Drive-By Truckers
This record marks the end of Jason’s tenure with the Truckers, and his contributions are fairly limited. The album itself is mostly tame, featuring a bit stronger tinge of country music, likely of the Mike Cooley-heavy track listing. Its the last time we’ll ever hear the three guitars of Cooley, Hood, and Isbell roaring together, and deserves notoriety for this. Aside from timeline significance, though, A Blessing and a Curse, offers little in the way of highlights.
Jason takes a turn at the microphone with “Daylight,” showcasing a pretty incredible range and control. “Gravities Gone,” while not featuring Jason at vocals, is notable for its status in the Trucker’s catalog, and certainly features each of the three on guitar. After this project, Jason would be forced to move on, and after hearing this record, the divide between the two visions is clear.
8. Sirens of the Ditch – Jason Isbell
This record comes at an odd time in Jason’s career. Immediately following his departure from The Drive-By Truckers and landing squarely in the thick of his battle with addiction and divorce, this, his first solo effort, bares much of the rebel attitude and hectic style of his life at the time. The guitar work is impressive as usual, and the tracklist is certainly not devoid of the occasionally impressive verse or catchy hook, but the absence of Amanda Shires as well as his former bandmates, meant that Jason is forced to carry an entire album alone, and his inability to do so shines through.
Tracks like “Brand New Kind of Actress,” and “Grown” will certainly excite long time DBT fans, and serve as Jason’s goodbye to Southern rock sound and rebel attitude, a goodbye which would last quite awhile.
7. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Jason’s first outing with his newly formed band is a memorable one to say the least. Much of the stylings held over from his time with the Truckers are gone, but he seems unsure on a direction to forge his own path. Instead, we jump around from more organic, bluegrass tunes, to a jarring foray into a kind of country/jazz fusion which works surprisingly well, despite the odd addition of a horn section.
The somber, piano driven “Blue,” is one of the most interesting tracks in the band’s catalog to date, and “Streetlights” provides a fairly clear picture of the direction which would eventually materialize into Jason’s “wheelhouse.” That being said, tracks like “The Last Song I Will Write,” showcase the fact that Isbell is not quite living up to his full potential. That would change soon.
6. Here We Rest – Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
This is what I would call the hidden gem of Isbell’s discography. While the second half falls a bit flat, the first is littered with fantastic tracks. The group embraces its most bluegrass influenced sound to date and comes through with a very unique and enjoyable project. The instrument pallet benefits from the new focus as well, bringing out the more organic feel of the acoustic guitar and violin work more so than ever before.
Tracks like “Codeine” and “Alabama Pines,” come early in the track listing and epitomize the concept of the record as a whole. While the lyricism has a tendency to be a bit too literal, especially in tracks like “Stopping by,” Here We Rest, still manages to be a major departure from Jason’s background with the truckers and really serves as a starting point for the style he would go on to refine in later projects
5. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell
Isbell’s third and latest solo effort see’s the singer/songwriter steering hard into his country music tendencies. From topics of blue collar life to the bluegrass-esque instrumentation pallet, Jason sacrifices his earlier focus on lyrical themes for a tracklist which is linked more by it’s sound than anything else.
Tracks like “If It Takes A Lifetime,” “ 24 Frames,” and “Children of Children” jump out on each listen for their powerful lyrics and anthemic choruses, and Amanda Shire’s violin is consistently wonderful. There are, admittedly, a few valleys along with the peaks, and tracks like “To a Band That I Loved” feel like waisted opportunities, but nothing on this record compares to “Speed Trap Town,” which is easily, one of his best tracks to date.
4. Decoration Day – The Drive-By Truckers
Jason’s first effort with the Truckers sees a new life breathed into their sound. Fantastic guitar work, interesting lyrics, and an awesome dynamic between the three voices highlight one of the best records to date for the Southern Rock outfit. Fans were introduced, for the first time, to Jason’s unbelievable lyrical ability, as well as his common topic of critiquing the culture of the Southern, white, working class.
Isbell’s additions are some of the best tracks in his entire catalog. “Outfit,” an anthemic analysis of what it means to be a young, blue collar man from the South. “Decoration Day,” on the other hand, tells the story of a family feud, a la Hatfields and McCoys, in Alabama, from the point of view of a young man, deciding how to tell his family about his past. The record also holds the distinct honor of being the very first project in Isbell’s long career.
3. The Dirty South – The Drive-By Truckers
Boasting one of the deepest discographies and some of the best live shows in the Outlaw Country movement, The Truckers serve as the royal blood from which Jason was born. His three album stint with the group is widely considered some of their best work, and this record is generally known as their best project. With the combined efforts of Mike Cooley, Patterson Hood, and a young, rebellious Jason Isbell, the Truckers paint a vivid picture of the American South, focusing on the lives of moonshiners and outlaws battling with the law.
While Jason’s involvement in the writing of this project is unknown, Tracks like “Danko/Manuel” and “Goddamn Lonely Love” feature him as a lead singer and obvious lyricist. In addition, “Where The Devil Don’t Stay,” and “The Boys From Alabama” feature fantastic guitar work from the entire trio. Falling in the middle of Jason’s tenure with the Truckers, The Dirty South, is a must hear for hardcore Isbell fans.
2. The Nashville sound – Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit
On his third release with The 400 Unit, and most recent work to date, Jason writes with a more powerful voice than we have heard from him thus far. Gone are the contemplations on addiction and loneliness, and their replaced with commentary on race, fear, and death. The instrumentation is incredible, as usual, and the band as a whole seems to have really hit their stride with this effort.
Tracks like “White Man’s World” and “Molotov” showcase the musical talent of the group, as well as the impressive vocal abilities of Jason. The lyricism of tracks like “If We Were Vampires” and “Tupelo,” on the other hand, highlight the skill of one of the world’s great songwriters, still in his prime.
1. Southeastern – Jason Isbell
Music is often studied in movements and benchmarks. Progressive Rock has Dark Side of the Moon, Punk Rock has London Calling, and today’s modern, Outlaw Country style absolutely holds Southeastern as its best work. The lyricism is impeccable, the guitar work is expressive and beautiful, and the vocal performances are simply perfect. On top of all that, the instrumentation and vocal performance from Amanda Shires adds something irreplaceable to the project, which was Jason’s first solo effort in six years.
While literally every song is fantastic, some are notable, even among stiff competition. “Elephant” tells the story of a young woman dying of cancer, featuring some of the best lyricism and vocal work in his catalog. “Live Oak” and “Different Days” deal explicitly with Isbell’s struggle to overcome his addiction and shameful past. For a true fan, though, nothing is as sweet as “Cover Me Up.” Opening the record with the story of his transition from hopeless alcoholic to married father and successful musician, Jason lets his fans deep into his heart and his past, and confesses the truth of his inability to save himself, and the way love changed his life.
When played live, the entire crowd cheers when Jason sings “I sobered up and swore off that stuff forever this time,” and it brought tears to my eyes the first time I witnessed it personally. That moment represents, perfectly, the feeling of this fifteen year journey we’ve undertaken along with Jason, and the best part is, it is so far from over.