Isbell with the 400 Unit at Bowery Ballroom, NYC in Jan. 2013
|Michael Jason Isbell|
February 1, 1979 |
Green Hill, Alabama, U.S.
|Instruments||Vocals, guitar, electronic keyboard|
|Drive-By Truckers, Amanda Shires, Sturgill Simpson|
Michael Jason Isbell (; born February 1, 1979) is an American singer-songwriter and guitarist from Green Hill, Alabama, in Lauderdale County. He is best known for his solo career, his work with the band The 400 Unit, and as a former member of Drive-By Truckers for six years, from 2001 to 2007. He has won two Grammy Awards.
Isbell was born in Green Hill, Alabama, two miles from the Alabama/Tennessee state line, the son of interior designer mother Angela Hill Barnett and house painter Mike Isbell. Isbell's mother was only 17 years old (and his father 19 years old) when he was born and is the subject of a song, "Children of Children". Isbell's parents divorced, and he has two much younger half-siblings, Chantry Barnett and Emily Isbell.
Isbell grew up in rural North Alabama. His grandparents lived on a farm down the road, next to the school that Isbell attended; they looked after him while his parents were at work. His grandfather and uncle taught him to play various musical instruments, including the mandolin when he was 6 years old as it was easier for him to grip as a small child. They enjoyed gospel, bluegrass, and the Grand Ole Opry. In high school, he played trumpet and French horn. Isbell's family would get together and play music every week, sometimes twice a week, which Isbell said has a lot to do with where he comes from and the family's focus on music. Isbell's paternal grandfather, who came from a musical family, was a Pentecostal preacher, who played guitar in church. Isbell spent his childhood attending both the Pentecostal church and the stricter Church of Christ, which permitted only singing (no musical instruments).
Isbell started playing in a garage band and a country cover band when he was 14 or 15 years old with his friend, songwriter Chris Tompkins. They played at the Grand Ole Opry when Isbell was 16.
When Isbell was a teenager, many musicians took him under their wing. He got to know session bassist David Hood, the father of Drive-By Truckers co-founder Patterson Hood, because Hood was in the Florence, Alabama, area and played around town on Friday and Saturday nights in local restaurants and bars. By this time, Patterson Hood and his future Drive-By Truckers co-founder, Mike Cooley, were older and had moved out of town. Isbell would go watch David Hood and others perform. It took a while, but once he finally got up the nerve to tell them he played, they'd have him sit in with them, which resulted in friendship and mentorship.
After working as a songwriter, in 2001 at the age of 22, Isbell joined the rock band Drive-By Truckers while they toured in support of their album Southern Rock Opera. The band operates out of Athens, Georgia, where Isbell lived while with the band. Patterson Hood recalls that he met Isbell through Dick Cooper, a mutual friend from Muscle Shoals. Hood already knew Shonna Tucker and invited Isbell to join Drive-by Truckers after he sat in with the group at an acoustic house party when guitarist Rob Malone didn't show up.
Isbell recorded and contributed many songs to Drive-by Truckers for their next three albums, 2003's Decoration Day, 2004's The Dirty South, and 2006's A Blessing and a Curse. The title track of Decoration Day was revealed by Isbell in the 2014 Live from Lincoln Center concert to be a true story about his family members.
For most of his time as a band member, Isbell was married to Shonna Tucker, who joined the band after Isbell as a bassist. The two were part of the band's documentary, The Secret to a Happy Ending. The two later divorced.
On April 5, 2007, Isbell announced that he was no longer a member of Drive-By Truckers. The following day, Patterson Hood confirmed the break on the band's official site. In his letter to the fans, Hood described the parting of ways as "amicable" and expressed the hope that fans would continue to support Drive-By Truckers as well as Jason's solo efforts. Isbell had been with the Drive-By Truckers for six years.
On June 15, 2014, Isbell teamed with Hood and Mike Cooley for a benefit at the Shoals Theater in Florence, Alabama. The sold-out acoustic performance was the first time Isbell had performed with his former bandmates since they split in 2007. In August 2015, Hood joined Isbell onstage and played a couple of Drive-By Truckers songs together in Hood's new adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon.
On June 11, 2013, Isbell released his fourth solo album, Southeastern. Produced by Dave Cobb and featuring accompanying vocals by Kim Richey and Isbell's wife, Amanda Shires, Southeastern received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews, earning a score of 87 on Metacritic.Southeastern led to Isbell's clean sweep of the 2014 Americana Music Awards. Southeastern won Album of the Year, Isbell was named Artist of the Year, and the song "Cover Me Up" was named Song of the Year.NPR rock critic Ken Tucker listed Southeastern at No. 1 on his top ten albums of 2013. Isbell's record received praise by artists like Bruce Springsteen and John Prine. Isbell's music video for the song "Traveling Alone" features the Jackson House, a historic home in Moulton, Alabama. In 2014, his song "Cover Me Up" was used as the weather for the Welcome to Night Vale episode "Visitor".
Isbell's fifth solo record, Something More Than Free, was released on July 17, 2015, on Southeastern Records. Dave Cobb produced, continuing the partnership created with Isbell on Southeastern. They recorded the album at Nashville's Sound Emporium studio with a full band. During the summer of 2015, Isbell was on a North American tour to promote the album, with four consecutive sold-out nights at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville at the end of October. In April 2016, Isbell appeared on the BBC live-music show Later With Jools Holland, singing "The Life You Chose", one of the tracks from Something More Than Free.
Isbell said that compared to Southeastern, Something More Than Free has a feeling of celebration, which reflects his upcoming fatherhood and a forward-facing momentum. One track on the record, "To a Band I Loved", is a love-letter to the band Centro-Matic, a now defunct band from Denton, Texas, Isbell played with back in his Drive-By Truckers days.
Something More Than Free debuted at number 1 on Billboard Magazine's rock, folk and country record charts. Although Isbell had had critical success in the Americana genre, this was the first time he received such high ranking across genres. The album was well received, winning two Grammy awards for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song ("24 Frames"). On May 11, 2016, Isbell, a four-time winner, was nominated for three more Americana Music Honors & Awards: Album of the Year (Something More Than Free), Song of the Year ("24 Frames"), and Artist of the Year. He won the first two, while Chris Stapleton won Artist of the Year.
The band's name comes from the 400 Unit, a colloquial name for the psychiatric ward of Florence, Alabama's Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital, which is now named the Behavioral Health Center, or 1st North, and is located on the hospital's first floor. It was originally called the 400 unit because it was in a separate building from the main building's 3-story hospital. After renovation in the 1980s, the name was changed.
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit's eponymous album was released on February 17, 2009, on Lightning Rod Records. Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit was Isbell's second solo release and his first release with The 400 Unit. Matt Pence of Centro-Matic co-produced and engineered the record, as well as playing drums on the record.
Isbell and the 400 Unit released their second album, Here We Rest, on April 12, 2011, on Lightning Rod Records. The album was produced and recorded by the band. The song "Alabama Pines" was named Song of the Year at the 2012 Americana Music Awards.
Isbell has stated on the importance of his northern Alabama roots: "I definitely don't feel like I would be the musician that I am, or the type of songwriter, had I not come from that particular place," he says now. "The soul music that came out of there, and a lot of the soul-influenced rock and roll and country music that came out of the studios in north Alabama in the '60s and '70s had a big influence on me." Isbell said that working at FAME Studios was everything to him, that it was a gateway towards the music that he wanted to play. In addition to citing Neil Young as a big influence, Isbell is a fan of singer-songwriter Ben Howard and guitarist Blake Mills.
Isbell married singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires, with whom he'd worked on and off for a decade, in February 2013, two days after they finished Southeastern. Musician Todd Snider married them. The couple had a baby girl, Mercy Rose, on September 1, 2015. Isbell was previously married to Shonna Tucker, a fellow musician from the Muscle Shoals, Alabama, community and a former bass player from Drive-By Truckers. The two got married in 2002.
In February 2012, Isbell's wife, Shires, manager Traci Thomas, and Ryan Adams did an intervention and got Isbell treatment at Cumberland Heights in Nashville. Isbell has discussed getting sober extensively, saying he drank Jack Daniel's and did cocaine during his time with Drive-By Truckers in his late 20s--a time he does not remember very clearly.Southeastern, Isbell's 2013 solo album, is reflective of his newfound sober lifestyle.
Isbell has a tattoo on the inside of his left arm with a quotation from the lyrics of the Bob Dylan song "Boots of Spanish Leather". He said that the quote reminds him about the idea of salvaging things, that for him it evokes the idea of loss as well as learning and growing from the experience. During the 2015 Newport Folk Festival, Isbell cited Dylan as a huge influence on his writing.
Isbell has lived in Nashville, Tennessee, since 2011. He is an Atlanta Braves fan and a Democrat. In November 2017 Isbell was asked on Twitter "Why do we have to inject politics in every aspect of our life can't we just enjoy the music and the football games?" He responded "Until you are the one being treated unfairly, that's easy to say."
|Title||Album details||Peak chart positions||Sales|
|Sirens of the Ditch||
|Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit||
|Here We Rest||
|Something More Than Free||
|The Nashville Sound||
|"--" denotes releases that did not chart|
|Title||Album details||Peak positions|
|Live at Twist & Shout 11.16.07||
|Live from Alabama||
|Live From Welcome To 1979
(exclusive release for Record Store Day 2017)
|"--" denotes releases that did not chart|
|2015||Sea Songs by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires
"I Follow Rivers" and "Mutineer"
|Southeastern Records (digital only)|
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The Americana Music Honors & Awards celebrate outstanding achievement in the genre of Americana. Isbell has won 6 awards out of 11 nominations.
|2009||Album of the Year||Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit||Nominated|
|2012||Song of the Year||"Alabama Pines"||Won|
|2012||Album of the Year||Here We Rest||Nominated|
|2012||Artist of the Year||Jason Isbell||Nominated|
|2014||Song of the Year||"Cover Me Up"||Won|
|2014||Album of the Year||Southeastern||Won|
|2014||Artist of the Year||Jason Isbell||Won|
|2015||Artist of the Year||Jason Isbell||Nominated|
|2016||Album of the Year||Something More Than Free||Won|
|2016||Song of the Year||"24 Frames"||Won|
|2016||Artist of the Year||Jason Isbell||Nominated|
|2017||Artist of the Year||Jason Isbell||Nominated|
The CMA Awards celebrate outstanding achievement in country music. Isbell has received one nomination.
The Grammy Awards celebrate outstanding achievement in music. Isbell has won 2 awards out of 4 nominations.
|2016||Best American Roots Song||"24 Frames"||Won|
|Best Americana Album||Something More Than Free||Won|
|2018||Best American Roots Song||"If We Were Vampires"||Pending|
|Best Americana Album||The Nashville Sound||Pending|
|2018||International Album of the Year||The Nashville Sound||Pending|