Isbell's songs are as soulful as his voice, and the sultry-climate character of his arrangements supports and highlights them both. But not all of his songs are blues- or soul-based; they're as likely to incorporate ballad pop and country folk, and the sorts of ruminations more typically associated with singer-songwriters. Still, the entirety of his debut, Sirens of the Ditch, bears the unmistakable imprint of Muscle Shoals, Ala., the venerable musical borough where he makes his home.
Asked to describe memorable musical experiences from his childhood, Isbell recalls easily the weekly family gatherings at his grandmother's house in Green Hill, just 21 miles down the road from Muscle Shoals. His retelling breathes life into a Southern, back-porch cliché.
"It was pretty close to what people have in mind for a family in the South, sitting around playing together," he says. "Real often, we'd get together, seven or eight at least, sometimes as many as 12, and it was usually gospel or bluegrass kind of music. I remember my Aunt Judy specifically. She was an alto, and she sings louder than anybody I've ever heard." Isbell adds that his favorite song of the period was "Wildwood Flower."
Besides his parents, who aren't musicians, Isbell can't think of many family members who don't play an instrument. "I was about 5 or 6, and I started out playing mandolin, because my hands were small," he says. "Then I got a little bit older and played guitar, but this was kind of a normal thing, a routine in our family. Whenever anybody got old enough, you were shown how to play a musical instrument. Most of the time, it stuck."
A mandolin's neck may be just right for a child's hand, but the pressure (and calluses) required to finger its four sets of twin strings virtually assured the grown Isbell a dexterity on guitar. Luckily, he arrived at adulthood with additional assets for a musical career: an early fondness for poetry, which he honed by earning a degree in English, and an appreciation for nearly every kind of music. "I just kind of listened to all of it at once," he says, "It's hard to be a rebellious punk-rock teenager when you spend a lot of time listening to Merle Haggard and George Jones."
Isbell says he had started composing his own songs by the age of 14, but he credits his English degree for the quality of his craft.
"I just had to read a lot," he says, "and if you read a lot, you know a lot more about writing, the mechanics of it, the history of it. And practice makes perfect. The more you write, the better you are, just like anything else."
Along the way, he became a lifelong fan of the poetry of Mark Strand, Louise Glück and Torquato Tasso, the 16th-century Italian. One of Tasso's poems provided the title for Isbell's debut: It had a line referring to frogs as "syrens of the ditch."
Isbell made a connection unlikely ever to be found in literary criticism. "That was always kind of a topic in a lot of trucker songs, songs about heathens and temptation," Isbell says. "That was often referred to as 'running into the ditch' in those songs. And that goes along with being on the road and traveling. There are definitely a lot of temptations, a lot of things you know are bad for you, and you have to decide whether you want to do them anyway or not."
The siren call of the ditch was beckoning a lot while he was making this record, he says, but the temptations the songs describe are much more subtle than you might expect from a road-warrior musician. You'll find no hard drinking or hot young things; in their place are poignant and even disturbing character studies, along with a clear political point of view here and there.
In the former category is "Down in a Hole," characterizing an archetype of Southern culture, the unscrupulous power broker in a dirty white suit. There's also the wrenching, stressed-out "Shotgun Wedding," in which the benighted hero is desperately in love with a girl pregnant with someone else's child. "Even though I know it's not my fault, I wish it was," Isbell sings, "So how about a shotgun wedding? What about your dignity? What about a different setting? What about me?"
The gorgeous "Grown" is a reverent tribute to the girl who awakened his earliest "grown-up" impulses, and the slow-dance "Hurricanes and Hand Grenades" features bluesy swoops and a Frank Sinatra melody. Perky banjo color and pretty harmonies make "The Magician" a set standout and spotlight the empathy that makes all these songs so appealing: "I am an orphan man but ain't we all."
Contempt seethes through the politically oriented tracks. "The Devil Is My Running Mate" strikes out at lies and hatemongering: "The devil is my running mate / Confusion is his favorite state / Surely you folks can relate / I know we've gathered here to hate." More powerful is the sentiment of "Dress Blues"--impressions of a hometown boy's funeral and the events that caused it.
"(Politics) kind of influences everything," Isbell says. "It was just something that was on my mind when I was writing. I'm extremely frustrated with the political state right now, and I think everybody is for one reason or another."