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PHOTO COURTESY MATTHEW WILLIAMS
Many singer-songwriters build lyrics from images of their hometowns, offering listeners a window to their memories.
Southern roots rocker Jason Isbell is no exception. He still lives in the town he grew up in: Muscle Shoals, Ala. His songs relate childhood memories, melding them with his present experiences.
“I think people listen to songs and want to hear stories. … There aren’t enough storytellers in popular music nowadays,” he says “It’s all about honest music. If you look like you’re having a good time, the crowd will too.”
Isbell, who studied creative writing at university, said growing up in the rural south gave him a variety of material to draw from. He picked up the guitar at age six and piano at 12, and used the instruments to recount stories about the tight-knit community — including a graduation class of just 54 or 55 people.
“We had parties in fields and barns, and there was a lot of fighting and good ol’ redneck stuff,” he said. “There were lots of really interesting characters and a lot of really good people.”
These people became ideas for characters in Isbell’s lyrics, written first as a member of the alternative country/Southern rock group Drive-By Truckers, and now as a solo artist. In his new album Sirens Of The Ditch, which was written and recorded over four years with the help of some members of his old band, Isbell relates stories of the town he loves.
“I still live in the town, five minutes from the studio,” he said.
“The pond’s a little smaller now, but it’s a good place to rest. … I love the playing aspect (of touring), but could do without being stuck in a van for five or six hours a day.”