For the past six years, Jason Isbell has been known as one-third of the Drive-By Truckers' formidable guitar attack. Now, he wants to be known as something else: a solo artist.
With the release of his first solo album, he's well on his way. Now, if he could only shake the pesky question of why he left his old critical-darling act.
"Some of the articles [about me leaving the Drive-By Truckers] have been terrible," Isbell says over the phone. "They've been almost tabloid-style for weekly rock rags."
But the question does remain. According to published reports, Isbell's departure was an amicable one. Instead of dwelling on the hows and whys, Isbell would rather focus on his latest tour and album, and the joys of finally being an artist on his own.
"It's going really well," he says, the pride noticeable in his thick Alabama drawl. "I've got all the people in place now. All the things are just now coming into place. I've been able to handpick who I was working with."
His album, Sirens of the Ditch, prominently displays Isbell's signature mix of Tom Petty and John Fogerty influences on 11 tracks. This time, though, Isbell is accompanied by his backing band of drinking buddies and longtime friends, The 400 Unit.
"I've known those guys longer than the Truckers," he says. "We grew up in Muscle Shoals [Ala.] together and have played together for a long time. We've either set in with each other or played in bands together for a long time."
Still, fans listening to this band have to brace themselves for a pretty big switch musically. The 400 Unit lacks the Drive-By Truckers' signature wall-of-guitar sound. Isbell maintains it makes up for it by knowing when not to play.
"There aren't many places to hide, playing with these guys," Isbell says. "I don't mind that. It's easier to sing, and to hear what's happening on the stage. The players are so good, and they are listening to what each other are doing, and I'm having a great time [on stage]."
And though the performance of the songs from Sirens may seem effortless, the making of the album was an entirely different story.
"We were touring so much with the Truckers that I didn't have that much time to go to record a record," Isbell says. "So I spent a lot of time recording a day or two at a time to get the record done, and it [took] two or three years to record the album."
With songs ranging from swampy blues to unabashedly operatic ballads, Sirens of the Ditch shows Isbell as a versatile songwriter dying to free himself from the Southern-rock labels that were at times imposed upon the Truckers by critics and writers in those "weekly rock rags."
"I don't think that what we do is Southern rock," Isbell says, laughing. "We have a lot of different kinds of songs on the record. People call My Morning Jacket and Kings of Leon Southern rock, and they sound nothing like what Southern rock used to sound like."
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit with Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles
The Thirsty Parrot, 32 S. Tejon St.
Sunday, Nov. 18, 7 p.m.
Tickets: $14 ($10 for students); visit ticketweb.com, the KRCC-FM offices at 912 N. Weber St., or CC's Worner Center at 902 N. Cascade Ave.