Mass MoCA: Jason Isbell - Singer-songwriter is in forward gear


PITTSFIELD -- Jason Isbell was a member of the iconic alt-country band the Drive By Truckers for six years, from 2001-07.

Isbell, who will be at MassMoCA on Friday, was considered one of the band's finest songwriters, with "Decoration Day" and the amazing "Danko/Manuel" about the lives of two of the members of The Band.

Since 2007, Isbell's career had been steady, but not spectacular. He released a solo album under his own name in 2008. Later, he formed a band, The 400 Unit, and in 2013, released "Southeastern".

After battling drug problems, a messy divorce and alcohol abuse, Isbell has come out on the other side pretty well. A great majority of "Southeastern" was written when Isbell found sobriety.

Since its release last year, "Southeastern" has been one of the biggest critical success stories of the year. Meanwhile, the now-sober Isbell also has a new person in his life, violin-player Amanda Shires, part of the six-member band with whom he tours.

Isbell also believes that his songwriting, which was pretty keen in the first place, is sharper now than when he was abusing drugs and alcohol.

"When I wrote before, I was still fairly clear-headed," he said in an interview last year. "And when I was drinking a lot and raising hell, I didn't focus too much on the work. I just don't believe that's necessarily too conductive to the style of music I make or the songs I write.

"I think sometimes you have to be pretty clear-headed," he continued. "For me, being sober has meant having a lot more time in the day to work and to read, for both the input and the output."

Critical reviews of "Southeastern" have mentioned that the disc is one of the best "whole pieces of work" in 2013. Isbell did not disagree.

"I've tried with all my albums to make them consistent," he said in a recent interview prior to the tour. "Sometimes it's been a little more difficult, because I didn't really put the time in that I should have."

The title of the album is from a factory in Alabama in which his father worked when Isbell was a young boy.

"When I was a little kid," he said, "I heard horror stories about people there getting injured. I thought, ‘Why would people put themselves through that?' Then, when I got older, I realized people would put themselves through that because it was the grown-up thing to do. I began thinking about that kind of sacrifice, and it seemed like a good idea to reclaim that name for my own purposes."

In concert ...

Who: Jason Isbell

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Mass MoCA, Courtyard C (rain location Hunter Center), 1040 Mass MoCA Way, North Adams

Tickets: $24 (advance); $30 (day of)

How: (413) 662-2111;; in person at box office.


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