David Hood is a bass player, 76 years old at the time of writing, who has played with everybody. Obviously, not everybody, but look at this list of artists’ albums that he has played bass on : Boz Scaggs, Joe Cocker, Albert King, Aretha Franklin, Cat Stevens, Peabo Bryson, Wendy Waldman, Julian Lennon, Paul Simon, Lulu, Shirley Brown, Glenn Frey, Patti Austin, Joan Baez, Tony Joe White, Linda Ronstadt, Paul Anka, Rod Stewart, Solomon Burke, J. J. Cale, Art Garfunkel, Bob Seger, Shelby Lynne, Bugs Bunny, Leon Russell, William Bell, Traffic, the Staple Singers, Frank Black, Odetta, John Hiatt, Etta James and Percy Sledge.
In the late 1990s, when playing in Alabama, he befriended a young guitarist/songwriter called Jason Isbell. This led to David Hood’s son, Patterson, teaming up with Jason and inviting him to join Drive By Truckers. Jason was a member of Drive By Truckers for three of their records, “Decoration Day” (2003), “The Dirty South” (2004) and “A Blessing And A Curse” (2006). For most of this time he was married to Shona Tucker who was the bass player in Drive By Truckers. After he left the group, he said “I am not in the Drive By Truckers anymore. Go figure. I wish them luck. I will not answer questions about it.” Patterson Hood said “It’s with a wide range of emotions and feelings that I’m announcing that we have parted ways with Jason. The split, which I consider extremely amicable is the result of a period of personal and artistic growth from all sides which has left us with differing dreams and goals.”
Since leaving Drive By Truckers, Jason Isbell has released 7 studio records and 2 live records. They are all excellent. He has a great rock voice; by which I mean he is able to sing emotionally and tunefully. He is as comfortable with a rocker as a ballad and his records always contain a mixture of the two. So many great songs and so little time to discuss them but I must mention “Cover Me Up” from “Southeastern” (2013) which is about his love for his second wife Amanda Shires. She is an excellent artist in her own right and she normally plays fiddle in his band, The 400 Unit. Jason said “It’s not easy to sit down and open yourself up and say, ‘This is how much I love you,’ you know? It’s scary to do that.” When he sings “I sobered up and swore off that stuff”, it is a honest appreciation of the help she gave him in getting sober. This line always gets a huge cheer from the audience when he sings it live. Another song to mention before I start rambling on about “Reunions” is “Hope The High Road” from “The Nashville Sound” (2017). Jason said “I try to document where I am in my life, and right now, one of my primary concerns is, ‘What is my role as a white male in a society that really is in dire need of understanding and empathy for people who aren’t white males?’ I want listeners to feel encouraged to be vigilant but to still stay classy, for Christ’s sake. If you’re doing too much yelling and too much screaming and acting out of frustration, you’re not effecting change in any positive way.” It seems to be a way of dealing with living in Trump’s America. The line in the song that really resonates with me is the incredulous question “There can’t be more of them than us can there?” which, although applied to Trump supporters, seems equally applicable to Brexit voters and Boris Johnson followers.
I’ve had “Reunions” for a few days now but barely played it. That’s fine because I’ve been listening to Modern Nature, Fleet Foxes, Kirsty Merryn as well as discussing Jethro Tull, Kraftwerk, Laura Nyro and Jimi Hendrix with my musical guru. But it’s about time I gave this record a proper listen.
Here is Jason on the concept that has been developed through the writing of this album. “After I wrote a couple songs, I started noticing patterns. I started seeing the fact that I was going back in time and reconnecting, at least on a psychological level, with a lot of the people, a lot of the relationships that I had growing up and when I was younger and before I got sober. I got sober eight and a half years ago. For a long spell, between the time when I got sober and just the last couple years, it was really difficult for me to revisit those times in a way that was anything less than judgmental. Because I had to look back at myself with disdain and not risk turning back into the person I used to be. Well, after about six and a half, seven years of being sober, and going through the process and going to see a therapist, I got to the point where I started feeling not necessarily nostalgia, but more of a connection with the person I was a decade or two decades ago. I felt more comfortable and safer going back into that relationship and not judging myself, but coming to terms with the fact that I had good things to offer as well as bad things in those days.”
The first song he wrote for the record is “Only Children” which is a beautiful low key song about how life used to be simpler but he does “remember when we took too much” so it’s a redemptive song about making it through the worst of times to where he is now. There is some lovely guitar playing, excellent singing, great harmonies and thought provoking lyrics. Actually, that is true for most of his stuff.
Another song is “It Gets Easier”. This is more up tempo and more of a full band song with all of The 400 Unit involved. He sings about dreaming that he had been drinking, and then calling in sick to work, forgetting his girlfriends name and seeing his daughter feeling ashamed. The key line is “It gets easier but it never gets easy”. This sounds like a good solid rock song and one of the great things about Jason Isbell is that the vocals are always high in the mix and it is not hard to hear the words. Of course, by purchasing the actual CD I have the booklet of lyrics so this isn’t a problem.
Here’s Jason again, talking about “Overseas”. “I’m really proud of this song. The reason I’m proud of that song is twofold. I like the guitar on that song and I play a lot of lead guitar on that song. Also the song’s allegorical. There are two separate stories running at the same time in that song. One is an expatriate story. Basically there’s a parent at home with a child and a partner has left for another country because he or she has just had enough and can’t take it anymore. The other one is basically what I was dealing with a couple years ago when my wife was on tour and I was home with our 4-year-old.” This is more a mid tempo song and as he says, the lead guitar is excellent even though there is no extended solo. His singing is truly wonderful.
The last song on the record is called “Letting You Go.” It is directly addressed to his daughter who is currently 4 years old. He starts by singing how he and his wife brought his daughter home from the hospital, moves on to describing her first steps and then projecting forwards to when she gets married. “And now you’ve decided to be someone’s wife and we’ll walk down the aisle and I’ll give you away. I wish I could walk with them back through your life to see every last minute of every last day. To hear your first words and to feel your first heartbreak, to sing you to sleep when you’re scared of the dark. The best I can do is to let myself trust that you know who’ll be strong enough to carry your heart. And being your daddy comes natural. The roses just know how to grow. It’s easy to see that you’ll get where you’re going. The hard part is letting you go”. I think that’s lovely.
Slowly but surely, Jason Isbell is building a body of work that will compare with the very best.