Jason Isbell is on quite a winning streak. Sober for the past four years, he is recently married and has been touted as the brightest star to emerge in years. Isbell joined the established band the Drive-By Truckers in his early 20s and indulged in the raucous lifestyle being a Trucker afforded. By all accounts a prodigious drinker, he stayed with the band for most of his 20s before being kicked out in a band shake up five years ago.
He attributes his newfound mainstream success to his decision to stop drinking. His breakthrough album “Southeastern,” released in 2013, was basically a diary of a man working through his alcoholism and relationships. The album was both a commercial and critical success and put him on the national stage, bringing the Alabama native a whole new audience and level of success one would have thought impossible a scant few years ago.
The Metro Spirit spoke to Isbell Monday about his visit to Augusta’s Bell Auditorium this Tuesday, a visit that was supposed to pair him with country legend Merle Haggard. Unfortunately, Haggard died on his 79th birthday in April.
For Isbell, however, the show goes on. Just without the alcohol.
“The past couple of years haven’t been as busy as they have been on the road,” he said. “We’re probably doing a hundred shows. I’ve been home this week, playing a little thing in Nashville tomorrow, then going out to California to do a little thing with John Prine. But last month I flew about 55,000 miles and I don’t know if I would have been able to do that if I was still drinking. I just don’t think that would have been possible.”
The traveling, he explained, would have been difficult in and of itself. His drinking problem had begun to affect his work in other ways as well.
“It would have been rough,” Isbell admitted. “We went to Australia and had about four flights over there, flew back, then went to England and from there went to Hawaii. Yeah, I just don’t think that would have been possible if I had still been drinking. I don’t even think I would have had the offers, you know, the way my career was going. I had a lot more potential at that point in time. I wasn’t working as hard as I could work. I didn’t get the opportunities that I get now.”
Once he got a handle on his drinking, though, his work also began to improve.
“It definitely gives you more time to work,” he said of being sober. “That’s a big reason my work got better, being more well received just because I had time to focus on the job. I was writing the songs and I didn’t have the urge to go out drinking as soon as the sun went down. When we were touring, the shows got a lot more consistent, more rested, on a regular basis. The long shows were a lot better, I could sing a lot better.”
Things may be getting better on both a personal and professional front, but Isbell says he’s anything but cocky about this upswing.
“I still try and keep in mind that it could change any day. It can creep up on you,” he said. “If you think you’re cured I think you’re underestimating the disease, because it can come back at any time. It’s different for everybody. Some people feel like you can get it over with and never worry about it again, and I think if I ever start thinking I’m not an alcoholic then I might start thinking then I can drink again and start the whole process over.”
Being sober has brought with it lots of changes, but Isbell he quickly learned his limits.
“That first year was tough. That first year was harder than the last three have been combined, that’s for sure,” he said. “But, you know, for me it had to do more not really with the alcohol itself as it did with the situations that I was in. I learned that I can go out to a bar and watch somebody play, but I can’t stay more than a couple of hours. A couple of hours that’s it for me and then I start getting anxious. I start wanting a drink myself. I can’t smoke weed anymore because that makes me want a drink. I don’t think there is anything wrong with marijuana in itself, but, for me, it’s a trigger. It makes me wish I had a glass of whiskey. As soon as I figured out those things it really helped me a lot. But it took me about a year to learn those things.”
Now, Isbell says he’s just looking forward to the summer, and the music it’ll bring with it.
“The summer tour is going to be a lot of fun,” he said. “I like playing the southern towns, the places close to home. You know Georgia’s always been great for us, back with the Truckers, the first big shows we played were in Georgia and we got some things here, HangOut Fest (in Gulf Shores, Alabama) is right after that. My brother and his buddies are coming down, a lot of family is coming for that. Bonnaroo is always good. We got a pretty good stage this year, pretty good set time. My wife and I may go up to New York in July and catch the Radiohead shows. I got most of July off, got one show that month, so I’m looking forward to that.”
And while he may be looking forward to coming to Georgia to play, Isbell says there’s one aspect of the upcoming show that will be sorely missed. Merle Haggard, he added, is a man who can’t be replaced.
“He was great. I hate that it happened that’s, for sure,” he said of Haggard’s recent death. “He wrote some magical shows and lived a long life. He certainly got the most out of it. Any of those guys from that generation, to live as long as Merle did is quite an accomplishment. He lived pretty rough for a long time. I don’t think there was ever a better country songwriter, personally. I don’t think anybody was better at it than Merle.”
Jason Isbell with Special Guest Tommy Emmanuel
Tuesday, May 17