In the midst of a historical lockdown with people spending a hazy daze of unprecedented hours in their house, what a time to dive back into a set of music written about home’s comforts and complexities. Who better to pull back the complicated shades of home than a seasoned veteran of the road, like Jason Isbell.
It was October 23, 2011 when Green Hill, Alabama native Isbell stopped by Mountain Stage with his well-oiled alt-country machine, The 400 Unit, to take the audience on a trip down South. This kinetic four-song set of material comes from Isbell’s third solo album, Here We Rest; an album whose themes revolve around the idea of home.
Mountain Stage founder and host Larry Groce gave a welcoming nod to the road warrior, who had played the Grand Ole Opry by 16 and spent his 20s rocking, writing and living furiously with The Drive-By Truckers from 2001-2007. “This album is a wonderful, wonderful CD,” Groce said, “Here We Rest,” is an early motto of the state of Alabama. When you hear the songs, you will know why it is named that way.”
Held in equally high regard as a guitarist and as a songwriter, Isbell made his first appearance on Mountain Stage in 2010. He marched into this 2011 set with his trusted comrades- bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble, former Son Volt keyboardist Derry DeBorja- who make up the 400 Unit. The name was derived from a psychiatric ward of Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence, Alabama, near Isbell’s hometown on the border of Alabama and Tennessee.
With a train shuffling snare, jangling guitars and swirling organ, Isbell and the 400 Unit warm up in style walking a soldier home in “Tour of Duty”- written about an Iraq War soldier stepping off the train and straight into the cobwebs of civilian life - trying to devour the missed goodness of home, while bottling up emotional demons to hide his fears.
“I promise not to bore you with my stories/I promise not to scare you with my tears/I never would exaggerate the glory/I'll seem so satisfied here.”
The band pours a flurry of hurt into his now classic “Go It Alone,” about the wake of his first divorce and being left with himself in a quiet house of regret.
Isbell and the 400 Unit saved the best for last, closing with what have become two of his most recognized songs from Here We Rest: “Alabama Pines,” which would go on to win the 2012 Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year, and the crowd-pleasing set-closing jam of “Codeine.”
In “Alabama Pines” Isbell captures that illusive feeling of truly feeling at home with yourself. And while we may all feel a bit unanchored in our current state, we are not in this alone. Take a deep fresh breath in these evergreens. We still have these songs to transport us musically back home, “through those Alabama Pines.”
Isbell, who has gone on to win four Grammy Awards, has a new album, Reunions, produced by Dave Cobb and featuring such guests as David Crosby, and his wife Amanda Shires.
Tour of Duty
Go It Alone