Vintage country-and-soul comes to Vail |

Vintage country-and-soul comes to Vail

Caramie Schnell
Vail, CO Colorado
Special to the Daily/Allison SmithJason Isbell, whose band plays Vail, Colorado Friday, was called the "blonde-pompadoured demon spawn of Bruce Springsteen, Carlos Santana and Buck Owens" in a Washington Post review last month.

Downtrodden and deep, Jason Isbell ” whose band plays Vail, Colorado Friday ” sings some sad stories on his latest album, but really life’s been pretty good to the Alabama boy lately.

Most of Isbell’s fans found him while he was playing with The Drive-By Truckers. He split from that band (amicably) in 2007 and forged ahead on his own, releasing a solo album ” “Sirens of the Ditch” ” three months later. In February, his sophomore album with his new band “Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit,” was released. So far the CD’s gotten strong reviews for its Southern, soulful rock/country sound. And despite Isbell’s gritty-yet-plaintive voice and the sad lyrics sprinkled throughout, the album isn’t a downer ” instead the deeply layered songs leaves one introspective and curious about the backstory.

Take “Seven Mile Island,” for instance, a song on the album but also a place where Isbell and his father used to go to collect arrowheads when he was a kid.

“So take my body to Seven-Mile Island / Lay some stones down on top of my grave / Tell my lady I just couldn’t bear to see her / Tell my daughter I just couldn’t be saved.”

The song, which Isbell wrote, has multiple stories woven through it. He explained a few of the pieces during a phone interview from Seattle. The band is mid-way through a five-week tour that includes a double bill show at the Sandbar in West Vail Friday night with Americana rocker Justin Townes Earle.

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“There’s a narrative that runs through it about a father that feels like he’s inadequate,” Isbell said, his voice hoarse from the previous night’s show. “There’s also more of an historical bit to it as well. (Seven-Mile Island) was kind of a way station for Native American people who were displaced from their tribes and, for some reason, they were able to get along better there on the island.”

It’s not just “Seven-Mile Island” that feels lonely, though. The theme pervades much of the album.

“It’s been a long couple of years for me,” Isbell said. “I pretty much hit the reset button with all my fans and it worked out really well, but it can be a lot to take on at one time,” he said.

The split with Drive-By Truckers was a challenge for Isbell, and came as a shock to many fans, said Dick Dime, talent buyer for the Sandbar. In retrospect, it was a necessary split.

“(Isbell’s) stellar work with his new band, The 400 Unit, demonstrates the need for Jason to break off and do his own thing,” Dime said. “Spin and Rolling Stone Magazine have been crowing about the new album and it appears his sophisticated Americana songwriting has been winning over rock and country radio across the country.”

That’s likely because Isbell’s confident songwriting and gritty, soulful voice, showcases his transformation from supporting player to frontman ” a change that hasn’t come easy, Isbell said. Neither role feels more natural that the other, he said.

“I don’t know which one feels more natural, but (being the frontman) has taken more work ” I have to sing every night for two hours, that and just trying to keep a convention with the audience for that period,” he said.

And though Isbell is front and center, he makes it very clear the album, and this tour, is a collaboration with The 400 Unit “-Derry DeBorja on keyboard, Browan Lollar on guitar and Jimbo Hart on bass.

“I want it to be known that it’s a band record,” Isbell’s quoted in the band bio. “I want it to be known that it’s something we all did together. Even though I wrote the songs, it was a very inclusive project.”

And Isbell is still jotting down songs as they come to him, even while touring. Though he’s not sure if those nuggets of inspiration will weave their way into songs on the next album, he’s taking notes regardless.

“I just write a lot of songs and stories and whatever I can get my hands on at the time,” he said.

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or

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