From the moment Jason Isbell first picked up a guitar, the singer-songwriter has watched and learned from others.
Growing up in Green Hill, Alabama, a rural community not far from Muscle Shoals, Isbell often spent his summers with his grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher who was also a musician. “He could play the violin, banjo, guitar and mandolin,” Isbell recalls. “He taught me to play all of that, but mostly guitar, because he played on an instrument like the banjo, and I played rhythm guitar. We did that for hours at a time.”
Coming from a musical family, physical musicality came naturally to Isbell, but songwriting – poetry, phrasing, delivery – came more from listening to some of the most talented songwriters in the industry, like John Prine, whose opening lyrics to “Angel From Montgomery” flipped a switch in Isbell’s brain. “I’m an old woman named my mother. “
“I remember hearing his recording of this song for the first time in 1971 and thinking, ‘No you are not,'” Isbell wrote in The New York Times in April 2020, shortly after Prine died from coronavirus. “Then a light bulb went on, and I realized that songwriting allows you to be whoever you want, as long as you get the right details.”
After working as a songwriter for several years, Isbell joined the Drive-By Truckers of Athens, Georgia as a guitarist in 2001 and was one of the band’s songwriters until his departure in 2007. Since then, Isbell has released albums under his name as well as with his band Unit 400.
Part of Isbell’s collaborative attitude has been to pay tribute to those who came before him. We take a look at Jason Isbell’s 10 best classic rock covers below.
Original artist: Warren Zevon
With the help of his partner and wife of Unit 400, Amanda Shires, Isbell paid a moving tribute to the late Warren Zevon on the Late Show with Dave Letterman in 2017, 15 years after Zevon performed the song himself on the show. (This was Zevon’s last public appearance before his death in 2003.)
9. “Everything is Broken” (with Sheryl Crow)
Original artist: Bob Dylan
“I think Dylan is a starting point you will come back to often if you write songs for a living,” Isbell, who has lyrics to Dylan’s “Boots of Spanish Leather” tattooed on his forearm, said once legendary music. “I always find myself going back to his catalog and finding new things.… With Bob Dylan, I know I’m never going to wake up and not want to listen to Bob Dylan again.”
8. “Like a hurricane”
Original artist: Neil Young
In 2006, still with Drive-by Truckers and on tour with the Black Crowes, Isbell was backstage with singer Chris Robinson and guitarist Marc Ford with his cell phone turned off. When he turned it back on, he found a message from Neil Young, who wanted to put on Isbell’s “Dress Blues”, which he had written about a schoolmate killed in the Iraq war, on his Living With War Today website. “It took forever to get back with him. He calls you. Trying to call her is not an easy thing to do, ”Isbell recalls, although the couple later met to chat. “We sat down and talked, and he loved the music. It was probably highs for random musicians and celebrities and really just, you know, legends. “
7. “Oh good”
Original artist: Fleetwood Mac
Like many electric guitarists, Isbell took notes on Peter Green’s technique. “Sometimes when Peter Green was taking a solo he would turn the volume up down, ” Isbell tweeted after Green’s death in 2020, referencing how the Fleetwood Mac co-founder often played with his amp’s volume knobs at a high level and his guitar knobs much lower, creating a distinctive sound. “That’s how cool this guy was.”
6. “Give me shelter”
Original artist: The Rolling Stones
Countless musicians included a Rolling Stones song or two in their songlists after drummer Charlie Watts died in 2021. Isbell’s contribution was a vigorous version of 1969’s “Gimme Shelter” with country singer Brittney Spencer . “A good man in a rock’n’roll band,” Isbell said succinctly from Watts.
Original artist: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
A particular parallel was evident between Isbell and Petty – both native musicians of the Deep South, both gradually redefining the meaning of southern rock. “I can’t think of an important moment in my life without a backing song from Tom Petty”, Isbell tweeted after Petty’s death in 2017. “Every night we walked off the stage to her music.” The admiration was mutual: In 2013, Petty shared a photo on Instagram from Isbell’s new album, South East. “Turn to the hotel today,” Petty wrote.
4. “Brothers in arms”
Original artist: Dire Straits
“Those Dire Straits songs were huge on the radio when I was a kid in the 80s,” Isbell said in 2020. “It was something that I really liked because it was mainstream. guy plays guitar like Chet Atkins, and it’s on MTV? How is that possible? It doesn’t seem like it could ever happen. So I was really drawn to this, from my debut as as a guitarist, because it was something that was rooted in a traditional type of playing but was very popular with the general public. ”
3. “It doesn’t make any difference”
Original artist: The Band
Levon Helm, the only American in the Canadian group, was from Arkansas and served as an inspiration to Isbell throughout his career. A track on the 2004 Drive-By Truckers album The dirty south called “Danko / Manuel” was written in homage to Helm. “I wanted to capture some of Levon Helm’s feelings about the death (and life) of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko,” Isbell explained in the LP’s cover notes. “The more I worked on the song, the more impossible it became. I felt the best I could do was explain my own attitude towards being a working, traveling musician.”
2. “I know a little”
Original artist: Lynyrd Skynyrd
“The first things I learned on the electric guitar were those Skynyrd songs that Ed [King] played, and the first Skynyrd recordings were in my hometown, so that was a very special thing for me, ”Isbell said in 2020, recalling a time in 2018 when he had the opportunity to playing the legendary “Red Eye” by King Les Paul. (Isbell then bought the guitar after booking enough private gigs to afford the instrument.) “Plus, the fact that Ed was the underdog in the bunch – he was the hippie among all the rednecks – that attracts me. Because I grew up in Alabama, and felt like the hippie among the rednecks for most of my life! “
1. “Whipping post”
Original artist: The Allman Brothers Band
When Isbell was working at FAME studios at Muscle Shoals, he would occasionally come across leftovers from the Allman Brothers. Once, while cleaning a garage, he came across guitar pedals belonging to Gregg and Duane Allman, as well as backup copies of the band’s recordings. “The Allmans were trying to find something,” Isbell said Relix in 2015. “They were kind of on a musical journey, and that was really something that southern rock didn’t necessarily accept. It was more of a kind of improvisation, a kind of Grateful Dead influence.”
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