Wayne Bledsoe: Former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell fulfills his promise on 'Southeastern'

Jason Isbell and the 400 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta.

(JasonIsbell.com)

Jason Isbell and the 400 at the Fox Theater in Atlanta. (JasonIsbell.com)

“Southeastern,” Jason Isbell (Southeastern)

Jason Isbell was one of the three excellent songwriters in Drive-By Truckers during the band’s best era. His solo albums (often backed by the 400 Unit) have been very good to great, but it’s only with “Southeastern” that Isbell has delivered on the promise he showed with the Truckers. On the first album that Isbell has released after kicking drink and drugs, the emotions are raw and real and delivered with an artistry so subtle that it almost seems like conversation rather than song. The songs are filled with stories of lost opportunities, memories of better times, regrets, epiphanies and sober moments of self-recognition.

“Elephant,” Isbell’s story of a relationship with a woman dying of cancer, is quiet, like a confession, and is devastating in its candor and lack of sentimentality. The rocker “Super 8” details a night of drink and drugs and partying stupidity that almost led to death, and “Traveling Alone” is an acknowledgement that doubles as a plea for company on the road, but, more importantly, through life.

There isn’t a song on this album that doesn’t make an impact. “Southeastern” is by far Isbell’s best album and maybe the best album so far this year.

“My Favorite Picture of You,” Guy Clark (Dualtone)

If ever anyone deserved the title of “master songwriter” it is Guy Clark. He seems to be able to write a good song about anything — from leaving a town you’re sick of (“L.A. Freeway”) to an affectionate memory of an old mentor (“Desperados Waiting for a Train”) to food (“Homegrown Tomatoes”).

The title song of Clark’s new album, “My Favorite Picture of You,” refers to Clark’s favorite photo of his late wife Susanna Clark. As the song relates, it was from a moment where she was angry and about to leave him — “... A curse on your lips but all I can see/Is beautiful ... A thousand words in the blink of an eye/The camera loves you and so do I ...”

There’s a lot of craft involved in all of Clark’s work and all of the original songs (the one cover is Lyle Lovett’s “Waltzing Fool”) are written with other writers. However, a real craftsman works with as much heart as skill. There’s no doubt listening to Clark’s song “Heroes,” which addresses war veterans who commit suicide, “El Coyote,” taken from the perspective of illegal immigrants locked in a truck and left to die by their smuggler, or just a goofy little thought (“Good Advice”) that the sincerity is right in place.

Anyone who wants to write a song or just wants to hear how good songs are created needs to spend some time with Guy Clark.

“Sound the Alarm,” Booker T (Stax)

Booker T Jones’ work with Booker T and the MG’s, both with the group’s own instrumental classics and while acting as the house band at Stax Records in Memphis, is one of the foundations of soul music. After leaving Stax and retiring the MG’s, Jones established himself as a producer (Willie Nelson’s “Stardust” and Bill Withers’ “Just As I Am” were Jones productions) and songwriter.

Jones’ returned to recording his own great albums in 2009 with the Grammy Award-winning “Potato Hole” (backed by Drive-By Truckers and Neil Young) and followed with 2011’s “The Road From Memphis” (backed by The Roots).

“Sound the Alarm” brings Jones back to Stax. It’s loaded with guests which makes the album sound more contemporary. However, the best tracks are those that hint at Jones’ 1960s heyday, including the Latin “66 Impala” (with Sheila E. and Pancho Sanchez).

Regardless of the style, though, Jones always brings the soul.

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