In May, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit were nominated for four Americana Music Association awards, the most for any artist. But don't ask Isbell to define Americana.
"With any genre today, it's not easy to pinpoint," he says. "The Rolling Stones could have been called an Americana band, even though they're not American. You've got the Avett Brothers and Robert Plant making Americana records. It's a hard thing to define."
That said, the nominations are impressive: Album of the Year for last year's Here We Rest, Song of the Year for "Alabama Pines," Artist of the Year for Isbell, and Duo/Group of the Year for Isbell and the 400 Unit.
The acclaim for Isbell's songwriting is well deserved. Isbell first started to gain notice after joining the Drive-By Truckers and becoming one of three primary writers in that group. Isbell spent the next six years touring and recording with the Truckers before splitting in 2007 to start a solo career.
Over the course of those three albums, Isbell has, if anything, become an even better songwriter.
"I do think if you practice something, you get better at it, especially if it doesn't make you rich," Isbell says of his songwriting. "That's happened to a lot of people. They make a lot of money and get soft. They lose their connection to everyday life. Luckily, that hasn't happened to me, at least not yet."
Many of Isbell's songs, like "Alabama Pine," evoke specific people and places, becoming musical short stories. "I like people who do that, bands and artists who write from a place—people like Calexico, James McMurtry and Springsteen have done that really well over the years," he says. "I like to know where people are from."
Live, Isbell and the 400 Unit deliver songs with intensity. At a recent show, they followed the twang and backbeat of "Tour of Duty" from Here We Rest with "Decoration Day," one of his best-known songs from his Drive-By Trucker days.
Isbell can be poignant onstage as well, as when he follows "Outfit," a song he wrote based on his dad's advice, with the very sad "Dress Blues," one of the best songs yet about the Iraq War I've heard. So what's the key to his writing?
"It's paying attention and trying to be a good writer," he says. " I know a lot of songwriters who don't read a lot. They think it affects their style somehow. I try to read a lot and try to pay attention to my surroundings. If you do that, I think you can come out with something."
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit play Friday, Sept. 7, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 8:30pm. $17–$21. 707.765.2121.