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All Truckered Out

Former Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell is keeping busy as a solo artist.

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Even for an ex-trucker, the urge to stay on the road is strong.

It's what singer/songwriter/guitarist Jason Isbell is planning to do, having left his role as a principal member of Athens-based Southern rock group Drive-By Truckers (which still features his ex-wife, Shonna Tucker).

"We both pretty much decided we should part ways — that's all there was to it," Isbell says by phone from his home in Muscle Shoals, Ala. "Those guys have kids and families, and they don't want to be on the road all the time. I can't say I blame 'em for it. But I wanted to hit the road."

He'll have his chance with an extensive tour to support his debut solo album, "Sirens of the Ditch," dropping July 10 from New West Records. The album is a mature, consistently hook-filled pop-rock record that displays his considerable talent for juggling an array of genres, from alt-country to R&B.

Jay Leavitt, fellow Alabama native and manager at Plan 9 Music Carytown, is friends with the Truckers. He admits it was a little strange not to see Isbell with his old band during its recent show at Brown's Island.

"To me [Isbell] just oozes talent out of his pores as a singer and guitarist," Leavitt says. "He reminds me a little of a jazz musician because he never plays a song the same way twice. He's the real deal."

The new album was recorded at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, which was the birthplace of milestone recordings by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Joe Tex and Duane Allman. While Isbell says the ghosts of that studio definitely motivated him, he chose it mainly because of friends who still work there. His album features session work from all-star veterans like Spooner Oldham (known for his work with Neil Young) and world-class bassist David Hood (who's played with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, the Rolling Stones and Willie Nelson). Isbell actually used to rent a backyard studio from Oldham.

"I grew up getting to know those folks and they've been really good to me and a lot of other local musicians," Isbell says. "Their recordings were great, but I got the most out of knowing what kind of people they are, and how they live their lives."

One of the best songs on the new album is "Dress Blues," a heartfelt ballad about Isbell's high school friend, Matt Conley, a Marine killed in Iraq.

"That one in particular is sometimes difficult to play," he says. "You really want to put yourself in the story every time you tell it. Sometimes that's impossible."

Isbell says he played the song at a Veterans' Day ceremony at his friend's former high school. "That's about the hardest thing I've ever done," he recalls. "But his parents were open-minded about it — almost honored someone would take the time to tell his story."

Isbell says there have been a few negative reactions to lines like: "Red, white and blue in the rafters/Silent old men from the Corps/What did they say when they shipped you away/To fight somebody's Hollywood war?" But mostly, he says, his fans are more highly evolved than people "who throw rocks at you for singin'."

"It frustrates me when people poke fun at Bono or the Dixie Chicks for speaking their mind in a song. That's what we do," he says. "That's our job, that's what you pay us to do."

Having a lot of friends here, Isbell says he is excited to play Richmond, adding that it was one of the first towns where the Truckers really caught on. At the Canal Club, he'll be playing both new material and Truckers stuff, backed by the three players of 400 Unit and a keyboard player on loan from Son Volt.

The Richmond show will be a few days after album release parties in Alabama and Atlanta, so Isbell may still be shaking off the aftereffects.

"Oh, I'm always recuperating," he says with a hangdog drawl. S

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit perform at The Canal Club (643-2582) Friday, July 13, with Justin Townes Earle and Wrinkle Neck Mules. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12. Isbell will also play a solo in-store appearance at Plan 9 Music Carytown (353-9996) at 6 p.m. that day.

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