Concert preview: Newfound sobriety and love spurs Jason Isbell on to career-best solo effort

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From the June 20, 2013 edition

Jason Isbell populates his fourth solo album, Southeastern with a range of damaged characters trying their damnedest to reconcile with the sins of the past.

“There's a man who walks beside me,” he sings on the haunting murder ballad “Live Oak,” “He is who I used to be.”

It's a struggle all-too familiar to the former Drive-By Trucker, who once had such a fondness for the bottle he can no longer recall a large swath of the time he spent recording and touring with the notoriously boozy Southern rockers.

“I didn't have any big disasters, but I could see those coming down the way,” said Isbell, 34, who visits Skully's for a concert on Wednesday, June 26. “It was the kind of thing where I could see the bottom rather than hitting it.”

Buoyed by newfound sobriety (he quit drinking early in ’12) and new love (he married fellow musician Amanda Shires in February, sharing first dance as husband and wife to Otis Redding's “Try a Little Tenderness”), the musician threw himself into his work, emerging with a career-best effort steeped in tragedy, heartbreak, loss and, ultimately, redemption. Album closer “Relatively Easy,” for one, notes the pitfalls of day-to-day life are nothing compared with the suffering experienced by others in some of the more far-flung corners of the globe.

In interview, as in song, Isbell remained remarkably unguarded, and by phone he held court on everything from the impact drinking had on his musical output (“It probably was something that was keeping me from reaching my potential”) to his album's high body count (“As you get older you begin to consider your mortality more...[and] you realize there is a conversation between life and death”).

The musician also reflected on the winding path he's taken to adulthood, taking care to mention he has zero regrets about those times he's stumbled along the way.

“I've gotten to a point where I feel like I'm probably an adult now, which is a strange thing for me, because when you play in a rock band you put that off for a long, long time,” Isbell said. “I wouldn't change things, and I wouldn't go back and strip myself of those experiences even though a lot of them are terrifying and traumatic. I'd rather be a recovering drunk than never have been a drunk at all.”