‘Sirens Of The Ditch’ Was Jason Isbell’s First Second Act

Breaking Down The Country Star’s Debut On The Occasion Of A New Reissue

On August 16th 2018 » By Craig Manning

jason isbell header

Jason Isbell’s 2007 debut LP, Sirens of the Ditch, is being reissued this month. We’re carrying a split brown/cream vinyl version that’s limited to 300 copies in our store right now (EDIT: We sold out!). Read below to learn how the album was Isbell’s first move after leaving Drive-By Truckers, before he became the star he is now.

At this point, the CliffsNotes of Jason Isbell’s story are fairly well-known. He joined up with veteran southern rock band Drive-By Truckers as a fresh-faced 22-year-old, married the band’s bassist, wrote some of their best songs, got fired for his drinking, got divorced, ground out a few solo albums, went to rehab, quit drinking, married Amanda Shires, teamed up with producer Dave Cobb, and helped kickstart a new age of Americana and country music. These days, things are looking up for Isbell. He’s a father, he’s got a streak of three highly acclaimed LPs under his belt, he’s won a few Grammys and he’s built his show (with backing band the 400 Unit) into one of the most reliable live music experiences in any genre.

From this vantage point, it’s fascinating to look back at Sirens of the Ditch, Isbell’s 2007 solo debut. This album came long before the Grammys and long before Isbell was constantly getting namechecked — alongside Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson — as one of the “saviors” of country music (whatever that means). Crucially, it was also long before rehab. Sirens came out June 10, 2007. Just two months earlier, on April 5, Isbell had announced his split from Drive-By Truckers. His marriage, to the Truckers’ Shonna Tucker, was also over. At 28 years old, Isbell was already looking for his second act.

Sirens of the Ditch was an awkward start to that new chapter. Make no mistake: It’s a terrific album, packed with the same detail-rich storytelling that had endeared Isbell to Drive-By Truckers fans so quickly. As the low man on the totem pole, Isbell never got to contribute as many songs to Truckers albums as bandleaders Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood. Instead, Cooley and Hood used Isbell as a secret weapon, folding his songs in as cornerstones of albums like Decoration Day and The Dirty South. Sirens of the Ditch was Isbell’s chance to step out front, but it was also still firmly tethered to his former band. Isbell co-produced the album with Hood, and no fewer than five Truckers played on the songs. The album’s credits include Hood (acoustic and electric guitars) and Tucker (bass and backing vocals), as well as other Truckers like John Neff (pedal steel), Spooner Oldham (Hammond organ) and Brad Morgan (drums). Patterson Hood’s dad even makes an appearance on “Down in a Hole.” It wasn’t until Isbell’s next album, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, that he would establish the band that still backs him to this day.

When Sirens of the Ditch was released, no one knew quite what had transpired in the Truckers. Isbell’s Facebook post about the parting of ways made it seem fractious: “I am not in the Drive-By Truckers anymore,” he wrote. “Go figure. I wish them luck. I will not answer questions about it.” When Patterson Hood announced the news, though, in a lengthy MySpace post, he had nothing but good things to say about Isbell. He even urged Truckers fans to support Sirens of the Ditch. There were no whispers about Isbell’s alcoholism or how it had figured into his exit. In fact, Hood’s post on the matter insisted that the split was amicable.

Years later, the truth came out: Hood and Cooley had fired Isbell, with his belligerent drinking cited as the primary reason. “Some people get drunk and become kind of sweet,” Hood told the New York Times in 2013. “Jason wasn’t one of those people.” Isbell wouldn’t play with Hood and Cooley again until 2014.

None of these struggles are audibly evident on Sirens of the Ditch. Isbell wouldn’t start to grapple with addiction in his songs until 2011’s Here We Rest, and he wouldn’t be completely candid about his own story until 2013’s Southeastern. The closest Isbell comes to singing about his divorce, meanwhile, is on a song called “The Magician,” where he wryly quips: “I had a wife, sawed her in half / Couple people cried, but most of them just laughed.” Still, all the ingredients that would eventually make Isbell one of the most respected songwriters in the music business were there in the songs on Sirens. His keen eye for detail — the factor that always makes his songs feel so lived-in and real — is on full display, as is his innate ability to break your heart.

No song epitomizes these two strengths better than “Dress Blues,” which Isbell wrote about a high school friend who was killed in action in Iraq in 2006. Like many of Isbell’s best songs, “Dress Blues” is deeply, achingly sad. Isbell deftly unspools the narrative — the young marine with a pregnant wife, killed just weeks before he was scheduled to come home — but it’s the details that sell the song. The flags along the highway; the scripture on grocery store signs; the birthday party planned “in a bar or a tent by the creek,” but replaced by a funeral service in a high school gymnasium. The lyrics are so vivid that Isbell makes you feel like you’re actually in that gym, sipping lukewarm tea from a Styrofoam cup and holding back tears as you survey the fruitless consequences of war. “There’s silent old men from the corps,” Isbell remarks at the end of the final verse, before briefly shifting “Dress Blues” from sobering eulogy to scathing indictment: “What did they say when they shipped you away / To fight somebody’s Hollywood war?”

Isbell says he wrote “Dress Blues” “in the time it takes to write it down on a piece of paper.” That effortlessness carries over to the other songs on Sirens of the Ditch. He details the awkwardness and excitement of a first sexual experience on “Grown.” He delivers an authentic shot of Muscle Shoals soul on “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades.” He tries his hand at a country music cliché — the stagnating small town, ripe for an escape — on the dusky acoustic beauty “In a Razor Town.” The album’s first single was “Brand New Kind of Actress,” a crunchy country rocker about the night Phil Spector killed Lana Clarkson. And the closing track, the dark-as-night “The Devil Is My Running Mate,” is a piercing political poem that feels all the more resonant in a post-Trump world.

Everyone who listened to Drive-By Truckers in the Isbell years knew how much potential he had as a songwriter. To this day, songs like “Decoration Day,” “Outfit” and “Goddamn Lonely Love” are regularly listed among the band’s signatures tunes. But Isbell was too talented to play third fiddle in a band with two other songwriters who already had very distinct authorial voices of their own. The exodus from the Truckers, though not-so-amicable at the time, proved to be a blessing for both Isbell and his fans. For Isbell, it was the start of a long path toward recovery and artistic fulfillment. For his fans, it was a chance to hear him develop as a songwriter and bandleader who got to call all the shots. That journey starts with Sirens of the Ditch, and while Southeastern is typically billed as the moment where Isbell finally reached his potential, this album makes a compelling argument that he was already reaching it in 2007.

Craig Manning

Craig Manning

Craig Manning is a freelance writer with bylines at Chorus.fm, Behind the Setlist, and Modern Vinyl. He's left specific instructions to be buried alongside his guitar and his collection of Bruce Springsteen records.

Read More Column

You might also like…