Ex-Trucker Isbell heeds the siren call of the ditch



By Steve Newton

When the Straight hooks up with former Drive-By Truckers guitarist-vocalist Jason Isbell on his cellphone, he and his backing band are trying to escape from Manhattan, searching for the Holland Tunnel enroute to a gig at Pennsylvania State College. A casual query about the type of vehicle Isbell’s travelling in leads to a very specific response–followed by howls of laughter in the background. So what could be so damn funny about Isbell’s mention of a Ford Econoline E-350?

“Well, it’s a long story,” he explains. “I’ve been workin’ on a pilot for a series about a rock ‘n’ roll band that rides around in a van, and we started discussing product placement, and how it would be funny if we made a very obvious reference to our van in the television show, so we could possibly get a free van from the Ford Motor Company. So any time anybody asks about the van now, we make sure to mention very plainly and clearly that it’s a Ford Econoline E-350.”

The Alabama native is on tour promoting his debut solo CD, Sirens of the Ditch, released two weeks ago on New West Records, the same label his former band is on. He joined the Truckers in the fall of 2001, after the release of their highly acclaimed fourth album, Southern Rock Opera, and was one-third of its Skynyrd-inspired guitar army. During his time in the quintet, he penned such standout tracks as the haunting “Decoration Day”, and “Danko/Manuel”, a tribute to deceased members of the Band. He announced his departure from the group a few months ago, around the time that he and DBT bassist Shonna Tucker divorced.

“We just pretty much mutually came to the decision that we didn’t really want to work together anymore right now,” he says. “And there would really be no way for me to do what I’m doin’ with this solo record now if I was in the band.”

Sirens sports a mix of rootsy rockers like the rough-hewn opener “Brand New Kind of Actress”, along with more sombre, politically motivated numbers such as the acoustic drubbing of George W. Bush titled “The Devil Is My Running Mate”.

As for the CD’s title, Isbell says it came from a poem he read that referred to frogs as sirens of the ditch. “I’m a big fan of frogs,” he says. “I have a pretty large collection of inanimate frogs.”

Some people just pick somethin’ to collect that they really like; for me, it’s the frogs.”

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