Jason Isbell's "Traveling Alone," from the Alabama songwriter's acclaimed 2013 album Southeastern, compares a worn-out clunker steering life on the road to the husk of a man without a partner, the kind of metaphor Bruce Springsteen could wrap around a song about cars — that's really about mending a broken heart. Springsteen himself called it a "lovely record" on NPR in 2014, and a few months later, backstage at a tribute to Dr. John at the Saenger Theatre, Isbell met Springsteen, who sang it back to him.
"He had Southeastern, so he had heard it and he actually sang a little bit," Isbell says, "which was exciting but kind of unnerving."
The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: Celebrating Mac and His Music, the live album capturing that night, is out Oct. 21 on Concord Records. Isbell performed "Blow Wind Blow," a piano-powered, drowsy shuffle from Dr. John's 1972 album Gumbo, seemingly at odds with Isbell's arrangements but with lyrics straight out of every country song.
"If you over-rehearse those kinds of songs, you're not really serving the spirit of the songs," he says. "Those are the kinds of songs I'm sure Mac probably never played the same way twice. I definitely wouldn't want to do that in tribute to them."
“It’s sort of my duty to make records that are good all the way through”
Backstage, Isbell "tried to be a fly on the wall" among Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and Dr. John. "They were all having conversations with each other," he says. "You could tell they all had a crazy history together but probably didn't wind up in the same room together a whole lot."
Isbell returns to New Orleans to headline two nights at The Joy Theater Oct. 22-23.
"I definitely try to keep the set lists different — there's still some high points you want to hit," he says. "There's a few songs I always do both nights, but I like to keep somewhere between eight and 10 songs different from night to night. I really enjoy being in a town and playing more than one show like that. It gives the crew a chance to rest, gives the band a chance to get out and see the city a bit. We don't really do a soundcheck the second night if we do a two-night run, if everything sounds good, and get almost — almost — a day off."
Isbell followed the sobering and personal Southeastern with the Grammy Award-winning 2015 album Something More Than Free, offering cautionary tales and narratives of dependency, isolation and heartbreak, with barely a flicker of hope from the quiet people on the fringe. Isbell plans to begin recording another album in January, reuniting with producer Dave Cobb, who helmed Isbell's last two albums.
"I think they probably made me more ambitious when it comes to writing complete albums, albums that are good from start to finish," Isbell says. "That's become really important to me. A lot of people I think after they've been at it a few years, feel like two or three songs is all you need for a good album — two or three good songs and you can fill the rest of it up with other stuff. After the last two records, I really feel like it's sort of my duty to make records that are good all the way through. That's something I hold myself to."