From the moment Jason Isbell first picked up a guitar, the singer-songwriter has been watching and learning from others.
Growing up in Green Hill, Ala., a rural community not far from Muscle Shoals, Isbell often spent summers with his grandfather, a Pentecostal preacher who was also a musician. “He could play fiddle, banjo, guitar and mandolin,” Isbell recalled. “He taught me how to play all of those but mostly guitar, because he would play lead on an instrument like banjo, and I would play rhythm guitar. We did that for hours at a time.”
Coming from a musical family, physical musicianship came naturally to Isbell, but the songwriting — poetry, phrasing, delivery — came more from listening to some of the most talented songwriters in the industry, like John Prine, whose opening lyrics to “Angel From Montgomery” flipped a switch in Isbell’s brain. “I am an old woman named after my mother.”
“I remember hearing his 1971 recording of this song for the first time and thinking, ‘No, you’re not,'” Isbell wrote in The New York Times in April 2020, not long after Prine’s death from coronavirus. “Then a light bulb went on, and I realized that songwriting allows you to be anybody you want to be, so long as you get the details right.”
After working as a songwriter for several years, Isbell joined the Athens, Ga.-based Drive-By Truckers as a guitarist in 2001 and served as one of the band’s songwriters until his departure in 2007. Since then, Isbell has released albums under his name as well as with his group the 400 Unit.
Part of Isbell’s collaborative attitude has included paying tribute to those who came before him. We take a look at the Top 10 Jason Isbell Classic Rock Covers below.
Original Artist: Warren Zevon
With the help of his 400 Unit bandmate and wife Amanda Shires, Isbell delivered a touching tribute to the late Warren Zevon on the Late Show With Dave Letterman in 2017, 15 years after Zevon had performed the song himself on the show. (It was Zevon’s final public appearance before his death in 2003.)
“I think Dylan is a starting point that you will come back to a lot of times if you write songs for a living,” Isbell, who has lyrics from Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” tattooed on his forearm, once said of the music legend. “I still find myself going back to his catalog and finding new things in it. … With Bob Dylan, I know I’m never going to wake up and not want to listen to Bob Dylan anymore.”
8. “Like a Hurricane”
Original Artist: Neil Young
In 2006, still with Drive-by Truckers and on tour with the Black Crowes, Isbell was backstage with singer Chris Robinson and guitarist Marc Ford with his cell phone turned off. When he turned it back on again, he found a message from Neil Young, who wanted to put Isbell’s “Dress Blues,” which he had written about a school colleague killed in the Iraq War, on his Living With War Today website. “It took forever to get back with him. He calls you. Trying to call him is not an easy thing to do ” Isbell remembered, though the pair later met up to chat. “We sat down and talked, and he liked the music. That was probably tops for random musicians and celebrities and really just, you know, legends.”
7. “Oh Well”
Original Artist: Fleetwood Mac
Like many electric guitar players, Isbell took notes on Peter Green‘s technique. “Sometimes when Peter Green took a solo, he would turn his volume down,” Isbell tweeted after Green’s death in 2020, referring to how the Fleetwood Mac cofounder would often play with the volume knobs on his amp turned up high and the knobs on his guitar much lower, making for a distinctive tone. “That’s how cool that dude was.”
6. “Gimme Shelter”
Original Artist: The Rolling Stones
Countless musicians included a Rolling Stones song or two in their set lists following the death of drummer Charlie Watts in 2021. Isbell’s contribution was a vigorous version of 1969’s “Gimme Shelter” featuring country singer Brittney Spencer. “A good man in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Isbell said succinctly of Watts.
Original Artist: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
A particular kind of parallel was evident between Isbell and Petty – both native musicians from the deep south, both steadily redefining the meaning of Southern rock. “I can’t think of an important moment in my life without an accompanying Tom Petty song,” Isbell tweeted after Petty’s death in 2017. “Every night was walk offstage to his music.” The admiration was mutual: In 2013, Petty shared a photo on Instagram of Isbell’s new album, Southeastern. “Spinning in the hotel today,” Petty wrote.
4. “Brothers in Arms”
Original Artist: Dire Straits
“Those Dire Straits songs were huge on the radio when I was a kid in the 80s,” Isbell said in 2020. “That was something that really appealed to me because it was mainstream. How is this guy playing guitar in the style of Chet Atkins, and it’s on MTV? How is that possible? It doesn’t seem like that could ever happen. So I was really drawn to that, from my earliest days as a guitar player, because it was something that was rooted in a traditional type of playing but was finding real mainstream success.”
3. “It Makes No Difference”
Original Artist: The Band
Levon Helm, the lone American in the Canadian-filled Band, hailed from Arkansas and has served as an inspiration to Isbell throughout his career. A track on the Drive-By Truckers’ 2004 album The Dirty South called “Danko/Manuel” was written in tribute to Helm. “I wanted to capture some of Levon Helm’s feelings about the deaths (and lives) of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko,” Isbell explained in the liner notes to the LP. “The longer I worked on the song, the more impossible that became. I felt like the best I could do was to explain my own attitude toward being a working and traveling musician.”
2. “I Know a Little”
Original Artist: Lynyrd Skynyrd
“The first things I learned on electric guitar were those Skynyrd songs that Ed [King] played on, and the early Skynyrd recordings happened in my hometown, so it was very much a special thing for me,” Isbell said in 2020, remembering a 2018 moment when he got an opportunity to play King’s legendary “Red Eye” Les Paul. (Isbell later bought the guitar after booking enough private gigs to afford the instrument.) “Also, the fact that Ed was the outsider in the bunch – he was the hippie amidst all the rednecks – that appeals to me. Because I grew up in Alabama, and I felt like the hippie among the rednecks for most of my life!”
1. “Whipping Post”
Original Artist: The Allman Brothers Band
When Isbell was working at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, he sometimes stumbled upon remnants of the Allman Brothers. Once, while cleaning out a garage, he came across guitar pedals belonging to Gregg and Duane Allman, as well as backup copies of the band’s recordings. “The Allmans were trying to find something,” Isbell told Relix in 2015. “They were on a bit of a musical journey, and that was really something that Southern rock didn’t necessarily embrace. That was more of an improvisational, sort of Grateful Dead influence.”
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