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Down South: Southern Rock Star Jason Isbell on Cracker Barrel, Cornbread Poetry, and More

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[Photograph: Joshua Black Wilkins]

At 33, Jason Isbell has spent more time on the road than many musicians twice his age. He joined Southern-rock stalwarts the Drive-by Truckers as a guitarist and songwriter when he was 21, more than ten years younger than leading men Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley. For five years, he toured with them almost constantly, contributing a handful of revered songs to the band's catalog along the way.

Isbell's "Outfit," composed from advice that his father gave him, is still so popular that he and his new band—the 400 Unit, which he formed after leaving the Truckers in 2007—are calling their latest run of shows the "Stop F***ing Around and Play Outfit Tour," after an outburst from an audience member on a previous tour.

Not only are Isbell and the 400 Unit on the road this fall, but they've just released their first live album. Called Live from Alabama, it is a record of two shows played in Isbell's home state earlier this year and a testament to the way Isbell and his band translate thoughtful songs into room-shaking anthems onstage. I sat down with Isbell and fiancée Amanda Shires—a Texas fiddler who's done plenty of touring herself—at Husk restaurant earlier this week to talk about a decade of eating all over the world.

Editor's note: Jason is playing at the Bowery Ballroom in New York City tonight and at the 9:30 Club in D.C. on Saturday. Click here to see the rest of his schedule.

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Tell me about your day-to-day routine when you were on tour with the Drive-by Truckers.

Jason Isbell: We'd ride all day in a painter's van, play for three and a half hours—until we couldn't stand up anymore—then go to sleep on somebody's floor. If it was too cold, a couple times we'd prop [Mike] Cooley up against the bottom of the door, where the space was, so the breeze couldn't get through. He slept the hardest of any of us. Probably because he drank the most, at least at that point. I soon caught up with him. Then we would do it again, about 220 times a year. It was pretty brutal.

What would you eat?

JI: A lot of Cracker Barrel. I'm talking about a lot.

I love Cracker Barrel, actually. I think that by now I've been to every single location. The worst one is right outside of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The best is in Gary, Indiana, of all places—all the waitresses are great there, and everything is hot and fresh and fast.

We had a map, and we would mark down the ones we didn't want to go back to. Some of them are terrible. They'll spill tea on you, bring your food out way late. One time I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich, and the waitress brought me two hamburger buns with one cold piece of cheese in the middle. I said, "Ma'am, I'm not a chef, but I believe this is a cheese sandwich."

That very same meal, our guitar player ordered a bran muffin and bowl of Wheaties, and the waitress brought him a bran muffin and a bowl of beans. She said, "I feel sorry for whoever's gotta ride with this guy!" He asked, "Why did you bring me a bowl of beans?" And she said, "I thought you said you wanted a bowl of beanies." Beanies. He was like, "Why would I order that? And why would I call them beanies?"

Well, you are rock stars...

We could have our own slang. "Beanies."

But we never did much fast food. It's just—you're already putting so much stress on your body. No sense in making it worse by eating terrible stuff.

When you have to eat fast food now, where do you go?

JI: I like Jimmy John's. That's not exactly fast food, but it's usually open late. I get the club sandwich. And salt and vinegar chips, those are always good. Other than Doritos, those are the best chips ever invented.

Amanda Shires: I like the Chipotle black bean burrito or, if we're eating fast-food fast food, the Burger King veggie burger.

JI: You've had good luck with that.

AS: For my lifestyle, it works. If we're stopping at a convenience store, I'll get White Cheddar Cheez-its.

JI: Yeah, I like those and Snyder's jalapeño pretzel pieces.

So you two live in Nashville now.

JI: I just moved up to Nashville at the end of July. We have a good time. There's a lot to do. When I quit drinking, my part of North Alabama became really, really small. There are three restaurants and one movie theater and that's it, really. Like, after you've done that—after four days—you're like, "Okay, do I just start over again?"

There are a lot of people to see in Nashville, a lot of songwriters. Cory Chisel is there now. Robert Ellis, Cory Branan, Justin Earle. We have some board game nights at the house. Everybody brings a dip.

AS: Or something.

JI: Or something. She makes cookies. Last week, Justin brought enchiladas. Like, a tray full of enchiladas. A couple of weeks ago, I made pimento cheese, but it didn't get eaten. So I was left with, like, three pounds of pimento cheese.

AS: That's because everybody brought a cheese thing.

JI: Yeah, but the pimento cheese was way better than their, like, Ro-Tel dip. It should have been eaten. I didn't want to be left alone with a pound and a half of pimento cheese. Because I'll just eat it. I'll just eat it for three days.

What's in your pimento cheese?

JI: Nothing special. Just pimentos, cheddar cheese, mayonnaise, a couple of spices, salt and pepper. Easy stuff.

AS: Love.

JI: Love.

Before you went sober earlier this year, you had a reputation as a big drinker. A friend of mine told me that he saw you finish a fifth of Jack on stage in Asheville.

JI: I was drinking about a fifth a night. Sometimes I drank more than that.

The last thing I drank was moonshine, in Richmond. If I had to go out, that was both a good and a bad trick to go out on. I didn't have a good night with it, but at least it was tasty. I already knew I was going to quit, so I was drinking moonshine.

Is it hard to stay sober as a touring musician?

JI: I don't think it's any harder for me than it would be for anyone else. It makes the touring a lot easier, actually. It's easier to wake up. Just look around, you know—alcohol is all over the place. You're always within five feet of it. It doesn't matter what your job is. I heard a recovering heroin addict say once, "I thank God every day that I wasn't an alcoholic." Because heroin isn't on billboards, it isn't on magazine covers, it isn't on television.

I had to change certain things. I can't really spend as much time with the audience as I used to. That was made a lot easier when I was as drunk as they were. Now, it's a lot of hiding after the show.

Give me your best and worst road meals.

JI: Best? There's this place in Seattle called The Coterie Room. We just stumbled upon it and it was really, really good. One of the best meals I've ever had. They had an option on the menu where you could buy the kitchen a six-pack of beers if you had a good meal. I figured it was just rhetorical, that it was just a tip for the kitchen, but our waiter said that they'd actually started out drinking the beers. After a while, though, they were like, "We don't want to drink any more beers. Can we just split it up, like two dollars apiece?" So that's what they were doing.

AS: Don't forget that sushi place in Brisbane.

JI: Yes! What was that called?

AS: We can Google it.

JI: We should Google it. We went to a sushi place in Brisbane, Australia that blew my mind. I couldn't eat sushi for about four months after that. Everywhere else just pissed me off.

AS: I thought Nobu was awesome until we went to that place.

JI: [On his iPhone] Let me see what it's called. Sono? S-o-n-o? No. I can't remember. It was in Brisbane and it was sushi.* Anyway, when you order seaweed salad, they bring out five different kinds of seaweed all from different parts of the ocean. It was ridiculous.

*According to Twitter, the restaurant was Sake.

I think one of the very best meals I've ever had, in my life, period, was in Spain. At a little café, just open for lunch, that did shrimp in little clay pots. Little tiny shrimp in clay pots with olives. And bread. Like, they'll bring you a big piece of toast with some tomato and cheese and you make your own bruschetta. That was probably the best meal I'd had up until the last year.

Worst? House of Blues in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. That's my worst road meal ever. It made me sick as a dog. We've had a few really bad experiences.

AS: I became a vegetarian three years ago after eating some bad fajitas on tour. I was a dumbass and ordered fajitas in Ireland, just because I was missing home. Bad idea. Always eat the local food.

They were that bad?

AS: That bad.

[A skillet of cornbread arrives at the table. Jason cuts a slice.]

JI: That's ridiculous. That's so good. Want to try some?

AS: No, too much bacon.

JI: Right. I'll tell you about it later on, in very descriptive—

AS: Can you write me a book report?

JI: I'll do a prose poem. That's the best way to describe cornbread. With no punctuation.

One final question—last meals?

JI: Risotto is really one of my favorite things in the world. And I love a good filet. I've had some great ones. Peter Luger is really good, Five O'Clock in Milwaukee. Double Nickel in Lubbock, Texas, has a good filet. Those things, I guess.

But if you're really eating your last meal, I think it should be, like, opium. Like, if you know you're about to die, you should eat a lot of drugs. Black tar heroin ice cream, that would be my last meal. And a bottle of whiskey.

AS: I'd go with black tar heroin and wine. And maybe my mom's lemon soufflé.

About the Author: Jed Portman is blogging his way to that cabin in East Tennessee, one six-pack of soda and barbecue platter at a time. Follow him on Twitter @jdportman.

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