When Drive-By Truckers Added Jason Isbell for Career-Turning ‘Decoration Day’
The Drive-By Truckers came into their own with Decoration Day, adding an intriguing new voice to their ranks with Jason Isbell. Fresh off a country-fried testament of faith on Southern Rock Opera, this new album took a turn toward the more contemplative, telling inky tales of hard choices and love gone wrong.
Isbell, a decade younger than co-founders Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, played a key role in that shift: The title track to this project, which was issued on June 17, 2003, stood as the first thing he ever wrote with the Drive-By Truckers. But something more fundamental was already changing in the group, as they began to rely more on their instincts – first in hiring Isbell and then in their entire approach to Decoration Day. They'd steadily gained enough experience to be great, and now they were putting it to good use.
Isbell originally sat in with them on the fly, when third guitarist Rob Malone didn't show for a feature performance they were to put on for Spin magazine. "Jason happened to be there that night, and we had an empty chair," Hood told the New York Times in 2013. "He ended up going on tour with us."
Both "Decoration Day" and "Outfit," Isbell's two featured moments on the album, were written over the next two weeks. "I knew we'd struck gold," Hood added. "This chubby kid — he was 22 but looked like he was 15 — was going to be one of the great songwriters of our time."
Everything was moving fast for the Drive-By Truckers, who were suddenly collecting rock-crit accolades, frequent-flyer miles and empty liquor bottles at a dizzying clip. Still, they held onto the things that made them who they were, first by pulling away from Lost Highway Records.
Home to Johnny Cash and Lucinda Williams, they label signed the Drive-By Truckers after their third album Southern Rock Opera took off. That brought specific expectations for the follow-up, however, and Hood said their new direction simply didn't sync up.
"I know they wanted it to be shorter and more concise, and probably more upbeat," Hood told the Associated Press in 2003. "We could see that it wasn't going to be a priority to them." Decoration Day ended up finding a home on New West, a smaller independent label.
Listen to the Drive-By Truckers Perform 'Decoration Day'
Hood, Cooley (who contributed "Marry Me," "Sounds Better in the Song," "When the Pin Hits the Shell" and the album-closing "Loaded Gun in the Closet") and Isbell were joined by bassist Earl Hicks and drummer Brad Morgan during lightning-fast sessions at Chase Park Transduction Studios in Athens, Ga., with producer David Barbe, who played bass in Bob Mould's band Sugar.
Seven of the album's 15 songs are first takes (including "Sink Hole," inspired by an Academy Award-winning short film filled with gallows humor called The Accountant), while five others are second takes. Yet Decoration Day isn't a compulsive outburst; the Drive-By Truckers spent far more time fleshing out the details here, adding distinctive touches that set these songs apart from anything they'd ever done before.
Isbell added an electric mandolin to "The Deeper In," playing through an old Ampeg Gemini amp belonging to Barbe. "When the Pin Hits the Shell" and Hood's "Do It Yourself," which are presented back-to-back later in the song order, respectively feature veteran keyboardist Spooner Oldham on Wurlitzer and singer Bob Spires of the Possibilities, an Athens band.
"Heathens," originally pegged by Hood as the title track before Isbell's song emerged, featured a double-tracked E-Bow guitar from their newest member, as well. "Decoration Day" was made complete with an eruptive, Allman Brothers Band-style jam.
"That was David Barbe's doing," Isbell told Jam Bands in 2003. "We had finished recording the song, and David comes over and says, 'I think it would really sound good with a coda at the end. What do you think?' We talked about what he had in mind, and then went in and laid it down."
"Loaded Gun in the Closet" basically had to remain a first take, by the way. Not long after their initial run through, Hood's Gibson J-40 shattered when it fell off the guitar stand.
All of it added a depth of texture and emotion perfectly matched by the Drive-By Truckers' dark new narratives. "Heathens," "(Something's Got to) Give Pretty Soon" and "Your Daddy Hates Me" form a trilogy, for instance, as Hood explores the wreckage a divorce leaves behind.
Listen to the Drive-By Truckers Perform 'Heathens'
Isbell, who also hailed from Cooley and Hood's native Alabama, naturally shared their deeply embedded interest in the South's mysterious folklore and gothic underpinnings. The title track tells the tale – rumored to be true – of a generations-long feud that's so old no one can remember just how it started. "Outfit" recalls the country-strong advice Isbell's dad used to give him as a boy. (The song was actually recorded just before Father's Day; Isbell gave a copy of "Outfit" to him as a present.)
Along the way, Decoration Day "more or less became an album about choices, good and bad, right and wrong – and the consequences of those choices," Hood said later. There'd be more choices still to make, some of them difficult indeed, as Decoration Day opened the door for what would ultimately become a tumultuous relationship with the hard-living Isbell.
Two albums later, they'd part ways. "He was a great songwriter, great singer and great player," Hood told the Herald-Tribune in 2008. "There was a fantastic chemistry with all of us. Toward the end of the time he was in the band, he was, I really think, wanting to move into different directions that the whole band wasn't going to move into."
Sirens of the Ditch, a Hood-produced 2007 album that Isbell had been working on since before his tenure in the Drive-By Truckers, only hinted at the things he'd eventually accomplish. But Isbell would have to make a belated trip to rehab first.
Meanwhile, Isbell's first, and best, album with the Drive-By Truckers remains a touchstone moment, both with critics and with his former bandmates. Hood now calls it the group's first fully-formed success.
"I've been partial to Decoration Day," Hood told the Lincoln Journal Star, while discussing how highly he ranked 2016's American Band. "Where I was as a person and in my development, where I was in my life as an artist and where we were as a band, it kind of peaked definitely at that point."