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Jason Isbell sings about his home state. His grandparents taught him guitar there.
BY CHRIS TALBOTT
AP Music Writer
NASHVILLE, Tenn.--Music was all around Jason Isbell as he grew up in northern Alabama.
The region's rich musical history provided a soundtrack for his childhood.
His grandparents turned on the radio and taught him to play guitar.
He was schoolmates with The Secret Sisters, bandmates with future hit songwriter Chris Tompkins and a casual rock 'n' roll rival with John Paul White of The Civil Wars.
Everyone was practicing "a hillbilly gospel tradition" that's been passed down in the area for generations.
It spawned some of history's best music at Muscle Shoals in the 1960s and '70s, and there's been a second coming of prominent acts in the 21st century. Isbell, top nominee and winner of Song of the Year at Wednesday's Americana Honors & Awards, is the latest to break out of the area.
"I stayed with my grandparents" after finishing school, Isbell said. "That's where I learned how to play because they were trying to give me something to stay occupied so I wouldn't get into much trouble. I'd sit and play for hours and hours at a time and not be breaking anything or stealing anything.
"I know a lot of people who did that. The Rogers girls [Laura and Lydia], The Secret Sisters my mom used to make sure we got next to them in church on Sunday. Even though they were 4 and 6, they were just harmonizing. They were just born with it."
Isbell's upbringing left him with a strong sense of place, and he's used it to turn heads in the Southern songwriting community, first as a member of the Drive-By Truckers and later as a solo artist.
"Alabama Pines," a tune his good friend White says is a great example of Isbell's gift as a songwriter, earned him the Americana Music Association honor. It appears on the album, "Here We Rest," which he released with his band 400 Unit.
The song is a love poem to north Alabama--Isbell grew up in Greenhill. It's studded with places, names and friendly advice to visitors about liquor stores and speed traps. It's the latest in a long line of Isbell songs that unfold like short stories by your favorite Southern author.
After beating him in a talent show in their teens, White lost track of Isbell. Years later, White heard Isbell's DBT song "Outfit" and it left him breathless. And changed. He calls Isbell "intimidatingly good" and credits his ability to weave local landmarks and mythology into his songs with helping him write some of the material for "Barton Hollow," his own duo's gold-selling debut album.
"I'd never even considered doing that," White said. "It seemed kind of comical because I didn't think anybody else would be interested in those places because I grew up around them. They were a common thing. So when he started talking about Seven-Mile Island and Kendale Gardens and TVA, it just really hit home and I started doing those sort of things. So the ideas of 'Barton Hollow' were born."
So far, 2012 is the best year of Isbell's life. He recently became engaged to singer-songwriter Amanda Shires and moved to Nashville.
He just recorded a live album and after touring with new friend Ryan Adams earlier this year, the two will go into the studio next month to record Isbell's next LP.
He also quit drinking, something Adams has been helping him navigate.
"I think if you live right, good things happen," Isbell said. "I don't really see that as any mystical or magical reason, but if you make good decisions, life goes better, you know? And for me not drinking was a good decision. Settling down with somebody and not chasing women all the time was a good decision. And I was at a time when I could actually do those things and live with them and be satisfied."jasonisbell.com