Jason Isbell’s ShoalsFest 2021 Will Bring Big ‘Reunions’ to Muscle Shoals
Reunions abound at ShoalsFest 2021.
Set for Oct. 2-3 in Muscle Shoals, Ala., the event is making its return for the first time since its inaugural year in 2019, and it’ll be the first time Greenhill native Jason Isbell brings his newest album, Reunions, to his hometown since releasing the project in May of 2020 — what feels like a lifetime ago — when the COVID-19 pandemic was just three months old. The upcoming festival will also be the first time that Isbell will formally share a stage with his old band and fellow Shoals-area natives, the Drive-By Truckers. Though he’s occasionally shown up at Truckers shows as a surprise guest, and Truckers co-founder Patterson Hood has returned the favor, their full bands haven’t officially shared a bill since Isbell’s departure from the group in 2007.
In September, the Truckers celebrated the 20th anniversary of their breakthrough album, 2001’s Southern Rock Opera. While Isbell wasn’t a member of the band when they recorded the album, he joined them for a Spin showcase at the home of their former manager, Dick Cooper, on Nov. 3, 2001, when guitarist Rob Malone didn’t show. Four days later, Isbell played with the band in Norman, Okla., at the Deli; two nights later, they shared a bill with the alt-country band Slobberbone in Dallas. They never looked back from their relentless touring schedule.
Slobberbone are reuniting for ShoalsFest, too, as are many of the other bands on the bill. While they have played the occasional show together in their home state of Texas and the surrounding states since mostly disbanding over a decade ago, those gigs have been few and far between. Frontman Brent Best credits bandmate Tony Harper with best articulating why their reunions have remained an occasional, but rare, necessity: “Because we don’t play golf.”
As best Best can remember, his introduction to and long relationship with the Drive-By Truckers and Isbell began around 1998, before Isbell had joined the band and around the time that Hood and Cooley moved to Athens, Ga., from Muscle Shoals.
“We were in Athens one night at the High Hat. It was a slow night; it was a school night,” Best remembers. “The owner of the High Hat was a friend of ours, but he was out of town. We got there and their soundman didn’t show up, so they were trying to get ahold of their backup guy. And that took a while; I think he was pretty stoned and pretty mad that he had to be there.
“We did our soundcheck, and he kind of perked up,” Best continues. “Between our two sets, he asked us when we were gonna start up again. He ran home and brought a 45 that his band had just done to give to us.”
That backup sound guy? It was Hood. Says Best, “We became pretty good friends from that night on.”
The two bands toured together often after that. Shortly after Isbell joined the Truckers, they played a month of dates together, in February of 2002, that took them across Texas to joints including Stubb’s, up to places such as Abbey Pub in Chicago, Ill., and back down to dives including Barretone’s in Louisville, Ky., before wrapping at the now-defunct Slow Bar in East Nashville. Isbell had just turned 23.
“He was a pretty young dude at the time, for sure,” Best says with a laugh. “That was amazing to watch. He was clearly, from a young age, a pretty talented guy. You started hearing his songs get worked into the set. Some nights, you’d hear one of those songs for the first time and your jaw would hit the floor. It was pretty cool.”
"I don’t know that there is a more appropriate group of friends and family and bands to rejoin amongst than all of those great folks, so of course we were onboard with it." — Will Johnson
Will Johnson is also getting his Texas-based alt-country outfit Centro-matic back together. For the band — which also shared numerous bills with both the Drive-By Truckers and Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit — it’ll be their first show together since December of 2014.
“It takes a little coordinating; it’s not as casual or as easy as it once was,” jokes Johnson of getting the group back together. “But I don’t know that there is a more appropriate group of friends and family and bands to rejoin amongst than all of those great folks, so of course we were onboard with it.
“Reunions is an appropriate title right now, right? There’ll be reunions, indeed,” he adds. In fact, Johnson says hopes the ShoalsFest set leads to more Centro-matic shows in 2022.
Isbell has long been a fan of Johnson and all of his projects: Johnson has opened for Isbell frequently in recent years, both as a solo artist and with his duo Marie/Lepanto, whose most recent release includes Isbell’s guitarwork on the song “Gramps and Grandma.” In fact, Isbell was actually something of an unofficial member of Centro-matic at times.
“As much as Truckers were on the road, he would still meet up with us at times and join us on the road and jump in the van and essentially be our fifth member,” Johnson recalls. “He never asked a dime for doing that. He seemed to hold a love for us where he was just willing to show up backstage in Tallahassee with an amp and a guitar and he was ready to go.
“That, inevitably, from the beginning, meant an incredible amount to us. That was about as flattering as it can be,” he continues. “Jumping in a van and touring around pretty low to the ground — not on a big budget, not with a crew or anything, not in fancy hotels, not a heap of perks … it ain’t that glamorous. But he loved the road, and I think our friendship was such that it felt like a no-brainer for all of us.”
Jason Ringenberg won’t be bringing along the Scorchers when he and his children’s act, Farmer Jason, open both days of ShoalsFest 2021, but he and his former band also spent many years on the same Southeast club circuit. Elder statesmen of what would become the Americana genre, Jason and the Scorchers were a major influence on most everyone on the festival’s bill; in 2008, the band won a Lifetime Achievement Award for Performance from the Americana Music Association.
“There have been a lot of good Americana artists that should deserve that kind of honor before we would,” Ringenberg says. “Sometimes I don’t quite believe that it really happened. But it’s a wonderful feeling to get that kind of recognition.”
“Thirty years ago, I was saying ... Americana music was going to make a real commercial impact as well as a creative impact. In the ‘80s and ‘90s and early part of the ‘00s, it was a creative impact, but now, it has a commercial impact." — Jason Ringenberg
Jamie Barrier will also be there with his band Pine Hill Haints, who have been mainstays of the Muscle Shoals music scene (and, more broadly, the Alabama scene as a whole) over the past two decades. But before that band existed, Barrier did a stint in the Auburn, Ala.-based thrash band the Quadrajets, which played with the Drive-By Truckers — as well as with their predecessor, Hood and Cooley’s Adam’s House Cat — quite a bit during the latter’s brief, foggy stay in Auburn between their time in Muscle Shoals and Athens in the late ‘90s.
Barrier’s entire career has been about bending genre barriers and redefining the lines between punk rock and folk music. He was instrumental in shaping the Americana sound that rose from Muscle Shoals as the city formed a new identity after the stories of its past had been told.
“I feel vindicated,” Ringenberg says of the ways that both the Drive-By Truckers and Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit have succeeded in Americana over the past decade. “Thirty years ago, I was saying that these kinds of things were going to happen — Americana music was going to make a real commercial impact as well as a creative impact. In the ‘80s and ‘90s and early part of the ‘00s, it was a creative impact, but now, it has a commercial impact …
“I was right,” he adds, “and I’m proud to say that.”
Johnson is similarly ecstatic to see the successes of his longtime friends. “It feels no different than watching a family member or a sibling thrive and do well. It instills that kind of pride and joy in me when I see a close friend do so well,” he says.
“I’m not even just talking about musically, I’m talking about conquering things in his life that gave him trouble. I’m so glad to see him overcome those things,” Johnson continues, alluding to Isbell’s past struggles with alcohol and drugs prior to going to rehab in 2012. “It’s like seeing a brother thrive and do well. It fills my heart up. It makes me so happy. We’ve all been very close for 20 years and we’ve been through a lot together.”
Re-Live the Best Moments From ShoalsFest 2019: