When Jason Isbell was a teenager in the Muscle Shoals area, many musicians took him under their wing. He got to know session bassist David Hood, the father of Drive-By Truckers co-founder Patterson Hood, because Hood was in the Florence, Alabama area and played around town on Friday and Saturday nights in local restaurants and bars. By this time, Patterson Hood and his future Drive-By Truckers co-founder, Mike Cooley, were older and had moved out of town. Isbell would go watch David Hood and others perform. It took a while, but once he finally got up the nerve to tell them he played, they’d have him sit in with them, which resulted in friendship and mentorship.
Around 2000, Jason submitted demos and eventually got a publishing deal with FAME Publishing of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, when he was 21 years old. He worked for FAME 15 years, up through the “Southeastern” album. Jason has recorded many of his albums at FAME as well. Including the Drive By Truckers “Dirty South”, his solo debut “Sirens of the Ditch”, “Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit” and “Here We Rest”. Jason has also produced a couple tracks at FAME, “Christmas in Dixie” on the Blind Boys of Alabama as well as a duet with John Paul White on “Old Flame”. Both of which were included on a tribute to the country supergroup Alabama.
Isbell has stated on the importance of his northern Alabama roots: “I definitely don’t feel like I would be the musician that I am, or the type of songwriter, had I not come from that particular place,” he says now. “The soul music that came out of there, and a lot of the soul-influenced rock and roll and country music that came out of the studios in north Alabama in the ’60s and ’70s had a big influence on me.” Isbell said that working at FAME Studios was everything to him, that it was a gateway towards the music that he wanted to play.
Here’s the story of the band name, because it’s a good story and deserves telling, and the telling says what needs finishing here. Jason begins, “There is a mental treatment facility here in Florence, AL called The 400 Unit. About once a week they would drive downtown and take, I guess, the six or eight healthiest people in the facility and let ’em go downtown. Give ’em all like $15 apiece to go get some lunch. You’d immediately recognize who it was and why they were there; they all had nametags on, saying kinda strange stuff to everybody. And trying to get a sandwich at the same time.
“When I started thinking about a band, and how we get to a new town and everybody gets $15 and gets out of the van, goes out and tries to get a sandwich, it kinda reminded me of that.”