At a recent performance by Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, the band was launching into “Never Gonna Change,” a song Isbell wrote while he was still in the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. Just as Isbell started to sing the first verse, he noticed a fight break out near the front of the crowd. In the video, captured by a fan, Isbell promptly stops the song, admonishes the troublemakers, and has them tossed, promising them they’ll be refunded their ticket money. It’s all handled quite well by Isbell. Looking stage left on the video, there’s none other than former Charleston resident Sadler Vaden playing guitar. After years of playing gigs in town with his band, Leslie, Vaden was tapped a couple of years ago to play guitar for the popular Georgia rock band Drivin ‘N Cryin. That led to him being asked last year to join Isbell’s band, which will perform here in town tonight night at the Charleston Music Hall.
Talking by phone from his home in Nashville, Vaden explains what it was like to experience Isbell’s handling of that fight from the stage. “(Jason) was the first one to see it,” Vaden recalled. “It’s hard to tell sometimes, because we’re looking out at a mass of people swaying around, so it’s tough to differentiate a fight from someone leaving to go get a beer. It was right in front of him, and he said, ‘Hold on a minute!’ We were playing and we knew those weren’t the lyrics to the song, and if you look at the video, we stop on a dime!”
Vaden talked about how he ended up in The 400 Unit. “I got a call from (Isbell’s) manager,” said Vaden, “and she basically said, ‘Hey, Jason’s wanting another guitar player in the group, and he brought your name up, I’m calling to see if you’re up for joining the 400 Unit?’ So it was kind of a sudden thing. That was last March. I was on my way home from playing with Drivin ‘N Cryin at the NCAA Final Four at the Georgia Dome, and I had already committed to a bunch of dates with Drivin ‘N Cryin, and so initially I was kind of like they were feeling me out and I was feeling them out. So I played with (Isbell) and left the tour when I had to fulfill my dates with Drivin’ ‘N Cryin’, and then Isbell’s schedule started getting really busy, and it eventually came down to Isbell’s camp saying ‘Hey, are you going to be at every gig, or what?‘ Drivin ‘N Cryin’ was really cool about it. They eventually needed to have someone at every gig too, so they hired Aaron Lee Tasjan, who I met through Kevn.” Vaden also revealed a good prior history working with Isbell. “Leslie used to open for him when he played Charleston,” said Vaden. “Derry (Deborja), who plays keyboards for Jason, had been playing out with me in the Sadler Vaden Band, so for Jason, I just feel like it just felt natural to ask me. I didn’t have to audition. He knew I could play. It was a pretty easy transition, to tell you the truth.”
I mentioned that I’d missed Isbell playing at the Pour House last fall, and Vaden advised that he had too. “I was still fulfilling dates for Drivin ‘N Cryin, and we actually played in town the next night,” says Vaden. “A lot of people were super confused, because they’d heard I had joined Jason’s band, and there were two articles in a local paper, a Jason article and a Drivin ‘N Cryin article, which also mentioned me and Jason. So it was confusing.”
Vaden admitted he’s having a ball living the life of a rock band member. “The band’s great, the music is obviously great, and I’m getting to cross things off my bucket list. Austin City Limits on PBS, we sold out the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, we did Letterman, Conan, we played Lincoln Center for the American Songbook Series, and we’re going to Australia in two and a half weeks. It’s all the things I’ve ever wanted to do. I’ve been wanting to make music for a living since I was 15.”
When asked what the biggest differences are between Drivin ‘N Cryin and The 400 Unit, Vaden was diplomatic. It’s obvious both bands have been positive experiences for him. “There aren’t too many differences, because Drivin ‘N Cryin, as loud as it can be sometimes, Kevn (Kinney of Drivin ‘N Cryin) can also get his acoustic on sometimes, and that can be just as dynamic. It’s the same with Jason. The loud stuff’s loud, but he’s playing a lot of acoustic guitar on this tour with me backing him up, so it’s very similar. It was an easy transition for me, because neither Kevn nor Jason use a setlist.”
When Isbell released his latest effort, the excellent “Southeastern,” last year there was a lot made in the press about the fact that the artist had stopped drinking. I asked Sadler if Isbell’s newfound sobriety has made a noticeable difference in his writing or performing.
“I think ‘Southeastern‘ is the best record he’s made so far,” said Vaden. “In my mind he’s always been a really good songwriter, so it’s hard for me to see a difference, because I’ve always liked his music. I think he has a clearer mind to sit down and write, instead of spending the day getting over the hangover. It’s work. He went to work. That’s one thing I’ve learned from him, as well as Kevn; when you hear that bird calling you’ve got to go to work.”
Are there any of Isbell’s songs that Vaden particularly likes playing live? “I have to say that I really like playing ‘Flying Over Water,’ which is a song from the new album, and I also love playing ‘Relatively Easy,’” said Vaden. “From the back catalog, probably ‘Decoration Day.’”
Aside from touring, Sadler hasn’t had much time to do much else but work, or to come back and visit his friends in Charleston, although he did find a little time last fall for a very special occasion. “I was (in Charleston) back in November, just before Thanksgiving, for awhile. I got engaged down there. Candice moved with me to Nashville from Charleston. She’s at Vanderbilt in nursing school. We’re looking at summer of 2015 for the wedding.”
Even with all the time on the road though, Vaden somehow still finds time to make his own music, as well as gig with a lot of other folks. “Here in Nashville, when I have free time, which isn’t often these days, I play around with whoever I can,” says Vaden. “I just did a gig with Holly Williams, Hank Williams Jr’s daughter, and I’m working on my next LP. I’ve already recorded four songs. That should hopefully be out before the end of the year. I’m working in the studio with Paul Eversole, who produced Leslie’s record. I also saw the guys in Hey Rocco earlier today. They’re working on their new album up here. No big touring plans for myself until Jason’s thing slows down a bit.”
As for Monday’s show at the Charleston Music Hall, Vaden is really excited to be returning to his old stomping grounds to play in front of people that supported him in his younger days. “I’m really excited to play Charleston,” Vaden said, adding, “I hope people still remember who I am.”
Jason Isbell performs at the Charleston Music Hall tonight, March 24 with opener Cory Branan. The show, which is sold out, starts at 7:30pm.