NASHVILLE, Tennessee - 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, the top nominee at the Americana Honors & Awards on Wednesday night at the Ryman Auditorium, is the latest artist to break out of the area.
"I stayed with my grandparents" after he finished 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.
He's nominated for four awards at the Americana Music Association awards, including artist of the year, with Hayes Carll, Justin Townes Earle and Gillian Welch. His 2011 release, "Here We Rest," is up for album of the year; he and his band, the 400 Unit, are nominated for group of the year; and he's also nominated in the song category for "Alabama Pines," a tune his good friend White says is a great example of Isbell's gift as a songwriter.
The song is a love poem to north Alabama - Isbell grew up in Greenhill - 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 that talent show while 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, that was kind of the genesis of a lot of that and what really inspired me."
Isbell's songwriting ability will be on display this week as roots rockers from around the country gather in Nashville for the Americana Music Association's annual conference and awards. The nominations are the latest in a series of great moments in 2012, the best year of his 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 for several months 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 with them."