Jason Isbell’s third ShoalsFest took place this weekend in Florence, Ala. He first curated the event in 2019 as a way to showcase his home in rural North Alabama. It took a year off due to the pandemic in 2020, but it returned in 2021 with a grand reunion between himself and his old band, Drive-By Truckers.
This year’s event featured more unique reunions with his friends from back home. On Saturday, Isbell was part of an in-the-round that featured fellow natives John Paul White of the Civil Wars, Gary Nichols and Chris Tompkins.
Jason Isbell graduated from T.M. Rogers High School in Greenhill, Ala. with Tompkins. Tompkins has written some of the biggest mainstream country radio hits of the last 20 years. He wrote “Dirt” and “Cruise” for Florida-Georgia Line. Tompkins also penned “Drunk on a Plane” by Dierks Bentley. But his biggest hit was Carrie Underwood’s breakthrough, “Before He Cheats.”
Tompkins performed versions of “Dirt” and “Drunk on a Plane” during the storytelling session. Then, he introduced “what was probably his biggest song.”
“This song was on country music radio,” he said. “And it was on pop radio. All songs aren’t created equal. The next song I wrote didn’t do as good as this one.”
“Just tell them you have a pool, Chris,” Jason Isbell chimed in.
“So, I was installing my pool after I wrote this song and there was a lot of dirt in the yard and I was staring at it,” Tompkins replied. “Then I wrote ‘Dirt.'”
During “Before He Cheats,” Chris Tompkins invited Jason Isbell to add a solo. Both he and Gary Nichols took turns riffing on the track. Check out a clip below.
“I like how you told me we have 15 minutes left and I asked for two solos,” Tompkins joked.
Jason Isbell’s ShoalsFest Celebrates His Hometown
Jason Isbell and Chris Tompkins had a rock band when they were in high school. And John Paul White recalled the moment that his band competed against theirs across the state line in Lawrenceburg, Tenn.
“The first time I met these guys, they were all three against me in a Battle of the Bands,” John Paul White said.
“Who won that?” Tompkins chimed in. “I think we were a close second.”
“And I think there were three bands,” White said.
John Paul White closed out the set with a solo version of his biggest Civil Wars hit, “Barton Hollow.” Check out video of that performance below.
“Let’s not wait another 30 years to get on the same stage again,” he said as he introduced the song.
All four musicians cut their teeth at a Mexican restaurant in Florence, Ala. called La Fonda.
“Chris and I would go out and see Barry [Billings] play with Iguana Party on a Saturday night at La Fonda,” Jason Isbell said of the spot owned by Jorge Castell. “Because it was a restaurant and not a bar, they couldn’t kick us out. We’d get one cheese dip to split between us for four hours.”
The event that Jason Isbell has created in his hometown is unlike anything else. The collaborations that it invites are special. The Florence festival needs nothing more than its’ own people to astonish any visitor.