‘Cause a hammer needs a nail
And the poor man’s up for sale
Guess I’m doin’ what I’m on this earth to do
And I don’t think on why I’m here where it hurts
I’m just lucky to have the work
And every night I dream I’m drowning in the dirt
But I thank God for the work
Don’t worry about Jason Isbell feeling the pressure after releasing two solo albums as good as any created in the past decade.
“I signed up for it,” he says by phone one Saturday afternoon. “I’m not going to sit around now and say people giving a shit makes it harder to keep doing. I’ll fight that urge. That’s a battle I’ll win. This is what I wanted. I’m not going to let it get ruined by any bullshit pressure that I might put on myself. “
This is what it’s like talking to Jason Isbell. Forthright. Reflective. Honest. This is the guy who topped Billboard’s Rock, Folk, and Country album charts when his latest, “Something More Than Free” was released last year.
Great artists have that rush of creativity at the highest level. Steve Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen’s longtime sideman, likes to talk about 100 songs. Dylan, Springsteen, The Stones, Zeppelin, Paul Simon, Lucinda Williams. All had that string of consistently stellar output.
Isbell seems on his run now with 2013’s “Southeastern,” the Grammy winner for best Americana album, and last year’s “Something More…,” which featured a move into rocking territory with “24 Frames,” the first single.
Does Isbell think he’s found something that’s raised his art to another level?
“I have more time. I think that’s what happens when you’re sober,” he says. “You realize you have as much time in the day as anybody who’s ever done anything. Before that, I spent many, many hours out of every day either recovering from the night before or getting drunk again.”
Isbell, who plays Chrysler Hall on June 22, famously was fired by the Southern rock band, Drive-By Truckers for his drinking. Ryan Adams, Amanda Shires (now his wife and the mother of his daughter) and his manager got him into a rehab that likely saved his life.
“The songs that came easily and quickly would be just as good as the ones that come easily now,” he adds of those days. “But the ones I had to spend time working on and actually edit and really bear down on that (are the ones) I became a lot more capable when I sobered up. I had more time to work on them.”
On his last two albums, he says the high points aren’t much higher than on his three previous discs. “But the songs in between are a helluva lot stronger,” he says.
In an industry that rewards throw-away pleasures like the drivel from Florida Georgia Line or the latest one-hit, auto-tuned pop confection, Isbell makes no apologies for writing songs that cause listeners to pause and think.
Is he ever intimidated sitting down to write?
“Oh yeah. Some projects are terrifying. Sometimes you have something you want to say that’s very complex, a story you want to tell that has a lot of angles to it,” he says. “I think if you don’t feel that way every once in a while, then you’re not challenging yourself.”
In “Elephant,” he wrote about a woman dealing with cancer. In “Dress Blues,” he told the story of a high school friend, Marine Cpl. Matthew Conley, who was killed in Iraq by an explosive device in 2006. In “24 Frames,” he reflects on how quickly things can change. “You thought God was an architect, now you know,” he sings. “He’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”
He talks about being able to access “those parts of yourself that sometimes you keep hidden.”
“Once you go through the arduous process of confronting your own fears and learning how to communicate with yourself and other people, it can’t help but inform the work,” he adds.
Becoming sober made that easier.
He writes year round, not just for an album. He writes, he says, to explore things that seem intolerable, to unpack them, and explain them to himself.
“When you’re a kid you think something’s in the closet until you work up the courage to get out of bed and look for yourself,” Isbell says. “You can spend a lot of years hollering for your dad to come do it or you can get out of bed at five years old, open the door, and when there’s nothing in there, go to sleep.
“That’s really the reason I started to write songs, to confront those things,” he adds. “Things about my upbringing or the places that I’m from. About society in general. About personal relations. Things that were very terrifying to me until I looked them in the face and explained them to myself. They don’t scare me so much any more.”
A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun you can’t trust anyone
I was so sure what I needed was more tried to shoot out the sun
Days when we raged, we flew off the page such damage was done
But I made it through, cause somebody knew I was meant for someone
So girl, leave your boots by the bed we ain’t leaving this room
Till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom
It’s cold in this house and I ain’t going out to chop wood
So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good
Isbell is a family man. He and Shires, who has her own solo career, but also plays in his band, recently purchased a place 45 minutes out of Nashville. They have a daughter less than a year old.
He says he gets more excited by things like looking to buy a tractor these days. He grew up in Greenville, Alabama, to parents who were not well educated on paper. But they could carry on a conversation with anyone. He started reading early on and still does, judging by his social media feeds and his list of favorite writers. Jennifer Egan, Peter Matthiessen, Adam Johnson, and Dennis Johnson are among the names he mentions.
His daughter is an easy baby so far.
“Will Johnson, a good friend and a great songwriter, said it’s really a psychedelic experience (having a child). It’s a lot like being on LSD and staring at your face in the mirror,” Isbell says. “That has made sense in a whole lot of ways.”
He says he watches her pick up a toy and figure out not only that it’s a toy, but also something not attached to her hand. She starts from scratch with every experience.
“It’s changed my whole way of seeing the world. It changes everything,” he adds about his daughter. “It’s supposed to.”
Are you living the life you chose
Are you living the life that chose you
Are you taking a grown up dose
Do you live with a man who knows you
Like I thought I did back then
But I guess I never did
Did I kid?
He says he likes being big enough to play arenas in some areas, but prefers to play multiple nights in a theater. “Some of the best nights I’ve ever had as a musician happened in rooms where nobody could hear a single word I’m saying,” he says.
Having his own sound crew and equipment so it sounds great night after night, “means the world to me.”
Isbell compares Americana today with the punk of yesterday because fans demand legitimacy. “You get the sense the number one thing for most fans is for it to be legitimate, to honor the roots, and not give a shit about anything else,” he adds.
Isbell is all over social media. Check out his Twitter and Facebook feeds. He pimps songwriters he likes including WIlliam Tyler, Courtney Barnett, and Hayes Carll. He mentions Monk and pal Sturgill Simpson in the same breath. He trades bus nacho recipes with Rosanne Barr. He cracks Game of Thrones jokes.
“That’s another one of those things being sober really comes in handy,” he says. “It’s a dangerous world out there for people who drink, especially on social media. That’s like driving. There was a time when I just couldn’t do it after dark. Now. I like it a lot.
“I have a lot of time to sit and think. Not everything strikes me as inspiration for a song. Sometimes, I just want to get it out. I think with the kind of music I’m making, the kind of career that I have, the more people know about me personally, the more they wind up rooting for me.”
He also thinks he’s showing another side of him, one not heard in his songs. “My personality is very different on a day-to-day basis from what people hear in song,” Isbell adds. “If they only hear the songs, they might think I’m a sad sonofabitch. That’s not the case at all.
“Most of the time, it’s all a comedy to me. I put songs out there when I’m focusing and trying to explain things. It gets very heady and very serious, but the rest of the day, I’m pretty much a jackass. “