I used to think that this was my town
What a stupid thing to think
I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown
I myself am on the brink
I used to want to be a real man
I don’t know what that even means
Now I just want you in my arms again
And we can search each other’s dreams
— Jason Isbell, “Hope the High Road”
On the day after the 2016 election, Jason Isbell was at home outside Nashville caring for his baby daughter, Mercy Rose, then a few months past her first birthday. His wife, Amanda Shires, was on tour in Salt Lake City that night behind her album, “My Piece of Land.”
The presidential election results, he admits, blindsided him. He knew the choices were tough, especially for the working class folks he grew up with in rural Alabama.
So he did what he does. He wrote. He wrote to unpack his feelings, to confront and explain those things that seem unexplainable or intolerable. He thought he knew America. On Nov. 8, he realized he did not.
He was thinking about family, about what the election of a bigot and a misogynist meant for his far-away wife and his so-near daughter.
“As hard as it was for me to see those results,” he says, “I could only imagine what it was like for a wife and later on a daughter to have to explain.”
Out of that came “Hope the High Road,” the first single off his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound.”
I know you’re tired
And you ain’t sleeping well
And likely mad as hell
But wherever you are
I hope the high road leads you home again
To a world you want to live in
To a world you want to live in
“After growing up in rural Alabama in a town without a red light or a post office and traveling the word for 17 years, I thought I had a pretty good handle on America,” he says. “It turned out I was not right at all.”
His father works maintenance in a hospital. His mom has an office job. “My parents still work hard every day,” he says. “I’ve not made enough money to tell them they can retire. Hopefully, we’ll have some huge hits and everybody can move on up sometime soon.”
His father, he says, stood in line to vote torn by his decision. He’s been paying way too much from health care since the Affordable Care Act was passed. But he also didn’t believe he could vote for somebody like Trump, Isbell says.
“I hear both sides of the story,” he says. “My main concern was I feel like a lot of people who have been under represented had to ignore a lot of shitty things in order to vote in what they felt might be their own best interest. That’s what really bothers me. I can see middle class or poor working class Americans wanting somebody who is not a career politician. I can see them wanting somebody who speaks plainly and in a way that’s not coded the way political language often is. But I can’t really understand overlooking the bigotry and the misogyny.”
“So I felt like after all that went down,” he adds, “I didn
‘t know people as well as I thought I did. That was a big awakening for me.”
Isbell, who opens the season at the Portsmouth Pavilion on April 26, understands what he calls the “Springsteen conundrum:” “How do you sing about working class people when it’s obvious what kind of money you’re making?”
He’s not near that level. He doesn’t think he’s all that far removed from his roots. He lives outside Nashville, about 80 miles from his hometown of Green Hills. “The differences between how I grew up and how I live now and the similarities between those two are of great interest to me,” he says.
Isbell famously was fired by the Southern rock band, Drive-By Truckers for his drinking. Ryan Adams, Shires and his manager got him into a rehab that likely saved his life. He’s sober — a battle he talks about freely — and out in the country now, surrounded by a few musicians and a lot of working class folks, similar to the ones of his childhood and his days in school.
“So I have a lot of concern for the issues of working class people,” he says. “I think you can empathy without living like that. To deny a successful songwriter the option of writing about people who are not having success is really to deny that empathy works as a concept.”
I ask him about the line, “I used to want to be a real man; I don’t know what that even means.”
“As I got older, I stopped using phrases like “I want to be a man” or “Man up.” Look at what you’re saying. It’s pretty insulting to women,” he says. “I just started saying, ‘Try to be grown. Try to be an adult.’ Insulting to children,” he adds, laughing.
He explores working class characters and their stories on his forthcoming album, “The Nashville Sound” that gives co-credit for the first time in years to his band, The 400 Unit. Shires adds fiddle and vocals. Dave Cobb is once again handling the knobs as producer.
It’s the third in a line of stellar albums from Isbell, after 2013’s “Southeastern,” the 2014 Grammy winner for best Americana album, and 2015’s “Something More than Free,” the 2016 Grammy winner for best Americana album.
In a suite of songs on “The Nashville Sound:” “Cumberland Gap,” a rocker, “Tupelo,” a mellow reflection, and “White Man’s World,” he explores the walls closing in on working class men.
I thought about moving away, but what would my momma say?
I’m all that she has left and I’m with her every day.
Soon as the sun goes down, find my way to the Mustang Lounge.
If you don’t sit facing the window, you could be in any town.
– “Cumberland Gap”
“Cumberland Gap” is one of Isbell’s many short stories in song. “You start building a character,” he says, “and that’s how the characters behave naturally. There are people I know who have had very similar experiences and they wound up being the primary inspiration. I take three or four people I know and try to build a character. It’s not different than going about writing a novel or a short story.”
That begs the question of what Isbell was reading while writing the album. He finished in January, writing the dark “If We Were Vampires,” days before entering Nashville’s legendary RCA Studio B, the birthplace of albums by Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison and Gillian Welch, among others.
He says he read an advance copy of George Saunders “Lincoln in the Bardo” and others. He’s been a passionate about reading since sobering up, dipping into everything from Gabriel García Márquez’s “100 Years of Solitude,” Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” to Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.”
“It’s difficult,” he says. “I try not to show my influences too obviously. I don’t want to let those find their way into too much of my material.”
Isbell named the album, “The Nashville Sound,” partly as an homage to the studio, managed for so many years by Chet Atkins, and as a way to stake his claim to the type of music made there.
Our talk is on the day after The Academy of Country Music Awards. Isbell has no tolerance for the music showcased there. “It’s obvious from last night’s awards show how much out of touch the pop country music world is,” he says.
“The Nashville Sound” reflects the kind of music still made in Nashville. While there are a few more rockers on this disc, Isbell says he never sets out to make one kind of record or another.
“Really the only thing that matters to me outside of documenting a point in time is trying to get the best songs I possibly can. That’s my guiding light.”
“The way I’ve gotten through the world and made myself happy and gotten more than I could have ever asked is early on I found something I wanted to do when I didn’t have to do anything else,” he adds. “It’s still that way. I’m very lucky.”
He’s worked at Wal Mart, in a fireworks warehouse and waiting tables. But since he started performing professionally he hasn’t had to do anything else other than play and write songs.
Among those songs are “Anxiety,” a dark tune about dealing with that fear written with Shires, and “If We Were Vampires,” a serious song with a funny title about mortality. “Maybe time running out is a gift,” he sings. “I’ll work hard ‘til the end of my shift. Give you every second I can find and hope it isn’t me who’s left behind.”
“That one caught me by surprise,” he says. “I wrote that the last day before we went into the studio. I was really proud of it. It’s really heavy and it took me a while to get through and be able to sing it without emotion.”
“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 told me in another interview last year. “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 anymore.”
That’s not surprising. Jason Isbell albums are therapy, time to sit and think and ponder the big questions. He understands no radio station today is going to play songs like “If We Were Vampires” or “Anxiety” and he’s just fine with that.
“I’ve just always been somebody who listened to music directly. It wasn’t’ really a background thing. That’s what my whole life has been based on. I know a lot of people who aren’t musicians who are that way. They don’t just have music playing while they’re having a party or washing dishes or something.
“I think I kind of write songs for those people, people who like to sit down and listen to songs.”