Jason Isbell: Stories for Listeners

jasonisbell4 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
Uninspired
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

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‘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.

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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.”jason77

“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.”
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Jason Isbell Savors the Time to Dig Deep

isbell-something-more-than-free ‘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. “

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My Favorite Music of 2013

jasonisbellThere was a time when I spent hours thinking of clever ways to describe the music of the past year. There’s not much need now. A brief description and a video and you can make up your mind whether my taste has soured or not.

So here’s what I listened to the most this year, a year that I thought was the best for new music in a long, long time.

Jason Isbell – Southeastern. This is the sound of a life falling apart and nearly ending and then trying to figure a way back from the darkness. Isbell’s disc is by far the album I listened to the most this year. “Traveling Alone” is simply stunning. “Stockholm” isn’t exactly subtle, speaking of a man trapped and entranced by his captors, whether people or addictions, looking to go home. “Cover Me Up” is the bluntest of confessions and a statement of resolve. “Elephant” will rip out your heart.

Aoife O’Donovan – Fossils. Languid, mellow and so entrancing. O’Donovan sings beautifully and plays with great taste, but don’t ignore the lyrical depth here. Check out the lyrics on “Beekeeper.”

Caitlin Rose – The Stand-In. This is why algorithms will never replace people. I learned about this album from Barry Friedman at Birdland Records when I walked in there one afternoon and he declared I had to have it. As usual, he was right. Rose moves easily from country rock to lounge crooner with a sexy swagger that’s irresistible.

Black Lillies – Runaway Freeway Blues. Last year, it was Shovels and Rope. This year it is the Black Lillies, simply a great alt-country band. Superb stories, the ability to be quiet and rocking. Listen to “The Fall” and try to tell me otherwise.

Kim Richey – Thorn in My Heart.Kim has traveled a lot of ground, geographically and sonically, moving from Nashville to London and back again. This brings her back to the beginnings, the great country songs that got her start in Nashville (we met in the 1990s when she was the centerpiece of a story on songwriters). There’s plenty of heartache here and that’s mighty fine. Check out the duet with Jason Isbell on “Break Away Speed.”

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward. Robbie is in trad country mode here and he pulls it off with deep, reflective grace. He writes about place, about memory, about everyday things. “That’s Where I’m From” is brilliant.

Bill Callahan – Dream River. Callahan is best known as Smog. I didn’t know him until a PR person sent me this dark, stunning, occasionally baffling album. Think of Leonard Cohen meets Tom Waits. At times, Callahan uses his baritone as much to convey sounds and feelings as he does words. Listen to him sing “barroom, barroom” in “Seagull” or “Beer. Thank you” in the opener, “The Sing.”

Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You.She started out as an alt country chanteuse and now Case’s songs and vocals have become increasingly complex and unpredictable. But this album may also be her most beautiful.

Holly Williams – The Highway. Yes, she has a famous daddy and a famous granddaddy, but this is the third strong solo album from the haunting Holly. She sings of love, of life on the road, and of life’s realizations on this quiet, reflective record.

Chic Gamine – Closer. Four women with incredible voices, one percussionist. For the most part, that’s it on this album which merges doo wop, soul, and girl group pop. I dare you not to love the title cut.

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game.” Robison and Willis, partners in life, finally release a duo disc. Great choice of covers, superb harmonies, rough and smooth.

Garland Jeffreys – Truth Serum. Garland, another North Shore Point House Concerts alum, has typically been a slow writer, leaving years between albums, but he has been on a roll. This is another strong effort, typically mixing rock, pop, reggae, and blues along with social commentary.

Slaid Cleaves – Still Fighting the War.His best album in a list of good ones, affecting, honest.


The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow.I played this once and set it aside only to revisit it months later. This is catchy Americana with stunning harmonies — from a Brooklyn group.

Tim Easton – Not Cool.Easton comes back strong with a retro Sun Records sound.

Greg Trooper – Incident on Willow Street. The man can sing with such emotion. Soulful Americana. He’s been one of my favorite songwriters for a long time.

One of the songs I played a ton wasn’t released in 2013. It was Amanda Shires “When You Need a Train.” It’s darkly brilliant.

My Favorite Albums of 2011

For me, it was a good year for music. I listened to more and liked more than I have in several years.

Here are the albums I listened to and enjoyed the most.

Garland Jeffreys – “The King of In Between”

Jeffreys’ first album in 13 years features his strongest material since 1991’s “Don’t Call Me Buckwheat,” one of the signature discs of that decade. Jeffreys typically moves easily through rock and roll, reggae, and folk blues as the melodic foundation for his mix of personal history and social commentary.

J.D. Souther – “Natural History”

Souther takes his considerable back catalog, notably songs like “New Kid in Town,” “Sad Cafe,” and “Best of My Love” that were hits for The Eagles, and strips them down to their basics. showcasing his silky voice.

Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers — “Starlight Hotel.”

What a revelation. Muth comes out of Seattle, but does country the old fashioned way, backed by pedal steel and telecaster. The songs are smart, funny, and sad. She’s an authentic new voice not to miss.

Tara Nevins – “Wood and Stone”

Nevins’s second solo effort is a stellar collection that moves easily from fiddle music to contemporary folk rock to Cajun. It’s an album that sounds familiar, yet new, not an easy feat. Nevins is joined by a few guests, notably Levon Helm, who pounds the skin on three cuts, Jim Lauderdale, who lends harmonies on the back porch sound of “Snowbird,” and Allison Moorer. Larry Campbell, the multi-instrumentalist genius who has played extensively with Bob Dylan in recent years, produces and lends his string talents all over the place.

The Low Anthem — “Smart Flesh”

The Low Anthem’s (http://www.thelowanthem.com) first major label effort is a haunting masterpiece, a new generation’s “Music From the Big Pink.” Like the mystical alchemy The Band conjured in a West Saugerties, New York, house, the four members of the Low Anthem have created a new sound, turning our expectations of Americana (or Alt Americana, if you will) on its head, partly by using the sonics of the place.

Greg Trooper – “Upside-Down World”

When the Hammond B-3 kicks in to start this album, trailed by Trooper’s resonant, soulful, alt-country vibrato, it’s clear one of America’s best (and underappreciated) songwriters is taking us along for another enchanting ride through a life of bruised relationships, guarded hopes, and interesting characters.

Lori McKenna – “Lorraine”


The image of Lori  McKenna is that of a blue collar housewife sitting at her kitchen table penning songs that somehow find their way onto the albums of country superstars (Faith Hill, Keith Urban). But that doesn’t do justice to the depth, subtlety and honesty of her songs, stripped down to their essence on her largely acoustic solo albums (although this one has strings in just the right places and background vocals from Kim Carnes).  She is the girl who married her high school sweetheart and quickly had babies — five in all. McKenna does the difficult — writing about life, real life, with an unerring eye. It’s all here, the shadowing doubts, the gentle joys, the people we recognize from our lives. McKenna is a staple of the Boston folk scene, but her voice is more heartland than right coast, more open spaces than urban races.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – “Here We Rest.”

Isbell transports us to his native Alabama with all the ups and downs through his stories. This one puts him into the same discussion as Steve Earle and other masterful storytellers.

Lucinda Williams – “Blessed”


For me, this was a return to form for Williams, a record with aching ballads, hard rockers and without the self consciousness of the last few.

Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter – “Marble Son.”


Feedback-drenched psychedelia opens this disc, a harder shot of rock than her last one. Think of it as Americana meets Zeppelin in places. The lyrics are smart and mystical. And then there’s her voice, as alluring, as distinctive as any in music today.

The Civil Wars – “Barton Hollow”


Perhaps the surprise of the year, a quiet, intense, and beautiful melding of voices and talents. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

Wilco – “The Whole Love.”


A return to their ecclectic roots, with the expected twists and turns.

Danny Schmidt — “Man of Many Moons”

This is a smart working-man’s album, poetic and affecting, framed by Schmidt’s singing.

The Smithereens – “2011”


These guys, makers of such great rock and roll in the 1990s, hook up again with producer Don Dixon and lightning strikes twice. It’s all you’d expect from a Smithereens album.