Jason Isbell: Setting His Beliefs To Song

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Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit (Photo by Danny Clinch)

Life is clearly good for Jason Isbell. Since embracing sobriety five years ago, his career has seen a trajectory with a string of critically and commercially acclaimed albums that have won him Grammys and Americana Music Honors & Awards. Isbell’s personal life has blossomed as well. He and Amanda Shires were married by fellow musician Todd Snider in February 2013 and the couple’s daughter Mercy Rose was born on Sept. 1, 2015. Hell, the guy even gave up smoking a few months ago. And now the Alabama native has released The Nashville Sound, his sixth solo record that finds him once again working with producer Dave Cobb (Shooter Jennings/Sturgill Simpson).

As has been his way in the past, Isbell uses this collection of 10 songs less as about giving voice to inspiration and more about having these vignettes serve as a musical journal. If 2013’s Southeastern was about getting sober and 2015’s Something More Than Free reflected Isbell’s new clarity, who’s to say The Nashville Sound isn’t about the path going forward? It’s not something the 38-year-old singer-songwriter is wont to disagree with.

“I didn’t come up with it, but I don’t disagree with that,” he said with a laugh. “I stay away from that—what does this record mean and all that kind of stuff? That’s not for the creator to come up with. What I try to do is make every individual song as tight and as correct as humanly possible. There are certain things that are going to come to the surface. There are going to be themes between the songs that the listener will probably be able to pick out because those are just things that my heart and life are in. These are things my mind focuses on.”

Whereas his most recent records have been credited to Isbell alone, this latest effort has his longtime crew, the 400 Unit, front and center not only on the album cover, but throughout the proceedings. Shires also makes her contributions known, be it on the bluegrass-flavored ode to the couple’s daughter that is “Something to Love” or the harmonies and songwriting contributions she makes on “Anxiety,” a composition that addresses the effects of mental illness. This rare co-writing situation was something Isbell felt necessary in order to capture the nuances of this malady, particularly how people suffering from it also have to grapple with other people’s perceptions of what they’re going through.

Nashville power couple Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell

“I don’t have a clinically diagnosed anxiety issue or these sorts of crippling attacks where I can’t function. But I did want to cover that and represent that aspect of things in the song. So I went to my wife, who has more experience with that kind of stuff and we co-wrote that song,” he explained. “I wanted to be specific and describe people’s experiences when they have these sorts of moments where they’re disconnected from reality and things get overwhelming. So I went to her about that. I think Dave Cobb’s job of producing really helped the song— it does create, without being too literal, a lot of tension before the release. And I think that’s really a good way to represent any kind of psychological struggle in the lyric of the song. And as far as I’m concerned, stigma has done more damage to the human experience than just about anything else. For alcoholism, addiction or any kind of mental illness, it’s such a terrible thing that you have to overcome first—that fear about people knowing something is wrong before you can fix it. To me it seems there shouldn’t be any shame in you attempting to figure out what’s wrong with you and get it sorted.”

One of the more pointed cuts on the new effort is “White Man’s World,” in which Isbell approaches that third rail of race. It’s the kind of self-examination that explores the notion of white privilege, a conversation many people are not willing to have.

Jason Isbell (third from left) during his Drive-By Truckers days (Photo by Danny Clinch)

“You have to come at those things with a little bit of courage because it’s hard to write about race for anybody. In the process of documenting my own life, teaching myself some things and maybe trying to present big questions musically to myself, I wanted to question my role and job in all of this. How do I keep myself aware? How do I keep myself as conscious as possible of the fact that I’m given opportunities that other people aren’t necessarily given? There are a lot of doors that are open for me that are sealed for women or minorities,” Isbell explained. “My goal with this song, as much as anything else, was really just to suggest that it might be a good idea to evaluate your own particular role and attempt to make things better in tiny increments. It’s not going to solve anything and it’s not going to make up for anything that might have happened to anyone’s ancestors, but at the same time, I’m trying to say what I think my job is and it’s about the best that I can do.”

With the culture wars at a seeming all-time high, Isbell is quick to dispel the idea that with songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope the High Road” are far from another artist getting political. For him, it’s far more personal.

Jason Isbell at the 50th anniversary of the Cambridge Folk Festival

“There are things that people would call political about this album, but I don’t think political is the right term. It’s about your system of beliefs and I think a lot of people call that politics,” he explained. “To me, politics is trading favors. Politics is how we structure civilization. That’s not what this record is about at all. Usually, that’s not what people are talking about. People are talking about their freedom, equality and liberty. That’s not politics—those are beliefs.”

As for what concert-goers can expect, the lifelong Atlanta Braves fan is happy with the fact that his recent success has allowed him to reinvest in the stage show and with the far more rock and roll-flavored approach taken on these songs by the 400 Unit, it’ll be a far more uptempo affair. It’s something that organically evolved after failed early attempts to try and force that kind of vibe found quickly abandoning that approach.

“I think there are more rock songs on this record than we’ve had in the past and that’s just a happy accident. I used to set out to do that and then I realized that’s not the way to do it. My best bet is to write the best songs that I can and not think about it any further than that,” he recalled. “But, I got lucky here with some rock and roll songs on this album. So I think it’s going to be a louder and more up-tempo show than we’ve had for the past couple of records. I’m excited about that. That’s always good news. We’ve stepped the production up, spent some money on some lights and some really cool-looking stuff going on. It doesn’t look like EDM or anything like that. It’s still a rock show. You start selling a few thousand records and you have to stop looking like a bar band. We’ve taken that pretty seriously, so it’s a pretty good complete experience now.”

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In addition to being editor of Garden City Life and Syosset-Jericho Tribune, Dave Gil de Rubio is a regular contributor to Long Island Weekly, specializing in music and sports features. He has won several awards for writing from Press Club of Long Island (PCLI).

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