Artist of the Year: Jason Isbell

The Alabama native talks about his approach to honest songwriting, a decade of Southeastern and sobriety, Killers of the Flower Moon and his latest album with the 400 Unit, Weathervanes.

Music Features Jason Isbell
Artist of the Year: Jason Isbell

When Jason Isbell’s breakthrough album Southeastern came out in 2013, I was a 15-year-old kid without any wherewithal to properly interpret those songs for what they were—at least not in the way that I am now. I wasn’t introduced to Isbell’s music until 2017, when he and his longtime band—the 400 Unit—took to Bob Boilen’s cubicle at the NPR Music office for a Tiny Desk Concert. They played “Chaos and Clothes” first and, immediately, my life was different. “You’re in a fight to the death, my friend, black metal T-shirts your shield,” Isbell sang, harmonizing with his wife Amanda Shires, who was also playing the fiddle. “You’ve got the past on your breath, my friend. Now name all the monsters you’ve killed.” Isbell wrote that song in a muddy German field with no cell service or internet, the lyrics settling the score about a friend who he, at the time, didn’t think was making healthy decisions—a story hinged on the all-too-familiar memory of someone asking for your advice but refusing to take it.

It’s the kind of universality that crops up on all of Jason Isbell’s records; a generous eye fixed upon a world where marriage, love, trauma, addiction and disparity are all occurring concurrently. His work is a portrait of life as we know it, and all of that came to a head in 2020, when he and the 400 Unit released Reunions and a song like “Dreamsicle” fell into my lap. “Broken glass and broken vows, I’ll be 18 four years from now, with different friends in a different town,” Isbell sang over a glowing homesick melody. “I’ll finally be free.” I can’t quite explain it, that feeling when, for the first time, you finally hear the song you’ve always needed. But that’s what happened when Reunions came out three years ago, and it’s happened again in 2023 with the release of Weathervanes and a song like “Middle of the Morning”—a relic of the pandemic that’s timelessness is folklorish, as Isbell muses about feeling disconnected from a spouse in close-proximity. It’s funny how, across so many important checkpoints of my life, Isbell’s music has been there to provide a tangible commentary for all of it. I know quite a few other folks feel similarly.

But Isbell has gone on record, though, about how making Reunions was a particularly difficult experience for him—largely because of how tense he felt throughout the process. He even went as far as saying he regretted not enjoying the making of that project, especially because it’s such a great record. I agree with Isbell on the latter part of that statement, as “Dreamsicle” has remained a top 10 staple in my end-of-year Apple Replay four times in a row. When recording Reunions, Isbell finally admitted that the work had become too stressful, a stark contrast to his shrugged-shoulders attitude prior to hitting the studio. “Beforehand, I’d told myself, ‘Eh, this is not an actual problem. You’re making a record, it’s fun.’ I just didn’t allow myself to do that. And, of course, like with any other emotion, it comes out your ears in steam,” he tells me.

Determined to lighten the emotional load before recording Weathervanes three years later, Isbell got real and admitted that something wasn’t clicking—and he was prepared to exile his pride and his self-administered expectations. And the result was fruitful, as Isbell and the 400 Unit wound up making the best record of their career thus far. “I’d gone through this process—with my therapist and with my family and with myself—saying, ‘Okay, I’m feeling pressure. It is a challenge for me to live up to the standards that I’ve set for myself,’” Isbell adds. “And, once I did that, it started to get a whole lot easier to enjoy the process and let go of the concerns of the ego. I try to get better at not giving a shit what other people think, as I go through my life. This is something that I think will always be a work-in-progress. It probably is for most of us. I want to be considerate of other people but, at the same time, I don’t want to take all that baggage. When I’m writing a song, I want to make it a record, and I had made some strides on that when it came time to make Weathervanes.”

“The night was young once, we were the wild ones, ‘fore we had to pay attention to the violence,” Isbell opines at the genesis of Weathervanes. “Anything could happen, but nothing ever really did.” “Death Wish” is a unique opening track for him and the 400 Unit. At once, it’s malleable—capable of being stripped down into an acoustic sprawl while also existing how it does on the record, as a gothic overture. There’s a Randy Newman nod; an overarching sonic homage to The Cure and other post-punk landmarks. Isbell’s singing about being in love with someone battling mental illness and suicidal thoughts. There’s an immediate sense of delicacy there, as a line like “I don’t wanna fight with you, baby, but I won’t leave you alone” stirs in emotive starkness.

“Death Wish” was the Weathervanes lead single, and not everyone was all-in on this next chapter of the 400 Unit—and Isbell noticed that. “I saw a couple people online, after the song came out, who said ‘No, I have never done that, so I don’t like the song,’ and that was a hilarious criticism to me, where it’s like ‘No, this has never happened to me, so this music’s not for me,’” he says, chuckling. “It’s like, man, you must like seven songs.” While “Death Wish” breaks new, fertile ground for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, what he’s searching for in an opening track is much more practical—as he wants, first and foremost, something with a lot of production on it to catalyze any given project. Why that notion is so crucial to him is because, on a vinyl record, the grooves are wider towards the outer layers of the disc.

“As you go in toward the middle of the record, you don’t have as much actual literal, physical space,” he adds. “So it doesn’t sound as good. A lot of my tracklisting has to do with the fact that the songs that have the most going on need to get the most room in the grooves. That’s something that, I think, became ingrained in listeners in the ‘60s and ‘70s—especially in the ‘70s—and big produced concept albums. I think it’s comforting to us to hear records that way.”

It’s one of the most practical responses I’ve ever heard about the sequencing on an album, and I tell Isbell just as much. Such a move is deliberate and methodical from him. “If I get any chance to let practical considerations influence the art itself, I will take those chances,” he says. “Because I feel like that’s something that speaks to the way we’ve heard music, traditionally, and the way we consume art. There’s a reason that movies start with a particular opening scene before you get your opening credit, or the reason that the first line of a novel should be its strongest—all these things are practical concerns that we’ve allowed to get into the DNA of how we consume creative projects. I love tying those things together. Sometimes, you just do what makes everything work and then, all of a sudden, you’ve made art.”

Weathervanes is Isbell’s most ambitious record to date, at least musically, and it ventures away from the cut-and-dry folk troubadour incantations of Reunions. The work this time around cuts its teeth on that live and loose golden era of country rock, when the Marshall Tucker Band and Brothers and Sisters-era Allman Brothers were putting out some of the prettiest and energetic albums ever. But Isbell didn’t go into the writing phase with any initial desire to consciously open his songs up in such an elaborate and freewheeling way, nor was there much intent on capturing a perspective that he didn’t have on Reunions three years ago. He started writing Weathervanes in Oklahoma, when he was filming Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon.

“I had a whole bunch of downtime—as you do, it turns out, when you’re making a movie—and I spent that time writing songs. My day-to-day life was very Bartlesville, Oklahoma, very normal people going about their day in the middle of an extremely rural part of the country—and that’s how I felt, those raw emotions. That country-rock sound made itself present in the songs without me really having to steer it in that direction. I was spending all of my work days dressed up in clothes that existed 100 years ago. There’s something about the whole vibe of [Killers of the Flower Moon] and that time period and the work that I was doing—in the place where I was living—that added to that. And then, once I started to recognize, ‘Oh, this is the direction that I want to go in,’ then I leaned into it. I do that a whole lot. I started writing without much of an intention other than just to make characters exist and then follow them around. And then, somewhere in the process, I notice what direction I’m walking in and pick up the pace a little bit.”

The impact that the Killers of the Flower Moon set had on Isbell can be felt rather immediately on a song like “King of Oklahoma,” which name-checks a woman named Mollie, which just so happens to be the name of Lily Gladstone’s protagonist in the film. The “king” in question is a callback to Robert De Niro’s character William Hale, who refers to himself as such. But, when he was writing the lyrics, Isbell never intentionally set out to reference the movie he was making. “I was going to that set and interacting with those characters every day, and it just found its way in,” he says. While Isbell and his band have been gigging coast-to-coast and everywhere in the middle for nearly two full decades, where he writes his songs still tend to reflect and dictate what each one becomes. Most of Weathervanes was sketched in Oklahoma and, upon listening to it all the way through, you can hear the truth of that in every note and every melody—and that’s a mark of being in a distinctive place full of universal people.

“We’re all really very similar, in all the towns and cities and everything,” Isbell adds. “But the setting is a really big deal for me, because it just makes me think from a different angle. If I wrote an entire record in New York, it would be about different things. I imagine it would probably be very personal about the size of human connections—because, for there to be that many people living on top of one another, then you have the question of ‘Well, does any of this matter? And, if so, how much? What is the significance of love between two people in a town where there’s 11 million of us stacked up on one another? I mean, why bother? What is the reason why we go through heartbreak and tragedy and all of this when we could just go outside and there’s hundreds of people walking down the sidewalk at any given moment.’ The place certainly works its way into the music, but the more I travel the more I figure out that people are very similar from place to place.”

Fans and listeners have been drawing comparisons between Weathervanes and Isbell’s days playing guitar in the Drive-By Truckers. There are similarities running throughout the tracklist—most clearly on penultimate song “This Ain’t It”—and they shine through in ways that are more intense than ever before, at least not since Isbell’s debut solo album, Sirens of the Ditch. For a long time, that kind of volume and heaviness was largely reserved for Isbell and the 400 Unit’s live shows. But, being 15+ years removed from his tenure in the Truckers, he’s now reached a place where he’s comfortable with letting his songs go there—because he’s eliminated having anything left to prove. And, across all five studio albums of original material in the last 10 years, Isbell’s work has never sounded like what he did with the Truckers—a deliberate choice.

“I think that part was intentional, I wanted to do something different—especially with Southeastern,” he says. “That’s one reason why it wound up so quiet and so small, production-wise, because I just wanted it to be just me, just mine. With Weathervanes, I thought, ‘You know, enough time has passed, I think everybody knows that we’re all on good terms and we’re all doing very separate things and nobody’s ripping anybody off. I think I can just let these songs be what they want to be.’”

That was also Isbell’s approach to producing Weathervanes. For the first time since Here We Rest in 2011, he opted to not bring back longtime engineer Dave Cobb. This time around, Isbell was able to leave his ego outside the door and go into the studio and just serve the songs he’d written. In many ways, it was like a rebirth for Isbell, but it was also an emotional and creative reunion. “It’s good, because there are certain constraints that you put on yourself as you go through years and years of working in this particular field,” he says. “And some of them fall away. It was nice when that specter of the time that I spent with [Drive-By Truckers] fell away and became just a part of who I am as a songwriter again.”

Weathervanes is Isbell’s most personal 400 Unit record to date, if only because he’s placing more focus on the whole, ultimate point of living—which is to grow and learn more about himself and how to be happy, joyful and stable. He’s always preferred to keep his characters “in-house,” but he’s candid about every album holding more of him than the album that preceded it. When it comes to the curiosity that keeps pulling him back into writing, it’s not so much about trying to better understand a particular type of character or a particular type of motif or circumstance. No, the curiosity comes via the immense potential of just how many stories are left to be told.

“I think a really great songwriter could sit in one room, isolated for 10 years, and still be able to write five albums-worth of good material—maybe if they just had one window that they could look out,” Isbell says. “I’m not saying that they should do that, either. But, I think that it would be possible, because there is so much to notice. A lot of my favorite songs in the indie rock world will be written about very small, very specific subjects; tiny, tiny, tiny things. When you go into poems, you get even smaller and you keep reducing the sphere of your perspective until, finally, you’re just writing about the tiniest possible speck of dust. And that’s the thing that keeps me motivated, the fact that there are just billions and billions and billions of different stories to tell.”

In a recent GQ interview, Scorsese spoke about how everyone we’ve known and loved has suffered and struggled so much, and then life is over. He said, “You get to the point of saying, ‘Well, what does it all mean?’ It doesn’t matter what it means. You have to live it.” This idea of not getting tangled up in trying to gather all of life’s answers hits home whenever I tap into a Jason Isbell record. When I’m writing poetry, I’m always wrestling with whether or not it’s my job to shepherd people to an answer. My advisor in college once told me that it’s not the writer’s job to always nurture a reader to the finish line, that it’s painfully human—but necessary—to give them the tools to get there on their own. For Isbell, a big part of the work he does, both in music and in maintaining a sense of self beyond if, is saying that we are wasting time looking for the answers—time we could be using to place attention on what’s going around us and who in our lives we love and care for.

“If I see an answer, that’s a red flag,” he asserts. “If I hear a song that has answers in it, then I think, ‘Man, this is amateur hour’—because that’s going to change in five minutes and five days and five months and five years. If you’re settling on something right now, then you’re undermining the version of yourself that’s gonna come later. And all I want to do is try to keep all versions of myself as honest and aboveboard as possible. Anytime something even reminds me of that—an answer to one of life’s big questions—whether it’s in song or in conversation, I try to say, ‘Well, in my experience, this is how I have tried and failed in the past.’”

Isbell has always been transparent about his failures—particularly his sobriety and what life before that was like for him and the people in his orbit. As a sober person, I’m constantly trying to better understand how my own art shifts between the days when I was a student in high school or in college doing drugs versus now, when I’m a drug-free and employed adult. On Weathervanes, we find Isbell remaining immune to pandering, as he writes about familial, generational trauma (“Cast Iron Skillet”), school shootings (“Save the World”), abortion (“White Beretta”) and interloping in hometowns (“Volunteer”) with grace and affection. Though his clarity continues to grow with every passing year that he’s alcohol-free, writing about violence, disparity—and loss and the people in the world around you—in an empathetic and honest way is still hard even as he’s taken that step within himself, too.

“Any kind of recovery, whether it’s from addiction or from abuse or from any sort of trauma, you grow and you get wiser,” Isbell says. “And the wiser you get, the harder it is to really pick a voice and decide on the correct way to tell a story that’s this heavy. It just gets harder to write the songs as I go on, and it should. I would be so disappointed if it was easy to write a song now compared to when I was 22 or 23 years old. I think that’s the beauty of creating art throughout the course of your life—that, the better you get at it, the harder it gets. There’s no final boss, and that’s because I’m always trying to refine not only the nuts and bolts of the work, but the perspective of the work also.”

On Reunions and Weathervanes, something that has helped Isbell on a personal level—that has, certainly, found its way into the music—is that he’s been able to forgive the person that he was before he got sober. It took a long time, because he was afraid that doing so would lead him back to behaving in those ways again. “For the first decade, or close to it, I had to look at that guy as ‘This guy’s out of my life, I don’t speak to this guy.’ And then, somewhere around Reunions, I decided, ‘Okay, I’m going to call this guy and see how he’s doing. It’s been long enough, I think I can talk to him and keep my boundaries intact enough to have a relationship with this person again.’ And when that happened, it allowed me to access some of the strength in those emotions from that time—because we would never become addicted to drugs and alcohol if it didn’t do something positive for us, at least in the temporary. I think, once you get past that stage, where the ground beneath you is a little bit shaky, I think it’s important to go back and forgive yourself and, maybe, get in touch with that person again in the same way that you would an inner-child.”

Something about Jason Isbell’s songwriting that I hold close is how, so often, he remains a beacon through the best and worst of times—if only for his willingness to write songs that are sometimes romantic and sublime yet painfully true and honest. “Yes, I’ve tried to be grateful for my devils and call them by their names,” he sings on “Middle of the Morning.” “But I’m tired.” I’ve been thinking about what it means to make art in a world where we are also responsible for protecting the people we love, be it our kids or our partners or our parents—how the stories we write are impacted by the kind of world we want our loved ones to interact with and find safety in. You want to write about a forgiving, empathetic planet, but too often that’s not the reality of it—and unlearning how to see anything but brutality and disparity is a really long to play. When it comes to Isbell’s songs, like “King of Oklahoma,” where he concludes with my favorite line of the record—“Nothing makes me feel like much of nothing anymore”—I immediately start wondering how he grapples with what story to tell and how to not make the planet look so bleak.

The truth is that, for Jason Isbell, when you’re writing about the people you are close to, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done before you actually sit down with a guitar and a pencil and paper. “The work you have to do before that is to try to surround yourself with love and with honesty,” he says. “And, if you’re being honest with all the people in your life at all times—and you’re leading with kindness, with generosity of spirit—then you’re not really going to be capable of writing something about them that crosses over the lines of privacy. I’m not saying that there’s nothing that should be private between two people, whether it’s a parent and a child or spouses, or whatever. But, if you’re leading your life honestly, then your songs are probably going to be honest, as well.”

When it comes to the bleakness of his characters and some of their stories, however, Isbell points to the access he has to sing these songs. For Weathervanes, he had eight hours a day in a climate-controlled environment, a guitar, a pen and some paper. He had the time to write a song about his world and then workshop and edit it until it was something he could deliver to everybody else. According to Isbell, there is “an asterisk beside the suffering,” because he has time to tell you about it. “When you’re truly suffering, you’re not passing the story of that along to anybody,” he says. “You’re just trying to get from moment to moment and survive. Things are pretty dark out there in a lot of different situations right now, but we’re living longer—I mean, people across the board are living longer and healthier lives than we ever have before.”

Isbell immediately recognizes the caveats to that truth, though. “There’s a lot of problems with the healthcare system, there’s problems with race, there’s problems with gender, there’s problems with pushback from the right when we try to make some kind of progress,” he adds. “All of these things are real, and they’re all happening. But shit has been way, way worse in the past. People are talking about ‘This is the worst time in American history.’ Oh, contraire. There was a point where there were bleachers set up around battlefields and people who were related to each other and had grown up together were killing each other on these battlefields—if they could survive having diarrhea and being dehydrated long enough to actually get up and fire a rifle or stab one another. Things have been way worse in America, especially for people who aren’t fairly wealthy and white.” Isbell’s route to balancing songs like “Middle of the Morning” and “Strawberry Woman” with “Save the World” and “Volunteer” comes from a sharp duality: He gets great rewards from talking about his family and singing his love songs and, for him to be able to address the injustices of the world, he first has to survive and be himself. And, to do that, he has to be able to write these songs we’ve long adored.

On all of Isbell’s records—but especially Weathervanes—he’s striking a balance between sentimentality and hard-nosed realism. Songwriters and nostalgia go hand-in-hand, for better or for worse, but, on Weathervanes, Isbell’s telling of these way-back stories feels like an earned type of retrospect—rather than a bygone praise that comes when the well has run dry. For him, it’s a matter of the level of indulgence for the sentimental or the nostalgic shifting depending on what type of song he’s writing. When Isbell is working on a love song, nostalgia comes in handy. But, he’s also acutely aware of how, if you use that kind of wistfulness incorrectly, it can become a weapon. He cites a conversation he had with Celine Strong about her film Past Lives, and how the way that cinema utilizes—or enables—yearning:

“We were having a conversation about how nostalgia is the weapon in that movie. And that movie really feels like a thriller, because you don’t know what people are going to do next—and the bloody knife in the corner is nostalgia,” Isbell says. “That’s the thing you have to really watch out for. But, if you’re gonna write a song for somebody that you care a whole lot about—and you want to point to the reasons why—then you’re going to need to use a little bit of it. It really all comes down to what story I’m trying to tell. If you’re making a movie for a year, you got one story. Now, you’ve got a long time to tell it, a couple hours—or more, if you’re Marty. I have a short amount of time to tell a story, and then I tell another one and then I tell another one. The goals and the tools can shift from song to song. “King of Oklahoma,” you need nostalgia. You need that character to feel nostalgic. But “White Beretta,” you need the opposite of that. You need reality. You can’t romanticize those emotions, or you undermine the whole point of that song.”

Isbell’s most revered solo album, Southeastern, was written in the period after he got sober. It came out 10 years ago this past June, two days after Weathervanes was released, and 10-year anniversaries are both tricky and interesting to me—largely because the records we’re celebrating came out when I was at my most formative age. And what they meant to me then isn’t always what they mean to me now. If I had encountered Southeastern in 2013, I wouldn’t have understood what the hell Isbell was singing about. But now, I think I can meet him at least halfway. When looking back at songs like “Cover Me Up” or “Elephant”—or even a line like “I’ve buried her a thousand times, giving up my place in line, but I don’t give a damn about that now,” the work doesn’t take on new meaning for Isbell, even if he is more than a decade clean and more than a decade removed from the work. He gives Southeastern some leeway, though, because it was a crucial record for him, for his audience and it was his breakthrough release. So, in that way, it’s romanticized for him—but he wouldn’t change how those songs were written and recorded, because the album was lightning in a bottle captured during a gravitational time of transition.

“Most of my favorite stories—whether they’re books or movies or songs—throughout history, have happened at this moment of transition, when there’s a person—who is writing this or creating this—who isn’t completely certain of what’s going to happen next,” Isbell explains. “That was significant for me, the fact that, all of a sudden, I had more time to work with the raw ability that I had before I got sober. I was able to sit down and capture what was going on in a way that was more skillful—because songwriting is song editing, and I spent so much time trying to get those songs completely right that I think, if it were to be anything different now, if I were to go back and rewrite Southeastern as a 44-year-old who’s been sober for as long as I have, I don’t think it would be the same. I had to capture that period of transition and I don’t necessarily think of myself as the person who wrote that album anymore, because that guy was very unsure of what was about to happen.”

Southeastern is the project that turned Jason Isbell into a household name, and it became obvious that things were shifting when, upon coming back to the States after an international flight, he saw himself in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal on the same day at the same newsstand. When he started touring the album, it became really obvious. “We sold out dozens of shows in a row,” Isbell notes. “I remember one show, in St. Louis, there were people waiting in the parking lot at the show who knew they weren’t gonna get it. The show was already sold out and the building was full, and there were people in the parking lot just so they could hear through the walls or the windows. I remember thinking, ‘This is insane.’ And, for a while there, we couldn’t keep up with the demand—because we were trying to increase the size of the venues as we went from town to town. Sometimes, that wasn’t logically doable, so we had some shows that were pretty crazy. It was a beautiful thing to see, that feeling that what you’re doing is working on that level.”

Southeastern was written at a transitional period in Isbell’s life—one that he admits was a moment etched in that time and that time only—and you can certainly say the same about Weathervanes, as he attempts to make sense of his place in a world brimming with regret, violence and grief. The album is a changeover, a passage to a new, hopefully kinder chapter. And in that way, Weathervanes is—like all great folk, country and Americana records—a historical pursuit done in the name of where we come from, who we used to be and who came before us. There’s pride there, in remembering the places your DNA still retreats to. Isbell’s music so often dislodges mainstream preconceptions about rural art, even if he writes it anywhere but. I ask him what the secret is to writing songs that are in service to undoing those prejudices. “You just tell the truth,” he replies. It’s as simple as that.

Watch Jason Isbell’s performance at the Living Room in 2011 below.


Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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