Jason Isbell: Taking the Hard Road Never Gets Easier

The ex-Drive-By Trucker is thinking clearly on the excellent new The Nashville Sound.

Music Features Jason Isbell
Jason Isbell: Taking the Hard Road Never Gets Easier

Jason Isbell has discovered what so many before him have learned: Life can get easier, but it never gets easy. You can sober up, rebuild your career, marry a good woman and have a healthy child, but just when you think all your problems are in the past, here come a whole lot more. Nothing is guaranteed: not sobriety, not creativity, not true love, not small-town traditions, not American democracy. They all have to be fought for again and again.

“I know I’m a lucky man today,” Isbell sings on “Anxiety,” from his new album The Nashville Sound, but he’s “so afraid that time will take it all from me.” Even though he’s “living in a fantasy” of music-biz success, with a headlining tour of the big sheds set up for this summer, even with his “wife and child still sleeping” contentedly nearby, he’s wide awake late at night and struggling to breathe.

These lyrics are reinforced by an ascending, grinding, nightmarish guitar figure borrowed from “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” by that master of anxiety, John Lennon. Isbell turns the title word “Anxiety” into a four-note melodic pattern that rises in pitch and intensity until it seems to strangle him. That’s the paradox: Even when you’re successful and figure to be living a stress-free life, there’s still plenty to worry about—especially if you pay attention to the world around you. That’s the dilemma that ties together the 10 songs on The Nashville Sound, which comes out Friday.

“Is happiness possible? Yes, but it requires mindfulness. That means you can’t just go through the motions, because if you do that, you’re deferring maintenance on your own mind.”

“Every time I make a record,” Isbell says, “I try to document the events in my life—both inside my house and out. This is where my head is today: trying to maintain what I have, trying to protect what I think is important, but still trying to put some art out there in the world. Is happiness possible? Yes, but it requires mindfulness. That means you can’t just go through the motions, because if you do that, you’re deferring maintenance on your own mind. It’s like a house or a property—if you defer too much, you have to do it all at once, and it becomes overwhelming.”

The story has often been told how Isbell wrote and sang some of the finest songs recorded by the Drive-By Truckers between 2001 and 2007, only to be gently pushed out of the band when his drinking and squabbling with bandmate/wife Shonna Tucker threatened to tear the band apart. He continued to write the occasional great song and drink too much as he released three solo studio albums. Then in 2012, his fiancée Amanda Shires and his manager Traci Thomas talked Isbell into rehab, and the singer-guitarist finally got sober. He celebrated with a wedding to Shires and a masterful breakthrough album, 2013’s Southeastern.

Read Paste’s review of Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound here.

If you’re newly sober and in love, Isbell told me back in 2015 upon the release of the follow-up record, Something More Than Free, “it’s hard to write about that without it sounding like a cliché. It’s hard to find that turn, that tension. You need that tension not just in the melody but in the lyric, too. So I wrote about seeing the pitfalls that other people have made in life, that you yourself have done in life. If you’re in a good situation, you have two things at your disposal: your imagination and your memory.”

On The Nashville Sound, Isbell found that he needn’t rely on the past; there’s more than enough “Anxiety” in even a seemingly happy life to fuel any number of songs. You merely have to glance at the amber allure of a whiskey bottle. You merely have to look at your infant daughter, so vulnerable as she crawls across a blanket. You merely have to stare at a blank sheet of paper that refuses to fill itself up with lyrics. You merely have to watch the evening news, where a century of marching toward greater equality is suddenly endangered.

This doesn’t mean that the songs on the new album are necessarily autobiographical, even when they’re rooted in felt experience. The album’s lead-off track, “The Last of My Kind,” for example, describes a kid from a small town in Arkansas who feels out of place in both college and a northern city. In a world of jaded hipsters and on-the-go workaholics, can the pastoral landscapes and congenial neighborliness of his hometown be preserved? Probably not, he suggests, because “Daddy’s dead and gone / the family farm’s a parking lot for Walton’s Five and Dime.”

Jason Isbell, center, with his band, The 400 Unit.

The thing is, Isbell didn’t grow up in Arkansas and never lived in a city with the subways described in the song. Nor did he grow up as the miner’s son in Middleboro, Ky., as he implies in the new song “Cumberland Gap.” But he did grow up in Green Hill, Ala., a small Southern town where “we made music on the porch on Sunday nights,” he sings, “old men with old guitars smoking Winston Lights, old women harmonizing with the wind.”

Those lyrics come from “Something To Love,” an album-ending song of advice to his young daughter, not unlike Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” or Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance.” Isbell hopes that his almost-2-year-old daughter, Mercy Rose, will “find something to love” in this world, and he offers examples of the things that he loves. He loves her and her mama, but he also loves those memories of Alabama, a place whose best qualities are being eroded as its worst tendencies are being bolstered.

That’s why he wonders if he’s “The Last of My Kind.” Can a product of the small-town South ever escape its limitations, he asks, or does “the Cumberland Gap just swallow you whole?” These questions confront not only a 38-year-old singer-songwriter from Alabama, but also those blue-collar workers from Arkansas, Kentucky and all the points in between. Isbell is singing not just about his own life, but all the lives he might have led if he hadn’t had a gift for words and guitars.

“The current political climate had to affect this record because I live in the world. There’s no way for it not to affect your life. When it became obvious that we were going to be polarized for a long time. It occurred to me that I might be one of the few artists who plays for audiences who don’t necessarily agree with what I’m saying but may be open to hearing it.”

“For me to be a happy person,” he says, “I have to feel I’m contributing to the world outside myself. A lot of songwriters go through this: You start out writing about your own neuroses, but after a while you’ve either solved your problems or you’ve gotten sick of talking about them, so you have to move on. Jackson Browne did it, Stevie Wonder did it. Joni Mitchell made that transition; so did Steve Earle. Dylan did it, but he did it in the opposite direction, like he does so many things. But most of us have to start with our own personal issues, because if they haven’t been addressed, you can’t address anyone else’s. It’s like being on an airplane: You have to put your mask on before you put on your child’s mask. But there’s a reason the ‘confessional songwriter’ is such a cliché, because it can so easily become self-indulgent.”

When a songwriter looks up from his or her own navel in 2017, the world is in a hell of a mess. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, the middle class is shrinking. Facts are something you can make up, and bigotry is often excused by religion. The summers are hotter, and the seas are rising. “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know…,” Isbell sings on “Hope the High Road.”

“The current political climate had to affect this record,” he says, “because I live in the world. There’s no way for it not to affect your life. When it became obvious that we were going to be polarized for a long time. It occurred to me that I might be one of the few artists who plays for audiences who don’t necessarily agree with what I’m saying but may be open to hearing it. There are country people out there who got interested in me because I’m on certain radio stations or because of my associations with people they know.”

Isbell assumes the persona of a Trump-supporting fan on “Cumberland Gap.” He can’t work in the mines like his daddy did, because “no one wants the coal”; he won’t join the army “unless I know what I’m fighting for,” and he can’t make a living with music, because there “ain’t much money in the old-time mandolin.” Channeling all that frustration through a pounding rock ‘n’ roll arrangement, the narrator defiantly declares that he’ll cash his government check, go down to the Mustang Lounge and drink “till I’m on my ass again.”

A similar character is portrayed in a more flattering light on “The Last of My Kind,” which presents its attractive melody via acoustic guitar and Fender Rhodes, much as Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t No Money” once did. The narrator yearns for the way things used to be, but even though “Daddy said the river would always lead me home,” the son realizes that “the river can’t take me back in time.”

Isbell performs with his wife, Amanda Shires, in 2016.

“It’s hard to address a lot of people in a song,” Isbell says, “because it starts to sound preachy and they don’t believe it, because it’s unqualified. When you’re trying to give someone advice, it’s easier if you say, ‘In my experience.’ If you say, ‘Here’s what happened to me,’ they’re more likely to listen. All those devices are overused, but only because they work. There’s a line you don’t want to cross. You don’t want to seem too egotistical, where you’re so wrapped up in yourself that you forget the whole reason for writing a song. That happens a lot to young or amateur songwriters.”

On “’Hope the High Road,” Isbell sings as himself, addressing an old friend who’s on the other side of the political divide. Over a Tom Petty-ish country-rock guitar figure, the narrator acknowledges that his longtime pal “ain’t sleeping well, uninspired and likely mad as hell.” Isbell is no longer willing to sing “the white man’s blues,” with its myth that white men are now the downtrodden, but he is willing to reach out a hand and “hope the high road leads you home again to a world you want to live in.”

What constitutes that “high road”? “The low road is when you hear someone say something you disagree with,” Isbell says, “and you refuse to listen because you say they’re just being political. The high road is Robert’s Rules of Order, where everyone has a chance to have their say. Then you weigh up the evidence and see what’s the most believable. The high road is the scientific method.”

It’s challenging enough for Americana artists to sing about the rising inequality between the rich and the poor, and it’s far more dangerous to tackle America’s booby-trapped race issues. But Isbell tackles them head-on in “White Man’s World,” the kind of ironic, leftist critique that can easily be misinterpreted, just as George F. Will and Ronald Reagan tried to co-opt Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” just as Donald Trump tried to do the same with Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

“I’m a white man living in a white man’s world,” Isbell shouts over a slow-blues stomp with slide-guitar flourishes. The line sounds at first like a boast but soon comes into focus as an acknowledgement of responsibility. Even if he’s never been prejudiced himself, he points out, he’s driving down a road paved over Indian burial grounds and past “oceans of cotton” once picked by slaves and sharecroppers. “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes,” he sings, “wishing I’d never been one of the guys who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.”

“Yeah, that song risks criticism,” Isbell admits, “but that’s the job, isn’t it? If I’m not saying things that are a little bit scary to my audience, I’m not being honest. If I feel something strongly enough, I’m going to say it. I don’t feel any shame or embarrassment about being white, but I have to always be aware of my position in the world.

“Lately I’ve been trying to be aware of other people, whether it’s my wife or people of other genders or sexual orientation or races and trying to understand what their lives are like without my advantages. If we can’t figure out how to get everybody on the same level playing field, nothing else is going to matter, no matter how much carbon we put into the atmosphere. The best thing I can do is be conscious and encourage consciousness in my audience. Randy Newman has written a lot about it, and more courageously than any songwriter I know. It will always be there, and it affects everything we do.”

“I’ve been trying to be aware of other people, whether it’s my wife or people of other genders or sexual orientation or races and trying to understand what their lives are like without my advantages. If we can’t figure out how to get everybody on the same level playing field, nothing else is going to matter.”

The Nashville Sound is the third consecutive album Isbell has made with producer Dave Cobb, who has also produced breakthrough records for Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson and Jamey Johnson. This time, Isbell and Cobb worked in the big room at RCA Studio B, where Elvis Presley, Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson cut many of their most famous records. Cobb takes advantage of the facility to give Isbell a sound that’s always expansive but never cluttered or affected.

“What a wonderful room for recording music,” Isbell exclaims. “Not only does it have all that history, but the sightlines and sound are great, so you can see and hear everyone else very well. I never thought my kind of music would enable me to work in a huge studio like that with a very successful producer and the best gear money can buy. I don’t take that for granted, and neither does Dave. Finding a producer in Nashville who doesn’t take those things for granted isn’t easy.”

In an album full of tough tests for its listeners, the bravest song is “If We Were Vampires.” Over a seductively pretty acoustic-guitar figure and close-harmony vocal with Shires, Isbell delivers the most unwelcome news of all: Death is not only inescapable but also final. There are no fairy tales here about reincarnation or meeting again on Jordan’s other shore; we get 80 or 90 years if we’re lucky, and then that’s it. Boom, it’s over.

“I started to examine my own notions about mortality,” Isbell says, “when I realized that to write a love song, you have to write a death song. Love doesn’t mean as much without death. If I agree to marry someone, that’s a big risk, because I only have one life. If I lived forever, what would it matter? But because I’m only going to live till 85 or thereabouts, I’m giving her the most valuable thing I have: my time.”

Facing death is courageous enough, but Isbell goes further. He posits that these time limits are a good thing. “If we were vampires and death was a joke…,” he sings, “I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.” But death isn’t a joke, and its slow but inexorable approach puts pressure on us to create the best art we can right now and to love those closest to us while we still have the chance. “Maybe time running out is a gift,” he sings.

“People want to live forever for the same reason they want a non-politician to be president,” he adds, “because they don’t know what that means. If we had a permanent time on the earth, we wouldn’t have the motivation to pursue anything. Time is a limited commodity, and if it weren’t, I’m not sure we would work up the courage to love anybody or to make art. If you have limitless time, you can always say, ‘I’ll say that tomorrow; I don’t need to do it today.’”

In recent years, Isbell and Shires have become friends with John Prine and his wife Fiona, who live nearby in Nashville. They shop at the same grocery store, go to the same pool and sometimes go out to dinner together. They talk about children and the traffic, but they also sometimes talk about songwriting.

“I was talking to John the other night,” Isbell recalls, “and he said, ‘We all write a lot more and a lot better with a deadline.’ People who can convince themselves that those deadlines really matter are the people who have the most success. That’s the challenge. Because there’s one deadline you can’t postpone.”

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