While many singer/songwriters mine our usual foibles for material, Jason Isbell drops at least one track on every album that gives listeners lasting pause on an uncomfortable subject.
On his 2013 Americana breakthrough Southeastern, that song was “Elephant,” a poignant glimpse of one couple’s flippant approach to cancer where Isbell sings, “No one dies with dignity. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow.” And on 2015’s double Grammy winner Something More Than Free, “Speed Trap Town” stops listeners with a portrait of a son who leaves both his town and his father, a philandering ex-trooper who’s on his deathbed.
“I like to look at realities that other people would stay away from,” Isbell, 38, says from his home outside Nashville, crediting inspiration from books like Cormac McCarthy’s anti-Western Blood Meridian. “A good song speaks to things that you’re aware of, but a great song reminds you of things that you tried to forget.”
Great songs continue to grace The Nashville Sound, Isbell’s June 16 release with his band the 400 Unit. Vivid details include references to drugs and alcohol—from a bumpkin served uppers in college in “Last of My Kind” to a road trip with a plastic cup of wine to see a girl in “Tupelo”—despite his five years of sobriety.
“Alcohol’s still a big part of my life, and it has to be for me to stay sober,” says Isbell, whose indulgence fueled the end of an early turn in the Drive-By Truckers (they’ve since reconciled). “I have to remember all the specific details about what my life was like before. Because in every one of those details, there’s a reason not to pick up another drink. It’s not like you just turn the page and move on. You have to keep flipping back in the book and rereading the earlier parts where you were in pain.”
Isbell also turns his lens to wider political landscapes on The Nashville Sound, its title a nod to the motto of the famed RCA Studio where his band made the album with returning producer Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson).
“White Man’s World” bemoans resurgent biases, while “Cumberland Gap” rocks (Isbell is also a kick-ass guitarist) with a tale of a young man’s bleak outlook in coal country. “When an artist comes out with a new album right now, if they’re not discussing those topics, to me it just seems like ‘Where have you been?’” he says, adding of President Trump’s coal stance, “I don’t think it’s fair for those people, to dangle that imaginary carrot in front of them to get their votes and support. There’s just no way that coal’s coming back. That’s like going back to steam engines.”
And while current events provide lyrical fodder, his past also informs his music. Isbell grew up in Alabama near Muscle Shoals Studio, learning music at the knees of elders who played instruments, a scene he depicts in “Something to Love.” “I thought that was just the way everybody in a family spent time together,” he says. “When I got into my teens, I realized that not everybody did that.”
His parents exposed Isbell to great songwriters like John Prine and John Hiatt, and his mother encouraged his reading. “As much as I loved to play musical instruments and as much as I loved stories and words, when I figured out you could mix those two together and write songs, it was an epiphany.”
Now he has his own family with fiddler/singer Amanda Shires, who often plays in the 400 Unit. “If We Were Vampires” reflects their relationship in a touching dance about mortality. And they co-wrote the edgier “Anxiety,” whose lyric “I’m out here living in a fantasy, and I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing” makes one wonder how Isbell feels now that he’s topped the country, folk and rock charts, won Grammys and come to headline large venues like Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, where he’ll perform on June 27.
“I didn’t grow up comfortably, so you always have to fight that sort of guilt,” he says. “You didn’t do something wrong for making your dreams come true and getting lucky.” ◆
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit play Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on June 27.
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