How Jason Isbell Learned To Trust His Gut, From Live Albums To Politics

Erika Goldring

Trust your gut. It’s an obvious piece of advice, but one that far too many people choose to ignore. Jason Isbell is not one of these people. For quite some time now, Isbell has had it on his mind to record a live album to cap off what’s been a tremendous run of studio records that began with Southeastern in 2013, continued with Something More Than Free in 2015, and culminated with maybe his best one yet, The Nashville Sound just last year. When thinking about the location for such an important undertaking, one place sprang to mind: Nashville’s famous Ryman Auditorium.

“It was one of those things that seemed the most obvious and usually those are the ones that I go with,” Isbell said. “At this point we consider the Ryman really to be our home venue because we play there more than we do anywhere else. Most of us live in the area, and it just sounds great. I knew going into this, that we would perform as well at the Ryman, as we would anywhere else on earth, just because we go home, we sleep in our beds, we’re surrounded by our own family, and our friends. And the energy in the audience, I mean it really causes us to step up.”

Step up they did. As evidenced by the power of the performances on Live From The Ryman, Isbell’s band The 400 Unit is a tight-knit, road-hardened outfit, who have great instincts for when to pull back, like on the tender, album-closing ballad “If We Were Vampires,” or when to push down on the gas pedal like on the bracing “Cumberland Gap.” Add in his wife Amanda Shires’ sometimes beautiful, sometimes mournful fiddle accompaniments, and the results are even more magnificent.

Recently, I had the chance to catch up with Isbell over the phone and talk to him about how Live From The Ryman came together, what it feels like to be an object of scorn for the political machinery funded by the conservative Koch Brothers, his collaborations with ’60s singer-songwriter David Crosby, and how the writing for his next album is going.

Can you remember your first time playing the Ryman?

Yes. I think it might have been maybe 2014. I was really nervous.


Very nervous. And it sold out. So, I think that made me more nervous.

You’d think the opposite would be true, right?

You would think so, yeah, but no. I had played there before, at like the Americana Awards, and stuff like that. But the first time we actually played our own show there, yeah, it was pretty terrifying.