Music

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.

Really?

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.

What is it about that building that’s so special? I mean, obviously the history is there. But it’s a pretty unique building.

It is, yeah. It doesn’t quite sound like anywhere else. You know, it’s one of those places where if you overpower the room, you’re not gonna get the most out of it. But if you respect the room, and turn things down, and play dynamically, it can sound better than anywhere else I’ve played. The thing for me that’s really special about the Ryman is the fact that it’s continuing to develop and improve. And that’s a hard thing for a lot of historical landmark type venues because very often they get that marker, and then they just sort of focus on keeping the doors open. But, you know, with the Ryman, they keep putting money into the place, and making it a better experience for everybody.

How did you cull the tracklist down to just 13 songs from so many performances?

Well, we really picked from 15 shows honestly. Because we went through everything that we had from Ryman performances in the past. But since we were focusing on the last three albums, that really narrowed down the number of shows in which we played those songs. We were trying to go from Southeastern, Something More Than Free, and the The Nashville Sound. My sound guy Cain Hogsed, who recorded the shows, went through and eliminated any that just weren’t good candidates then he sent me a lot of songs, and I went through and listened to those, and picked out the ones that I thought were the best. They all just happened to be from the same year, with one exception.

What was the exception?

I think it might have been “Flagship.”

Are you ever surprised that the ways your songs kind of morph from the way they sound in the studio to how then end up sounding on the stage?

It’s definitely an organic process. We play them over, and over, and over, and try to make different decisions, at least once in every performance. So, the songs definitely change. What surprises me is the ones that are gonna kind of take on a new life, and become a little more anthemic as we play them live. I think “Last Of My Kind” really did that. That outro to that really became something a lot bigger after a few live shows, then it had when we recorded it. That’s always a pleasant surprise for me because we’re not the kind of band that plays everything the same way every night. And we’re not the kind of band that improvises every night. It falls somewhere in between. So, it’s fun to watch them change over the years.

You’re obviously a very skilled lead guitar player. Are there ever nights where you want to get out there, and just rip for four, or five minutes on a solo?

No, I’d get bored. I’m pretty happy with the exact amount of lead guitar I play every night now. Before Sadler [Vaden] was in the band, we had a little period there where I was the only guitar player. We put out our last live album during that period, and, you know, I enjoy that, but I get bored of my own playing. Especially, without another guitar player of Sadler’s caliber to sort of bounce off of.

I saw you recently at the Greek Theatre in LA and there was definitely a moment when you and Sadler were going at it on guitar and I mean, if there had been a roof, it would have blown off the place.

Thank you. Yeah, that’s usually “Never Gonna Change,” the [Drive-By] Trucker’s song that I wrote, that we do towards the end of the set. That’s a lot of fun for us. We allow ourselves one moment of that kind of indulgence over the course of the night. Because it is a rock and roll show, and we want to do some things that remind people of rock and roll, the way it used to be in arenas in the ’70s. We do different things every night. We’re always trying to challenge each other to play better than we did the night before. I enjoy it.

I’ve only ever been lucky enough to see you live when your wife Amanda Shires has been there onstage as well, but I’m curious about how the character of the show changes when she’s not available?

We try to keep it as close to the same as we possibly can. I mean, there is definitely going to be another dynamic when she’s there because a lot of the songs were written about our relationship. And so when you’re performing them onstage with the person that you wrote the song about, there is gonna be some sort of tension and release, I guess, in the air that you might not necessarily have otherwise. But I think in order for us to do what we do, me and my wife, for her to be able to tour, and feel comfortable playing her own songs with her own band, and then joining us whenever it’s possible for her to do that, I think we have to work really hard to try to keep a similarity between the levels of emotion that we put into each show, whether she’s there or not. Because if the shows when she wasn’t with us, if those were a long way away from the emotional impact of the shows when she’s there, then she would start feeling a pretty steady pull one way or another. And I don’t want to put that on her. I don’t think that’s the point.

Of course.

I think the point is to try to make it different. But not necessarily more or less emotionally impactful. There is more guitar when she’s not there. That’s the main difference, I think. Less fiddle, and more guitar.

Can you talk about the strength of the 400 Unit as a band? It really does feel like there’s a true level comfortability and joint appreciation between you all.

Yeah, we’re real lucky that we get to play with people who we consider to be friends, and family in a whole lot of ways. You know, I never had auditions for this band. And I never went through any kind of listservs, or recommendations for local musicians, or session players, or touring players. We all came together in a really natural way, and hired people that were our friends first and foremost. I think over the years we’ve played so many shows together, and just spent so much time together offstage too, that there is a language that we have. We get to skip a lot of the pleasantries, and get down to business. The thing that I really like is there a lot of confidence in knowing that, if you’re off that night, you’re probably going to be the only person that’s off.

Right.

If you’re not having your best night on stage, that’s not necessarily going to translate to the audience because everybody else is going to be having a good night. It’s very, very rare that more than one of us is not feeling it at the same time. So, that’s a really good thing. And I think that’s because everybody in the band really cares about the work that we’re doing, and does their best every night.

I hesitate to even call it a Twitter kerfuffle, but you recently played a show in Charlotte and someone criticized you after the fact for playing your song “White Man’s World.” You decided to engage them and I’m wondering, from your perspective, how you felt about that whole thing, and if you see a benefit to presenting people with ideas they may oppose?

Well, the conversation was a benefit, but what she was saying happened is not really what happened. What I believe happened was she was paid by The Federalist which she writes for, who the Koch Brothers fund to try to influence people in a close Senate election in the state of Tennessee. I think that was the whole point. I think she went to the show on the clock. I think she was working for, essentially the Koch brothers, who love to dabble in Tennessee politics. They killed the transit deal a few months ago, and now they’re trying to get Marsha Blackburn elected to the Senate. I knew that from pretty early on in the conversation, that this is not what it appears.

It wasn’t on the level.

No. It’s not just a fan who happened to go and be blindsided by this because that’s impossible.

Right.

It’s literally impossible for somebody to go, and listen to the rest of the album, and listen to all the lyrics, and then be shocked, and offended by the content of “White Man’s World.” You know, she was on the clock. She was working. And knowing that, you can take the conversation on social media in a number of directions. What I try to do is remain civil, even though that’s kind of what’s lost right now in political discourse.

Sure.

I try to remain civil, and I try to encourage other people to talk about the issues because I think that’s important. I think that’s really the main goal of Twitter for example. It’s not about having an argument or a conversation with one other person on Twitter. The whole goal of the network for me is to use somebody’s commentary to start your own conversation with your own followers. It’s not Facebook, you know? And I think that’s where a lot of people make the mistake. They think all social media works the same, and that’s definitely not the case. But I knew what she was doing. So, I think it helped me to start a conversation, and engage the people that were following me.

That’s got to be wild to you to have the machinery of the Koch brothers level its eye against you in any sort of facet?

Yeah, I know. And it sounds like a conspiracy theory when I say it out loud. You know, that’s what they do. I mean, they pay people to dig in places where the elections could be close or bills might or might not pass depending on really a small number of people’s opinions and they try to sway those opinions one way or another, so they can make government smaller, and smaller, and smaller so they can make their fortune bigger, and bigger, and bigger. I think the problem is a lot of people fail to recognize that’s what is happening.

Right.

If what she was saying was true, and somebody had really come to the show, and loved all the rest of the songs, but been offended by one particular statement, that was made in one particular song, then that would have been a different conversation. And I think the problem is when we confuse those two conversations. And when people don’t realize you’re being manipulated because this is a relatively new forum of discussion. Twitter, Facebook, all that is really new. And we haven’t yet figured out how to filter between what the truth is, and what the truth isn’t. That’s the hard part. People are being convinced of things. You know, they’re being duped in a lot of situations. And the woman tried to look genuine and concerned, and that is not what was happening at all.

Speaking of polarizing songs of social commentary, you recently performed the song “Ohio” with David Crosby at the Newport Folk Festival

Yeah. I like that guy.

Can you talk about how that all went down?

Yeah, it was incredible. We did “Ohio,” and we did “Wooden Ships.” When they asked me if there was somebody I wanted to bring out as a special guest, the Newport function, said they would take care of getting them there and put them up and make sure they had everything they needed, I thought Crosby would be perfect for that because he is in the folk tradition. He is somebody who has never been afraid to speak his mind. I think David sort of embodies folk music in a way that very few people do, because he’s always been somebody who understood that you can’t really make honest music and write honest songs unless your politics become obvious in the process. And on top of that, I’m a huge fan. I grew up learning how to sing and learning how to write songs from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. That meant a lot to me for sure and he still sounds incredible.

He does still sound pretty great right?

His voice is so strong. We were warming up and going over the songs in the dressing room before the show. It was just so loud. I said, ‘David, how are you able to sing like that still?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know. I’ve tried everything under the sun, but my voice just won’t die.’ It’s really incredible.

Do you think you two might write a song or two in the future?

Yeah, I would love that. We’ve sent some things back and forth to each other, and have tried to make time to collaborate. Hopefully, at some point, we can sit down, and write in the room together. I think that’s where we’d get the most work done because it’s kind of like playing chess over the phone. You’re sort of having to imagine what the other person has got in mind.

Getting back live albums, do you have any favorites? Or maybe some albums you thought about when you were assembling this record?

Yeah, I really liked Four Way Street by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. It’s loose, but loose in the right way. And obviously, the [1972] Donny Hathaway live album was a great one. That was one that Dave Cobb had in mind when we were working on the mixing for this record. I was actually able to talk to Willie Weeks, who played bass on that, while we were mixing this album. We played a show with Boz Scaggs, and Willie Weeks was in Boz’s band. I told him about that. He was really happy to hear it.

Those are both excellent records.

On that Donny Hathaway album, you can hear the audience. It sounds like they’re really part of the show. And I think that was something we were trying to do when we mixed this record. You know, because a live album should exist as a different type of document than a studio record. It should have imperfections, I think. And it should really capture more of the energy of a live performance.

You’re about to play another six shows at the Ryman coming up. Are you thinking about turning this into an annual sort of thing?

Yeah, we’ll probably try to keep it going annually. I don’t know that I would expand it more than six shows, unless we took some more days off. Because six with one day off in the middle is about all that I can handle. But it’s a lot of fun, and it’s a beautiful room. I think we will try to do this for a good long while.

How do you pick the opening acts?

This year we wanted to go with different types of artists who all had Nashville in common. So, we picked some people who either lived around here, or they were based around here. But we wanted music that didn’t sound a whole lot like our set would. And I think we achieved that. I love Bully, and Jeff the Brotherhood, Diarrhea Planet. They’re all really great rock bands. And it’s loud, and it’s noisy. It’s gonna be an exciting thing, I think for the audience to see before we get up there and play a bunch of sad songs.

What’s next for you? Are you’re writing?

Yeah, you know, I am writing. I just kind of got started putting things together for another album. I don’t know how long it’s going to take me. But I just sort of started gathering my notes, and am trying to make songs out of some things. And I’m producing an album for Josh Ritter right now, that I think is gonna be really, really beautiful. He’s got a great set of songs, and we’re using my band, and recording in Nashville. We’re finishing that up in November. I’m not sure when that will be released. But it’s really, really good. And in the meantime, I think we’re gonna take a little vacation and try to relax.

Jason Isbell’s album Live From The Ryman is available on October 19 via Southeastern Records. You can pre-order your copy here.

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