Music

A Long Conversation With Jason Isbell About Love, Politics, Jim Varney, And His Great New Album

On the covers of his last two albums, 2013’s Southeastern and 2015’s Something More Than Free, Jason Isbell is a man alone, a resolute figure in noir-ish black-and-white whose soulful stare expresses sorrow, pride, and gratitude for the here and now. In contrast, the cover of the forthcoming The Nashville Sound, due June 16, shows Isbell with his band, The 400 Unit, which includes his wife, the singer-songwriter Amanda Shires.

This shift from the solitary to the communal is reflective of the music on The Nashville Sound, which rocks harder than its relatively folky and introspective predecessors. But it’s also indicative of the record’s primary concerns — the value of family, the importance of the social fabric that binds strangers together into a kind of extended brotherhood, and how the rise of antipathy in our politics and culture threatens both of those sacred concepts. In times like these, Isbell seems to say, you can no longer afford to stand by yourself.

Isbell, 38, is probably the most respected artist currently working in the amorphous, ill-defined genre situated somewhere between rock and country known as Americana. He’s built that reputation over the course of the past 15 years — first as a member of the excellent southern-rock band Drive-By Truckers, and then as a solo artist beginning with 2007’s Sirens Of The Ditch. But Isbell’s stature has grown exponentially since Southeastern, one of the decade’s great rock records and a deeply moving song cycle informed by Isbell’s newfound sobriety and marriage to Shires. The focus and drive of Southeastern has carried over to Isbell’s subsequent work, elevating him to a new plateau in the hierarchy of contemporary singer-songwriters. With The Nashville Sound, Isbell affirms his place at the very top of that group.

As a lyricist, Isbell operates like a short-story writer, weaving evocative details gleaned from everyday life into snap-shot narratives set in dead-end towns and populated by the sort of forgotten middle-American nobodies that normally never wind up in songs. In the heavy-riffing “Cumberland Gap,” the first single from The Nashville Sound, a coal miner ends each day by going to a bar and thinking about the day that his job might finally kill him. In the wistful “Tupelo,” Isbell sings over a gentle pop-country melody about a man on the run from unspoken danger, who deludes himself into believing that a girl down south might redeem him.

But the heart of The Nashville Sound lies in the songs in which Isbell grapples with the fear of a family man who worries about losing all that he has. The unbearably poignant “If We Were Vampires,” in which Isbell rues the day when either he or Shires will die before the other, joins “Elephant” and “Children Of Children” in the recent ranks of Isbell’s most devastating tearjerkers. The stinging country-soul number “White Man’s World,” written shortly after the 2016 presidential election, angrily ponders the insanity of raising a daughter with Donald Trump in the White Office. (“I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation / Think the man upstairs must’ve took a vacation / I still have faith, but I don’t know why / Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”) In the startling “Anxiety,” Isbell even writes candidly about his own mental health. “Even with my lover sleeping close to me / I’m wide awake and I’m in pain,” he sings in the wrenching chorus.

No matter Isbell’s angst over the state of the world, he is undeniably in the midst of a career-defining groove, writing with uncommon thoughtfulness on a series of the very best albums he’s ever made. The Nashville Sound continues that hot streak.

The Nashville Sound feels to me like the last part of a trilogy with the last two records. Southeastern was the “I want to live” record. Something More Than Free was the “I’m happy to be alive” record. And this record is “I’m alive but now I have to protect my family” record. Does that ring true for you?

It sounds like you’re doing your job. [Laughs] I don’t look at it that way at all. I really just try to document my life with these songs, and spend as much time as I possibly can getting every word and every melody correct. I don’t have schematic ideas, but certainly there’s going to be threads like that that appear. Just like they do in the story of my life. Definitely what you describe, it’s sort of the way my life has gone, even though I’m still learning how to live. I haven’t got that quite down. I don’t know that I ever will.

It does seem like family is a thread that runs through a lot of the songs.

Because that is the biggest part of my life right now. As it was when I was a kid, when I first started writing songs. I’ve sort of returned to that, as far as my top priorities. My early songs were about my father, about my mom’s uncle and their family struggles. And then I went through a long period of time where I was primarily concerned with myself, and finding my footing in the world. And now I’m back to writing about my family again, only this time it’s my own family.

In “Anxiety,” which you co-wrote with your wife, you sing about being in a good place in your life and being unable to enjoy it, because you’re constantly worried about losing it all. I’m struck by the emotional nakedness of that song — there’s nothing allegorical about the words, they just directly talk about this very common fear. Why did you choose to write the the song that way?

So much of anxiety, or any of those off-shoots of fear, they deal in confusion. Once you strip away anything that might confuse you, you start seeing them for what they really are. You just strip it down to basically fear, whether it’s paranoia or anxiety or jealousy or any of those emotions that spring off of it. Once you realize, this is what I’m afraid of, and once you start speaking to yourself in plain language, then I find you have more success dealing with those things. So it just felt natural for that song.

I was driving the car, and I was thinking about fear and how it impacts my life, and that chorus just fell out fully formed. (“Anxiety, why am I never where I’m supposed to be? / Even with my lover sleeping close to me / I’m wide awake and I’m in pain.”) And I thought, “Man, that’s too good. That rhymes too well. I’ve got to be overlooking something.” But, sure enough, I wrote it down and read it back to myself, sang it a couple of times, and it was like, “That sounds like something that somebody would just say in normal conversation.” Had I gotten really floral, or started using a lot literary devices after that, I think it would have been a little bit jarring.

Have you always dealt with anxiety, or is that more of a recent thing for you?

No, I’ve always dealt with it. My family always called it nerves. My grandfather, my dad, real country people, they always said they had nerve trouble. What they were talking about was anxiety. I don’t have anxiety attacks or panic attacks, where I become non-verbal, or non-functional. I went to my wife to get more of a perspective on that, because I didn’t want to write a song about anxiety and only cover a day-to-day anxiety that’s not clinically diagnosed. So, I talked to her because she has more knowledge of anxiety as a medical condition.

I read an interview you did a few years ago where you talked about the importance of gratitude. “If you start feeling like you’ve earned it and stop being grateful, then you’ll start making mistakes,” you said. I wonder if that attitude is rooted in the anxiety you talk about that in that song. So long as you’re grateful, maybe you won’t lose what you have.

I come from a line of people who probably have felt fairly disenfranchised and under-represented, and not necessarily have had a whole lot of success, as far as raising a family or feeling comfortable in their old age. It’s sort of like the old adage: “If anybody gives you anything, they’re immediately going to snatch it right back.” Which was a joke. I think Jim Varney made that joke on a radio show. Jim Varney was hilarious. Outside of the Ernest movies, Jim Varney was a great guy. I bet you didn’t think you would be talking about Jim Varney.

I didn’t but I love it.

Some of the stuff he did that was not related to the movies is really, really funny. He had this one thing that he did — it was just kind of his hillbilly schtick — he said, “When you’re in my family, anybody gives you anything, you expect them to snatch it right back.” It’s kind of like that. The more I think about everything I have, a lot of it due to hard work, but a great deal of it is due to luck and just blind good fortune. I’m always going to be at least a little bit afraid that something terrible is going to happen. It’s just my nature. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to overcome it completely, but I think counting the good things in your life usually makes for a pretty damn good distraction.

One of the most beautiful songs on the album is “If We Were Vampires,” where you talk about how one day either you or your wife will likely die before the other. On your recent albums, you’ve gotten really good at writing romantic songs about marriage. Most love songs aren’t about that kind of love — they’re about intense infatuation or lust, not long-term commitment. Al Green is the best ever at that sort of relationship-based love song, “I’m Still In Love With You” being the ultimate example.

“Let’s Stay Together” does it, too.

Absolutely.

I love the part in “Let’s Stay Together” about how people break up and get back together, [and he says] let’s not do that. I just love that. Let’s avoid the part where we break up and get back together, and just get to the good part. I think that’s genius.

Is it harder to write that kind of love song? It’s not as intense or dramatic as songs about infatuation. It’s hard to distill what it means to be married to someone down to a four-minute song.

There’s so much more story there though. I always try to go for the things that haven’t been written about quite as much, because there’s no new territory. There’s a lot more of the story there for me, if I can approach it from a different angle. Plus, that’s just my experience.

I think the real question, for me, after all this time, is why are we getting worse at love? Why are we getting worse at keeping our families together, after all these years, and all these generations? I’m starting to think maybe that experiment was one that was meant to keep us alive when we needed it. Maybe we’re evolving out of that kind of thing. It’s always the very last of an era that the really good stories come out of. Maybe this is the end of all that. Maybe we’re not going know each other in that way anymore. Our relationships will be more passing. But I think there’s probably something very interesting about documenting the rare relationship that attempts to go the distance these days.

See, I think one reason so many relationships fail is that there are too many songs about how exciting it is to be infatuated with someone. There needs to be more propaganda for long-term relationships.

Everybody thinks that love is going to be fire from day one. If the fire ever starts to get any smaller, then something’s failing. If you read any modern philosophers on romance, [Alain] de Botten is the first person that comes to mind. I disagree with a lot of things that he says, but when he’s talking about romance, and the aging of a relationship, [he says] it’s really very natural for those things to change and evolve into completely different relationships than they were at the start. You start to think, maybe we don’t need each other to survive. Maybe we don’t have to farm together like we would have a hundred years ago. But still, there’s something that we can gain from being in this one relationship with this one person, even if it’s not always being shot out of a cannon or jumping out of an airplane everyday.

In 2015, I interviewed you about songwriting, and you talked about knowing when to enter a song in terms of the story. On the new record, there’s a song called “Tupelo,” in which there’s a guy in a car, drinking wine, and he’s going to see this girl. You get the sense that he’s running away from something, but the song never spells out what exactly. With a song like that, how much around the song have you written? Do you know what he’s running away from? Do you know how it’s going to turn out when he gets to where he’s going?

No, I really don’t. I think that it’s not going to go well. When you’re running away from anything, it’s usually going to catch up to you at some point. As far as coming up with the details before and after, I don’t have that, because I feel like if I needed it, the listener… I almost said the reader, which is just showing my hand. Sometimes a song is like a short story.

We don’t have to give the listeners everything. They’re not looking for that. Nobody wants more of the story. I’ve never heard anybody listen to a song and say, “I wish I knew what happened.” In songs, nobody cares. As a songwriter, I like to think they care about all those little details. I think some people do. I don’t think everybody does, or we’d have a bigger audience than we have. I really enjoy writing that way. I enjoy having rules and sticking to them. And one of those rules is, if I need a piece of information, I should feel like the audience needs it, too.

There was this house down the street from where I used to live in Sheffield, Alabama, and they had all this stuff out in the front yard, and it was for sale. Just piles and piles of junk. They never locked anything up. It was just all sitting out there. I was riding by there with my girlfriend at the time, and she said, “Why don’t you think anybody ever steals any of that stuff?” I said, “For the same reason nobody every buys it.” Nobody wants it. In that song, [the background information] is just stuff that winds up laying out in the yard — even if I did give it to everybody, they wouldn’t need it, they wouldn’t want it.

Politics exists at the periphery of The Nashville Sound. One of my favorite songs, “White Man’s World,” sounds like it was written around the time of the 2016 presidential election.

It was. My wife was on the road, and I was home with my daughter when that all went down. I was just very grateful that I didn’t have to explain that to her, because she was just a little over a year old. [The song] was written out of my anger and frustration. It was a way of me to process that. I was trying to get to the root of my feelings without bringing shame into it, because I don’t think shame does a whole lot of good. But I was trying to address what I see around me, and trying to make it clear that I see it, and that’s about the best that I could do with a song.

Also, I’m not going to lie: I was motivated by the image I have of my audience. There are very few artists, musicians, and entertainers, that have the type or demographic of an audience that I have. Somebody like Sturgill Simpson or Chris Stapleton has it. Margo Price has it and my wife has it. It’s an interesting group of people, because it’s people who listen to a lot of different types of music. I think, for the most part, they’re people who are pretty open-minded. There is an opportunity there, however small it might be, to get people to think things in a little bit of a different way. I don’t think that would be the situation if I was more of an indie musician, or if I was less of an indie musician. I think if I was more mainstream, I would have mainstream listeners. And if I was more indie, I would have those kind of listeners, and those folks seem to be fairly polarized, as far as what they’re willing to let enter their ears, and what they’re willing to let into their brains.

Do you feel like there are a lot of Trump voters in your audience?

I don’t think I have a lot of Trump voters in my audience. But you know what? I didn’t think there were going to be a lot of Trump voters at all. So, the hell do I know?

“Cumberland Gap” could be about a Trump voter. The guy in that song is a coal miner who feels like he’s been left behind in contemporary America.

Yeah, it could be. I was thinking some about how Trump kept promising, during his campaign, that he was going to bring coal back. And I’m wondering the whole time, how he’s going to make people stop buying natural gas? Or how is he going to drive the price of it up? Bush tried to do it, Obama tried to do it. Really, it ain’t never worked. You can’t price shift something that’s just spilling out into the desert faster than we can even build pipelines to get it into town. Natural gas is just so cheap, there’s no way people are just going to go back to using coal. That makes no sense. I think most coal miners, at least the kids and the grandkids of them, they probably realize that, too, but they’re just looking for somebody who gives a shit.

It’s kind of like the wall. I think most people who voted for Trump because of his immigration policies know that there’s not going to be a real wall. There was never going to be a real wall. But they think, well, maybe him talking like this means he’ll be tougher on immigration, and we’ll feel safer or something. I don’t know. I’m trying to understand these folks, because I thought I understood them before, and apparently I didn’t.

For the guy in “Cumberland Gap,” it’s clear his problems are bigger than just coal going away.

Of course, yeah.

There’s a deeper disillusionment with life that’s not going to go away with some quick political fix.

No, and a job’s not going to follow it either. He has a lot going on. Of course, he’s not even in the beginning stages of solving those problems. He’s just passing it off as, well, this is how people here live. This is what my life’s going to be like. This is where I am.

That also speaks, in certain ways, to how I grew up in Alabama. I felt like that. I felt that for a very brief time, but I know a lot of people who spend their whole lives feeling that way. Like, I live in this tiny town, and there’s nothing going on, no opportunity. And I have no way to get out, and this is going to be my life.

Toward the end of the record, there’s a song called “Hope The High Road” that’s sort of a companion to “White Man’s World.” It’s more hopeful. “I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well / Uninspired and likely mad as hell / but wherever you are I hope the high road leads you home again / to a world you want to live in.” It’s about finding a way to move on.

Yeah, positivity and dignity, you know? The sense of decorum that we’ve lost completely. Obviously that starts with the office of the president and trickles down, so to speak. My wife talks about how what she calls “the gas station situation” has gotten a lot worse. Assholes feel emboldened to act like assholes now, because we obviously are going through a period of rewarding that behavior. That dignity and decorum, and that idea of being a decent person, seems to have sort of slipped. It’s not gone by the way side completely. It seems like it’s just not quite as popular to be decent. That song deals with that. We can disagree, you can fucking try to start a revolution if you want to, but you have to do it with some decency.

The Nashville Sound is out 6/16 via Southeastern Records. Pre-order it here.

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