How singer Jason Isbell got his act together in a mad and crazy world
Jason Isbell says he grapples with many problems but the one that beats him is Donald Trump. Photo: Getty
American songwriter Jason Isbell says he’d like some of the problems he’s writing about to be solved.
“That’s not usually how it happens though,” says Isbell in a soft Alabaman drawl down a long-distance line.
“I’ve heard John Prine say that when he wrote the song, Sam Stone, for example, he clearly expected the Vietnam War would come to an end pretty quickly and nobody would care about that song after about six or eight months.”
Isbell heard the song again only recently and says Prine is still surprised that it resonates with people over so many generations as it was a very particular-to-the-moment kind of story.
But sadly, Prine’s lyrics such as There’s a hole in daddy’s arm/where all the money goes remain relevant in a time when the United States is in the grip of an opioid and prescription-drug crisis.
They are also reflected in Isbell’s own lyrics, such as Different Days from his 2013 LP Southeastern, where he rhymes stripping Portland since the day you turned 16 with benzodiazepine.
“If you write a song that’s that strong, like John Prine’s songs almost always are, then you know, you’re gonna wind up talking about issues that people have for decades to come.
“And, yeah, the atmosphere and the divisions of today are not all that different [from the 1970s]. There’s something that’s definitely there, and there’s something depressing about that.”
Isbell understands that, like the 1970s, a lot of people feel the system doesn’t represent them, but this time they were ready for anything other than the system.
What he can’t understand is Donald Trump. The sexism and racism – a general disregard for anyone who’s not white and male.
White Man’s World off Isbell’s latest LP, The Nashville Sound, was written after the 2016 election and was his way of processing what was going on in his country.
Isbell has said he was at home with his young daughter when it all went down, and was trying to get to the root of his feelings without bringing shame into it.
The song is as close to a protest anthem as Isbell has come, something he has avoided in the past, and as a result he has found that some of his own songs have found different perspectives over time.
“A song like Dress Blues from my first solo album – an album not a whole lot of people heard compared to the work that I’ve done in the last few years – is resonating with a lot of people.”
Dress Blues is about a friend Isbell grew up with who joined the army, fought a war and didn’t make it back home.
“But that song, even while I’m making this statement that it’s somewhat anti-war, or at least anti that particular war, I still wind up hearing from people who are moved by it, who might not necessarily be moved by a more blatant protest anthem,” he says.
Isbell believes that if you’re telling a story and talking about things, it changes people’s ability to absorb it.
“The kind of music I’m interested in, it’s a requirement to know where it comes from,” he says, adding: “I’ve always been a student of songs first and foremost. I think you have to give people an example, basically that’s all I’m saying. If you’re trying to make a statement, it’s best to give an example.”
The example in White Man’s World is found in its closing stanza: I still have faith, but I don’t know why/maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.
Isbell’s songwriting is part of the continuum of the great Southern tradition of storytelling. Listening to Isbell can be like reading the late Mississippi author Larry Brown, who The New York Times book critic Dwight Garner said, “may make you want to drink beer while driving slowly and looking at the world, in the late-afternoon light, while listening to music in the front seat of a pickup truck”.
Like Brown, Isbell writes about the aching optimism of the rural poor – barflies, the struggling young mother with a baby on her hip, and addicts.
And like Brown, at his best he can deprive you of air and bring you to tears. Rock critic Steven Hyden dubbed Isbell’s Elephant the saddest damn song of the millennium.
Isbell’s own battles have been well documented. It is coming up six years since he got sober, after an addiction that called time on his stint with Georgian’s Southern rock outfit Drive-By Truckers and hastened the end of his first marriage.
His output since sober refutes F Scott Fitzgerald’s line that there are no second acts in American lives.
The Nashville Sound debuted at #4 on the US Billboard 200 chart, and also topped the US Country, US Folk and US Rock charts (as did its 2015 predecessor Something More Than Free). Both LPs also scored Isbell the Grammy for Best Americana Album.
But it is the work, not the trappings of success, that continues to drive Isbell. “I don’t think chasing money is a good thing, for anybody, as I don’t think money makes you happy – it doesn’t help you, it doesn’t motivate you in the right way. Money’s a shitty motivator.”
One thing that does motivate Isbell is an audience, and a chance to take his songs on the road.
“The thing that excites me the most about going out and doing a tour is the fact that I’ve six solo albums to choose from, so I can do seven or eight songs from the new record, and the rest of the songs can be kind of a bit of everything, so that’s really nice.”
Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, have been touring behind the new album for nearly a year. “It’s worked really, really well,” says Isbell. “One thing I like a lot about performing this live is there’s a lot of Jimbo’s (bassist Jimbo Hart) stuff on the record, there’s a lot of songs that are old-fashioned and louder than some of the stuff we’ve done in the past. That makes me feel that it’s easier to put together a set list.”
This at least solves one of Isbell’s problems.
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, with support from Deer Tick, plays in Melbourne tonight (March 24) and Sydney tomorrow night (March 25). Details can be found here.