Jason Isbell on the Power of Live

Dean Budnick on July 22, 2020
Jason Isbell on the Power of Live

Photo credit: Erika Goldring

In this moment of social distancing and turmoil, many of us are yearning for the collective inspiration and joy that is unique to the concert experience. In a special Power of Live section that appears in our new issue, a number of singular voices chime in with their thoughts on the importance of in-person gatherings.

You can look back at previous Power of Live interviews with Trey Anastasio, Jon Batiste, Mickey Hart, Robert Mercurio and Bonnie Raitt.

No one had come to Jason Isbell and he was thrilled— or at least as he thrilled as he could be in that moment.

It was May 15, the official release date for his acclaimed new album, Reunions. As Isbell appeared onstage at Brooklyn Bowl Nashville, he smiled, waved to the empty room, then feigned a coy response to the thunderous applause he didn’t hear: “Oh, stop it.”

This may not have been what he had envisioned months earlier when he contemplated the rollout of his seventh studio record. But the world was now in a different place, due to COVID-19.

Thankfully, just four days earlier, Nashville had entered phase one of its reopening plan. That permitted the new venue, which shuttered just prior to its official launch, the opportunity to host the Music City-based artist and his wife/ bandmate Amanda Shires for a complete performance of Reunions, via a livestream on Isbell’s Facebook page and FANS.com.

What was it like walking out onto that brand-new stage in an empty venue?

I’ve played to empty venues before, so it wasn’t a new experience for me. [Laughs.] We had a lot of people watching on the stream. It was definitely strange, but it was the best that we could do right now. It felt really nice to play on an actual stage with monitors and microphones, not just on our property somewhere for a stream. So, it was a good thing. It felt like we were working again, albeit in a different way than we’re used to. But we adapt pretty quickly as musicians, and it’s hard to throw us off. I felt that, going into that performance, the best way that I could present myself was honestly. Just accepting that this is weird—that this is not what we’re used to— but that we’re going to make the best of it. It worked because Amanda and I went at it with that mindset.

You and Amanda shared some endearing banter as you acknowledged the context of the situation.

I think people watching us felt that. They don’t want to see your best approximation of what you were doing before the pandemic happened. With the songs that we make and the music that we make, honesty is very important. Being ourselves is also very important to us, so that was the best way of handling it. If we had gotten up there and pretended that nothing was wrong and nothing was different, then it would’ve seemed less genuine to people and they want us to be genuine.

One line that stood out for me was your wry observation: “This is a lot like all the CD release shows we did before Southeastern came out.”

 I’ve played in a completely empty room before, in State College, Pa., about 11 years ago or so. There was nobody there except the people working and the opening band, and we still played a full set. I drank a lot back then, so I just drank a whole bunch and played. Nowadays, I’d think, “What do I do here?” I don’t even know if I would play. But, back then, we were still getting free drinks so we just kept on going.

Amanda also pointed out various people who were watching the stream. They became a virtual audience when their feeds were projected onto the screens over the bowling lanes.

It was cool to see them. I like being able to see people excited and having a good time and being entertained. It was also weird and something that I’d never done before. But it felt good. I like doing new things and I enjoyed seeing people’s faces. People were happy that we were performing, so it was rewarding to see that.

Can you talk about your decision to release your new album at this particular moment, as opposed to postponing it, which some artists have decided to do?

It was a luxury for me to be able to put an album out and not have to tour behind it. I know that some people just can’t afford to do that; if you put a record out, you have to go on the road at that particular point in time. After writing it for more than a year, and then recording it and waiting a few months for everyone to get their ducks in a row, I would have been disappointed if I had to wait any longer. I try to make records in the moment. I try to document where I am personally when I’m writing an album. I don’t go back and pull out songs from 10 years ago. I mean, at least I haven’t had to do that yet. I try to reflect on the things that are important to me currently.

So, waiting would have made me feel disconnected from the album I made. People need music right now. I read something the other day that said people are listening to more new music right now than they have in the past—not more music in general, but just more things that they haven’t heard. So, for those reasons, I thought that if we could afford to put it out now, then we should just go ahead and do it.

You released Reunions a week early to independent record stores. Can you talk about that decision?

Record stores are suffering. Since more people shop online and listen to music digitally, it’s harder for independent record stores to stay afloat. I thought it might help if we put the record out a week early just for them. They’ve had a lot of problems getting products shipped, even before the pandemic happened. As it turned out, the only functioning lacquer plant in the U.S. burned down right after we got our lacquers pressed, so we were lucky enough to get our records done.

We sold close to 8,000 copies of our album on vinyl just through independent record stores, so that was a really good feeling. It’s not going to be enough to keep somebody from going under. But, if other artists start doing similar things or start thinking of other ways to help, then we might be able to keep some of these record stores going for a while.

The resumption of live music on a wide scale is still not imminent. Do you feel that, in its absence, people have a newfound appreciation for its role in their lives?

I can tell that people really miss going to shows and hearing bands play. That’s obvious to me just from going online and seeing people’s attitudes. When we are able to go out and do that again, it’s going to be celebratory. For me personally, I will be very grateful that I’m able to go back on stage and perform for people.

The thing that keeps me from going down the rabbit hole is thinking that there will be a whole lot of people who recommit themselves to music and participate in live music events. Hopefully, there will be people who care more about local record stores and about independent venues. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. Maybe people will realize that we need music—these venues and these record stores—just to be happy and to keep our level of joy at a good spot.