Jason Isbell: Truth and Consequences
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Sadler Vaden, Chad Gamble, Jimbo Hart, Isbell, Derry deBorja (photo: Danny Clinch)
Veracity is the byword for Jason Isbell.
His many forms of artistic expression share a unified field theory predicated on authenticity.
“You need to have your belief system and your opinions firmly implanted in your brain. If you don’t, you will trip yourself up,” Isbell offers. “You have to really trust your instincts.”
In this particular instance, he’s describing his renowned affinity for delivering bon mots and incisive commentary via Twitter, but it also applies more broadly to the way he engages any pursuit.
“People get into trouble when they wade in and they’re kind of wishy-washy,” Isbell continues. “They don’t know exactly how they feel about certain issues, but they want to make some kind of comment just to join the community. It works well for me because I am so opinionated about so many different things and I’m pretty married to those opinions. I know that about myself; although that’s not always the best characteristic.”
Isbell is not only married to his opinions, he’s also married to an opinionated artist in her own right.
His relationship with Amanda Shires—who is also a recurring creative collaborator, even as she maintains her own musical career—comes to the fore in the new documentary Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed. Sam Jones (I Am Trying to Break Your Heart) directed the film, which explores the challenges that Isbell faced while creating 2020’s Reunions album, which was released during the peak of the pandemic. The narrative also interweaves Isbell’s early life with two teenage parents, his stint with Drive-By Truckers, struggles with addiction and the way he has reoriented himself following his recovery—making a life with Shires and their daughter while drawing on all these experience for his affecting, evocative songcraft.
Isbell continues to present his personal outlook on human feats and foibles with his exhilarating new album Weathervanes. He self-produced the record, which once again features his longtime band the 400 Unit—keyboardist Derry deBorja, drummer Chad Gamble, bassist Jimbo Hart and guitarist Sadler Vaden.
Many of the songs on Weathervanes originated while Isbell was in the midst of telling someone else’s story. He appears in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of journalist David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, which examines the death of numerous Osage people after oil is discovered beneath their Oklahoma land. A month after Running With Our Eyes Closed debuted on HBO Max, Killers of the Flower Moon premiered at Cannes, where it received a nine-minute standing ovation. Isbell studied assiduously for his role and has been singled out for acclaim in the initial reviews.
The musician will return to his traditional performance setting this summer, touring in support of Weathervanes. June also marks a decade since the release of Isbell’s breakthrough album, Southeastern, and he notes, “Since it’s been 10 years since that record came out, we’re putting more of the Southeastern songs back in the sets. We’ve also been working on the new songs during soundcheck, so we’ve got a lot of albums to choose from. It’s been a lot of fun making setlists these days.”
Not to be glib about this, but did you learn anything after you saw Running With Our Eyes Closed for the first time?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if I learned anything from watching it that I didn’t learn from the process of making it. I have a good memory. I knew what was going to happen. I learned that if you want to have a happy ending in a documentary, you have to actually do it.
I also learned how to operate a movie camera in the process of making the damn thing because of the pandemic.
For me, one of the big things that I noticed watching the movie was the fact that if you survive a particularly difficult period in your life, you don’t tend to carry that around with you— the emotional impact of it. You sort of set it down and you go on about your business.
To look back at all these things laid out in a narrative form like that, really did remind me just how hard things had been at some point. I don’t know if obstacles or challenges are the right words because a lot of those things I did to myself. I guess what I’m trying to say is it could have gone a lot differently. I think that being reminded of that in the way that the documentary did, for me, was a very good thing. It made me even more grateful for what I have and the people that I have around me.
Sam Jones’ I Am Trying to Break Your Heart is a remarkable film but one that doesn’t shy away from conflict and candor. Did that give you pause when it came to thinking about working with him on this one?
No, because the initial idea was just to go watch us make a record and document it. The only issues with that are having so many people in the room. Sometimes that can get a little bit irritating but it wasn’t a big deal.
I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know that there was going to be turmoil and I didn’t know that the documentary was going to open itself up into being about my whole life and my wife and the people around me.
The work that I do, the thing that I am trying to convey, is a form of honesty. So as hard as it can be to live that and put that on the screen for people to judge, that’s what I signed up for. If I’m going to be honest in my music and claim that’s the secret to my salvation, then I feel like I have to be that way in just about everything that I do. In recovery, they call it rigorous honesty. I think that both of those words are important.
Prior to recovery, was that a defining aspect of your songwriting?
That was something I was drawn to as a songwriter from the beginning. It was the way I always wanted to do things. I always felt like the only way to make the audience feel like they’re being let in on some sort of a secret, the only way to make them feel like you know something about them that you shouldn’t know, is to be honest with the emotions in your work. That’s how I started out writing songs and it lined up well with the way the story wound up going for me.
When did you begin writing songs?
I was probably 11 or 12 years old. I would take old blues songs and rewrite the lyrics. I remember my parents hearing me in the car and being impressed, which was nice. They didn’t think I could see how they looked at each other.
They were also impressed by my musicianship because neither of my parents played, although most everybody else in the family did. I took to it right away, and it was a huge part of my life. I spent a whole lot of time playing the guitar, and eventually writing songs. I think my folks were always kind of shocked by how quickly it developed. It’s what I wanted to do all the time.
How long did it take you to write a song that you felt had some artistry to it and might resonate with larger audiences in a meaningful way?
I wrote hundreds and hundreds of songs and none of them were any good. Then I was in the Drive-By Truckers and I wrote “Outfit” and “Decoration Day” and they were good.
The first ones I wrote that anybody noticed were when I was working at a restaurant in Memphis. One of the other waiters there had a gig at a bar downtown called The Map Room. He asked me if I wanted to open for him, and I said, “Yeah” because we had talked about being musicians. Then he said, “Well, you have to play all original material.” I said, “No problem. I’ve got that.”
But I did not have any original songs that I wanted to play for people.
So I went back to my room after work, stayed up all night and wrote 30 minutes worth of songs. I was drinking Gatorade and Everclear mixed together, and I was flipping back and forth between pages in my notebook. I would work on one, and then I would flip it over and think of something for another one. The next night, I got up and performed that material. Those were the first of my songs that anybody heard.
When I got back home to Alabama that summer, I demoed those songs with a band that I was playing in with a bunch of my friends. We took them to Fame Studios to try to get them to record our band, but what they wanted were those songs. So they signed me to a publishing deal based on that 30 minutes of music.
How old were you at that point?
I got the publishing thing finalized just a few months before I joined the Truckers. So I was probably 21.
In the film, Patterson [Hood] describes the moment when he suddenly realizes the band needs a guitarist and he taps you for a series of shows. How familiar were you with that music?
I knew the songs as a listener would know the songs. There were a couple of them that I had played with Patterson—just the two of us—but for the most part, I did not know the songs.
I had a Discman and I listened to them on the way to Oklahoma in the van. I learned them that way, which to a non-musician sounds like magic, but it’s really not. Those songs are three, maybe four chords at the most, like my songs are now. So most professional-level musicians could have done that easily.
Sticking with the documentary, there’s a moment after the lockdown when you’re at home and announce, “I’m an egg-counter now.” You say it almost as a throwaway line, but I think it reflects something pretty deep that people were experiencing in that moment. A lot of folks became egg-counters.
I think you’re right. I mean, some days, I felt like a retired dentist because I had all those wonderful guitars. I thought, “Oh, no, now I’m one of the blues lawyers who drove up the prices of vintage instruments so musicians couldn’t afford them.” That’s because I had nothing to do but hang out with my family, eat, sleep try to get some exercise and sit around and play the guitar all day.
I was super lucky because I had all the guitars that I dreamed about when I was a kid. One day, that occurred to me. I was like, “I am not going to be miserable about having all this time to sit around and play my 1959 Les Paul. What kind of an asshole would I be if I just let that drive me crazy?” I didn’t have financial concerns like most people had. I didn’t have health concerns like most people had. So at some point, I just decided to stop being such a baby about it and enjoy it.
When that happened, my playing developed. It’s not the typical thing for someone in his 40s who’s been playing since he’s a child to go through a period of rapid growth as a musician. But I think that happened once I told myself: “Stop being a big baby and just play the guitar all day. That’s why you’re on Earth in the first place.”
To what extent is performing live in front of an audience entwined with the way you define your creative mission?
I see it as two different jobs. I think that the creating of the songs and the recording of the songs feels like one job. Then going out and playing them feels like another job.
I probably don’t get the emotional creative charge out of performing live that I get out of writing a song. It’s not on the same sort of level. But I’m not enjoying my life if I’m not able to go out and play songs live. So that is equally valuable.
I did some pretty serious thinking about exactly what details of that are necessary. I’m very grateful for the audience. They make it possible for us to play good rooms, have good gear, hear ourselves and continue on this path. But the thing that I really love the most is being onstage with the band, playing these songs. The thing that I get the biggest charge out of is challenging myself to perform better every night—singing “Cover Me Up” better than I did last night or earlier on this tour. We’re learning some of the new material in soundcheck as we go and seeing how quickly we can get to a spot where we’re comfortable.
We’re pitching rather than throwing. We’re not thinking about playing the songs; we’re thinking about delivering the message of the songs. Those challenges are rewarding for me and I get a great deal out of it, but it’s a different job.
Artistically, creatively, I might feel fulfilled if I just wrote songs and that’s it. My best friend from high school is a songwriter in Nashville. He’s written 15 or 16 hit songs and he hates to tour. He doesn’t have any desire to go out and play songs in front of people and travel all over the country. He just wants to write them and somebody else can sing them. That’s not quite how I am because I love traveling and performing, but I do understand it.
Jack White recently shared an acoustic version of “Death Wish” from the forthcoming album. Has a cover of one of your songs ever led you to discover something new about the song?
I like Jack’s cover of that song. I think it’s really cool. It makes the song sound more desperate than my version of the song, which is something that I appreciate. Before Jack did that, I hadn’t played that song acoustic yet. Then the next week, I had to go and do that song at some radio interviews. So I was like, “Well, I guess we’re playing the Jack White version of this song now.” [Laughs.]
I view what Jack did as an interpretation, where you should be able to feel the difference in perspective and delivery. I think when someone’s interpreting the song, there should be that change in perspective because even though the first person narrator is not necessarily the person who is singing the song, you still feel the difference in perspective and delivery. I really enjoy that.
But I don’t think I’ve ever learned anything about the songs. That’s because they’re so personal. I know exactly what I meant by every line in all of them. That’s always going to be what I meant, but I’m also not going to argue with people who interpret it a different way because I don’t want to ruin it for them.
On the subject of performing songs, Bob Weir once said to me: “The more able I am physically, the more those characters have to work with when they step through me. I’m not sure if I inhabit them or they inhabit me. It’s a give and take situation, I’m pretty sure. But the cool part is that after a while—when you get cozy with these characters, when you start to get intimate with these characters—is that they’ll start showing you another side of themselves.” How do you take all of that?
My initial thought is that sounds like he is very high. [Laughs.] But let me say that he’s a brilliant dude. I’ve worked in a studio with Bob before. I have a lot of respect for him. The older I get, the more I like the Grateful Dead, just like anybody else who’s ever lived. I wouldn’t expect him to give practical answers—that would suck if you interviewed Bob Weir and he was like, “Well, I just had one piece of paper so that’s why this song is so short.” No, you want him to be the best Bob Weir that he can be.
But thinking a little more about what he said, when I go through the process of getting more comfortable with singing these songs, I do learn how to deliver the lines in a more natural way. The emphasis stops being about how to breathe and starts being about how to deliver the message of the lyric. In that way, I understand how the characters could seem more comfortable expressing themselves through the song. So I guess I do understand what Bobby’s saying.
It makes sense on that level because if I go somewhere where we’re playing at altitude, for example, I have to pick new places to breathe. That makes it harder for me to deliver the lyric in the way that I want to deliver it. I attempt to write in a way that is very conversational. It’s hard to do that if you’re broken up by having to find new places to take a breath. The limitations of the human voice are very different from the limitations of a violin. They’re similar to a woodwind or a brasswind instrument, where you have to make shorter phrases.
At this point, if Bob reads this, he’s going to think I’m the one that’s very high. [Laughs.] But I think that the human voice is more akin to a woodwind instrument— that’s obvious, for clear reasons. I also think there’s something about those wind instruments that lend themselves to expressing the deeper emotions like the blues or jazz music because it’s closer to a human voice since you have to breathe.
There’s probably more of a natural delivery of the lines as I get more used to singing the songs. But my characters are all half and half—half is me and the other half is a big mix of people I know who I don’t necessarily want to identify.
But I love that about songs. You don’t have to delineate between fiction and nonfiction. Movies, books, everything else is categorized by this question: “Is this a documentary or not?” Or you’re asking, “Is this fiction or is this nonfiction?” But songs don’t work that way.
Can you recall the most surprising place you’ve heard your own music?
Two places come to mind. The first is American Idol because “Cover Me Up” has been on that show numerous times. That’s always a shocker.
I also remember one time I was watching Monday Night Football. They were showing a highlight reel when the Jets came back from halftime and they were playing “Never Gonna Change,” the Drive-By Truckers song that I wrote. That was a huge shock. It was the New York Jets highlight reel. I was like, “What the hell is going on? This is bizarre.” It was cool, but it definitely was unexpected.
Speaking of unexpected, how did you come to appear in Killers of the Flower Moon? Had you been interested in acting for a while?
I told my agent at William Morris that since we couldn’t tour and I didn’t know how long it would be before we could, if anybody was making a movie that I could audition for, I would like to do that.
I got the audition for that movie for a smaller part, and then I just kept working. I told Ellen, the casting director, that I was willing to put a lot of energy into it. I had read the book, and when I heard that it was possible for me to audition for the role, I went back and found everything I could possibly find on all of the people who were part of that story. I watched all of David’s Library of Congress readings and all of his Q&As and tried to get as much information as I possibly could.
I said to Ellen: “I’ve never been in a movie before so I don’t really know how to act, but I will work and take direction.” I think all that helped me to keep getting called back. Then, finally, I had a pretty significant role.
Is acting something you’ll continue to pursue?
What I want to do is help people tell stories like that because it is such an incredible story. But no, that job is not something that I want to do. Especially after seeing what that work is like, I prefer my job—it’s very fulfilling for me. It’s hard to make a movie, especially a movie on that scale with so many moving parts.
So I don’t want to be an actor, but if something comes across that’s a story I can help somebody tell, and it’s one that’s worth telling, then I would do what I could to help them.
You started writing the material that appears on Weatherwaves while you were on location. Did that setting drive the content of the songs in any manner, shape or form?
Being marooned in the middle of Oklahoma for three months put me in the headspace of a small town, which is where I grew up. For me, writing the types of songs that I do, that’s a really good thing. I think it found its way onto the record in a whole lot of instances. It reminded me of my childhood. It got me thinking about people that I grew up around. I also found myself noticing similarities between a lot of the people that I met in Oklahoma and the people that I’ve grown up with.
As you were thinking back on your childhood, was there a particular incident or concept that you struggled to write about for one reason or another?
“Cast Iron Skillet” was a hard one for me to write, especially the first half of that song about the two brothers that I grew up with, who wound up murdering somebody. That one took a lot of years because the topic is so heavy, and I was so personally connected to it.
Also, it was such a terrible thing that happened. I always wanted to talk about it, but I wanted to be respectful to the victim’s family and still try to paint a picture of what I saw in those boys when they were children, as opposed to what they became when they were a little bit older. It was really difficult and it took me 20 years, probably.
Does it ever give you pause when it comes to interjecting social or political ideas into your songs?
It definitely has. I have found that, nine times out of 10, the best approach is to go from your own personal experience with the issue. Like on “Save the World.” That was another difficult song to write because it’s about school shootings, but it’s not from the perspective of someone who has witnessed one or is in the middle of one. It’s about the perspective of somebody who is in a similar situation to the one that I’m in, where I am anxious and worried.
That perspective has served me well because it is writing what you know, being honest with your audience and writing from that trustworthy narrator perspective. It also gives you the opportunity to explore issues. The trick to that is you have to really care. If you want to write about something, you have to actually give a shit about it. If you don’t, it’s going to be obvious that you’re just trying to use it for some sort of fodder for your work. If you care about it, people will hear that in the song.
When you released “Cast Iron Skillet,” you accompanied it with a quote that said, “If we romanticize the past, we can’t really learn from it.” What are your thoughts on romanticizing the future, as a means to get us through the day?
I think romanticizing the future is great. That’s the goal. You want to look at the past as clearly as possible and look at the future with an extremely blurry iPhone camera so everything looks like a glamour shot.
That’s it, man. You remain as firmly rooted in the present as you possibly can, and you look at the past completely at face value and take it for exactly what it was, then look at the future with the broadest, widest hopes possible.
In between Reunions and Weathervanes, you released Georgia Blue. Did the process of getting inside all those song have any impact on your own subsequent songwriting? [Isbell fulfilled a promise he made on Twitter and recorded a charity album covering Georgia artists after Joe Biden won the state in the 2020 election.]
No, it didn’t because I’ve been inside those songs for a long time. I mean, it may have when I first heard those songs 1,000 times each, but that was long ago. The producing aspect of it did have an impact, though. I saw that I could pull it off without needing to prove anything and that my tastes were good enough to serve the songs in ways that seemed timely. That was important to me. Then, after I did it, I thought I could probably produce the next album. But that was a good way of testing it because you don’t know until you get in there how far down the rabbit hole you’re capable of going. At the end of the day, a producer’s job really is just deciding when something’s done. You don’t know if you have that ability unless you test it.
When you started writing the songs for this record, did your sense that you were going to produce it impact that process?
I think it did. I probably pictured the band playing these songs in a certain way as I was writing them. On the past records that we worked on with Dave [Cobb], we’d have a song where we did multiple versions in multiple styles. We’d have at least one or two where we played it loud and fast, and we also played it soft and slow. We recorded both of those and figured out which one was the best approach. That didn’t happen this time. I really had pretty concrete ideas going into the studio for all of these because those were playing in my head when I was writing them.
Running With Our Eyes Closed demonstrated that, at least during the making of Reunions, you didn’t come into the studio with demos. Was that particular to those sessions or your work with Dave Cobb?
I’ve always done it that way. It’s one of the many things that Dave and I have always agreed on. If you have good enough musicians and you can afford enough studio time, the best way to do it is just to spring the song on them and then record them. That way you have access to this moment where everybody in the band knows the song, but they’re not yet performing the song. They’re still creating it, which is where you want to capture it, more often than not.
If you send everybody demos, they’re going to learn and fall in love with things. So you’ll have twice as much work to do in the studio because you might have to convince them not only is that not the right thing for this song, but now we have to find something else that is. Whereas if you don’t do demos, you can skip the first half of that and go straight to creating.
When you’re writing or recording songs, how conscious are you of the way they might translate into the live setting?
I sometimes think about how it’s going to play live but usually that doesn’t come into consideration until I have the structure of the song. Then I’ll think, “How can we do this live?” And that will find its way into the production choices.
For that reason, this record wound up sounding a lot more like our live show than anything we’ve done in the past. I would get the structure of the song ready but not have it finished yet and think, “Well, how will this work in a live setting?” Then I’d go from there, production-wise.
So I think we have a louder record in many ways and a more rock-and-roll record, which is very much what our shows are. A lot of times, people will come see us after listening to the albums and be shocked that the show is as dynamic and as much of a rock show as it is.
When you were growing up, can you recall a band that you saw where something clicked in your head and you thought that you’d like to elicit that same sort of reaction from an audience?
I remember seeing a Radiohead show a long time ago and thinking how cool it was that so many similar people were in a room together. I wasn’t a child at that point—they didn’t come along until I was a teenager. But I remember thinking that the cultivating of so many like-minded people really appealed to me.
As far as delivering the show, I learned most of that from the Drive-By Truckers— how to pace and how to keep people’s interest and when to ignore all of that and just do what you want to do.
We just went and saw The Cure on our night off, and I was amazed at the confidence that they had. There were times when it seemed like Robert Smith didn’t even know the audience was there—in the most beautiful way— because there was zero pandering. It was just, “This is what we do; we’re glad y’all are here, but if you weren’t here, we would be doing the same exact thing.” It was a good reminder that you don’t have to be up there constantly worrying about keeping everybody’s attention. They’re there for a reason.
What I have found is that if I do a good job of keeping my own attention, then the audience will probably go there with me. I don’t want to play four slow songs in a row so I’m not going to expect them to want to hear four slow songs in a row.
Since you know your band so well, what opportunities presented themselves when you produced this record?
There’s a lot to be said for playing music with your friends. We never had open calls and we never did auditions. I appreciate career-side people and I have a lot of friends who do that very well. They’re wonderful people almost across the board because they kind of have to be. But with the band that I have, I’m lucky enough to have people that I’ve known for a long time.
I grew up with Jimbo and Chad, the rhythm section. We’ve known each other since we were kids. I met Derry and Sadler when they were in a previous band and we toured together. I’m fortunate because these are people that I would choose to spend time with even if we didn’t work together.
I think of them as individuals, but we have all developed musically at a similar pace. We’ve been playing these songs together for so long that even if we haven’t played a show in a few weeks, when we get back onstage together, it feels pretty tight and pretty warm.
With my production style on this record, I let them have a lot of fun. We spent a lot of time in the studio just enjoying playing these songs together and they had time to come up with parts.
Dave is brilliant and very quick. He comes up with great arrangements and great ideas on the spot, but he also has a whole lot going on, and he works with a lot of people. So he focuses on what is most important to him about the song, which is usually the lyric and the melody and what the singer is doing. That doesn’t always allow for everybody in the band to sit and tinker for a few hours and come up with a part. Some of that is because his instincts are so good that if he says, “Play this,” it usually is a very good idea. But we had the time where I could let them come to those ideas on their own, and for that reason, I think it was a really fun studio experience for all of us.
Is there a song that encapsulates what all of you can do together?
“Save the World” is definitely one of those because Derry spent a lot of time on those keyboard parts. We were trying to send the tempo clock from the analog synthesizer into Pro Tools, which is digital, and that was a huge pain in the ass and took hours. Then we finally figured out how to get the tempo of the oscillation on the synthesizer to match the tempo in Pro Tools.
We also spent a great deal of time working on the guitar parts and how they weave between each other. Then the outro on that was the first time Sadler and I had ever done a true twin guitar part. As long as we’d been working together, we had never sat down in the control room and figured out a harmony guitar lead, then just stood face to face and played it to the track. So I felt like everybody sort of got an opportunity to work and work the machines.
Swinging all the way back around to Running With Our Eyes Closed, the film explores themes of community and isolation. Coming out the other side of the pandemic, now that live performance has returned, do you think the role of music has changed in a meaningful way?
I don’t know about the role of it, but I do know that people appreciate it more. I can certainly see that firsthand. It’s pretty clear to me that after so much time not being able to get together and experience live music, the audience on a Wednesday night feels like how a Friday or Saturday night audience used to feel. That’s a beautiful thing and I’m very grateful for that.
I think it’s always been something that people needed, just to affirm the things that they believe and to affirm the idea that they’re not alone. That’s really the trick for me. I think the best songwriters are the ones who remind us of all the things that we have in common. When you experience that in a live setting and you see a large group of people celebrating that idea, I think it can go a long way towards helping you from an emotional standpoint.