Former Drive-By Truckers guitarist Jason Isbell fights against identity politics
“Heard enough of the white man’s blues/I’ve sang enough about myself,” Jason Isbell sings toward the end of The Nashville Sound (Southeastern/Thirty Tigers), his sixth album and third with his band the 400 Unit. The song is “Hope The High Road,” and it’s a rousing rocker about optimism in the face of pessimism from the former Drive-By Truckers guitarist. “Last year was a son of a bitch/For nearly everyone we know/But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch/I’ll meet you up here on the road.”
The song is self-referential; in a sense, it claims the album is moving on after previous songs about white privilege (“White Man’s World”), love and death (“If We Were Vampires”) and nervous paranoia (“Anxiety”). But Isbell bristles at the idea that any of the songs should be taken autobiographically.
“Why the fuck do people still think that every time you say ‘I’ or ‘me’ in a song, you’re talking about yourself?” he says. “It’s beyond me. I just don’t get it. I never saw songs that way. Maybe it’s because I was listening to people like John Prine. I was lucky enough to have parents who would play (Prine’s) ‘Angel From Montgomery’ for me when I was a little kid, and I’d think, ‘This guy’s not an old woman.’ Still, still, everybody thinks every single character in every single song is the guy who wrote it. None of us has that many stories to tell.”
Isbell, who is now sober and married to singer and fiddler (and 400 Unit bandmate) Amanda Shires, became a father between his last album and this one, and it’s hard not to see autobiographical details in the references to his wife and daughter in several songs. But Isbell notes that all the songs blend his own experience with character studies and, often, something about songwriting itself. “Hope The High Road” is an example: The song was well-received as a dose of rock ’n’ roll after two excellent but quieter albums, 2013’s Southeastern and 2015’s Something More Than Free. But Isbell did hear some backlash for its seemingly political point of view, much to his frustration.
“Some people took umbrage with the content,” he says. “They disagree with what I’m saying, that it’s a liberal, left-wing viewpoint. Whether it is or not, they use that to then say that the song is no good, and that drives me insane! Somebody who’s a brilliant songwriter could write a song about murdering somebody who doesn’t in any way deserve to be murdered, and if the rhymes were there and the melody was there and there was tension and release, I would say, ‘OK, that’s a beautiful song.’ I definitely disagree with that person’s idea that you should kill your neighbor, but, you know, the song is absolutely beautiful. Maybe sometime in the future I’ll do that. I’ll write a bunch of songs about some things I completely disagree with, across the board, but I’ll attempt to write the songs so well that they’re great songs. But the point of them is total bullshit.”
He laughs at the idea, and then talks about Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” as an example: “I shot a man in Reno/Just to watch him die.” Isbell ends up being almost dismissive about the content of the songs. The lyrics aren’t the only key to a good song, and they aren’t necessarily the central issue in Isbell’s craft as a songwriter, musician and artist.
“A lot of times, as an artist, as somebody who creates a story—and I know this is a concern of people who write fiction or poems or people who paint—but you don’t usually get asked the questions that you want to be asked by your audience,” he says. “You don’t usually get judged on the criteria that you want your audience to judge you on. And that can be maddening. People have been concerned about subject matter a lot, and they always have as long as I have been writing songs.”
Which raises the question, “What would you rather be asked, Jason?” And that makes him laugh.
“I didn’t necessarily mean by journalists. But that’s a good question, what would I like to be asked? I’ve never thought about that. Honestly, the questions I’d like to be asked are the questions nobody would be interested in the answers to, like gear questions. That’s what I’d rather talk about than what any of the songs are about. What pedals do this on that song—things that nobody outside of the nerdy guitar world wants to talk about. My point was this: What’s important to me is that art and craft of building the songs. I don’t think the subject matter is the be-all, end-all that sometimes it’s made out to be.”
Still, Isbell knows that his point of view may be contrary to some among the conservative-leaning establishment of corporate country radio.
“There are packaged ways people want their country singers to be, and there are packaged ways they want their hip-hop singers to be,” he says. “And honestly, that’s all that’s left, is country music and hip hop. Everything else has been commercialized until it’s gone.”
He does feel optimistic, though, when talking about fellow insurgent country artists such as Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves and Margo Price. Calling the album The Nashville Sound is a rallying cry, of sorts.
“I think the Nashville sound is ours to claim,” says Isbell. “I think what we’re doing, and what Sturgill’s doing, and what Chris Stapleton is doing—I think that’s changing what modern pop music really is.”