Jason Isbell's got hope for the high road: "If you yell at people they’re going to stop listening"

Salon talks to singer-songwriter Jason Isbell about politics, poverty, religion, fake news & "The Nashville Sound"

Published June 12, 2017 7:00PM (EDT)

 (All Eyes Media)
(All Eyes Media)

“Sitting here, it looks like we could be a thousand miles away from anyone else,” Jason Isbell said as he sat on his porch in the countryside an hour by car outside Nashville, looking out at the glowing green of a Tennessee summer. “But at this point, we’re all so interconnected it’s kind of like we all live in one huge city. I don’t fight it, but I do sometimes feel uncomfortable in a world that’s so interconnected. I mean it took human beings a long time to get used to loneliness, but then the world got smaller and smaller. Just as soon as we got to the point where we were comfortable with being alone, they shoved us all together again.”

This was a normal enough phone conversation with the acclaimed singer-songwriter: profound enough to encapsulate the whole of human history, personal enough to reveal his own vulnerability. Always on display with Isbell is a keen intelligence spoken with the drawl of his upbringing in north Alabama, a couple of miles from the Tennessee line.

Isbell was talking to me just before the much-anticipated release of his newest album, "The Nashville Sound," which may be his most confident and complex recording yet. According to his label, “If 'Southeastern' (2013) was the Getting Sober record and 'Something More Than Free' (2015) was the New Clarity record, maybe 'The Nashville Sound' is the Way Forward.”

"Southeastern," of course, was the album that took Isbell — already a respected musician and a former member of the celebrated alt-country band the Drive-By Truckers — to new heights. "Southeastern" was Isbell’s fourth solo album and it received praise from Bruce Springsteen and John Prine, was named the No. 1 album of 2013 by NPR’s Ken Tucker, and swept the 2014 Americana Music Awards, garnering prizes for album of the year, artist of the year and song of the year (for the record’s opening track, “Cover Me Up.”) The follow-up, "Something More Than Free," made headlines not just for its precise beauty but also since it did the unthinkable for an Americana record: simultaneously taking the No. 1 spots on the country, folk and rock Billboard charts. It also won two Grammy awards and secured Isbell’s place as one of the major singer-songwriters working today.

"The Nashville Sound" then has an eager fan base waiting and it won’t be disappointed. The album contains some of Isbell’s best songs yet.

One of them, “If We Were Vampires,” has already lit up the internet with its heartbreaking look at the limits of true love imposed by immortality. NPR, Rolling Stone, Stereogum and many other outlets have given it rave reviews. A sort of companion to “Cover Me Up,” “If We Were Vampires” matches the earlier song’s themes of the intrusion of the real world on soul mates, but with more heartbreak in lines like “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever/ likely one of us will have to spend some days alone/ maybe we’ll get forty years together/ but one day I’ll be/ one day you’ll be gone” and the perfect, understated harmony provided by his wife, singer-songwriter-fiddler Amanda Shires.

Because of the driving electric of early releases like “Cumberland Gap” and “Hope the High Road,” many fans are expecting a rock album from "The Nashville Sound," but it’s more of a solid Americana record with a couple rocking songs. Mostly it continues the nuanced and efficient songwriting that has made his last two albums such critical and commercial successes There is nostalgia for his rural upbringing, a hard look at anxiety, calls to be more conscious, first-person narratives that are as complex as well-structured short stories and, perhaps best of all for this moment, meditations on hope.

In many ways, "The Nashville Sound" is the album that so many of us need right now, offering insights and advice to a nation — and a world — that has changed drastically over the last couple of years with its lack of decorum and civil discourse, a reliance on technology while the natural world is negated by climate change deniers and iPhone addictions. The record rocks, but it also pleads with the listener to become more involved, to look to the past to help center us, and more than anything, to remain optimistic and compassionate. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds us that in hard times, great music is the balm.

On an unseasonably cool afternoon, Isbell spoke to me at length about everything from religious fundamentalism to the election, from the songwriting process to his belief that millennials may save us all — and about his remarkable new album.

How did it impact you to be around your grandparents and older people so much as a child?

They weren’t just the older generation; they were really sort of from a different time. They cooked on a woodstove, built their own house — my grandfather, my dad and my uncle built it when my dad was a teenager. They really lived in a different time. My grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher and there was nothing really modern that went on under their roof. We watched television but they were very picky about what we could watch — old Westerns and stuff that wasn’t vulgar or violent at all. They were musicians, not by trade but by hobby. My grandfather taught me how to play; my uncle spent a lot of time with me, teaching me how to play. So yeah, it all had a big impact on me and who I am.

We were both raised Pentecostal. How did that shape you?

It wasn’t as severe as it could’ve been because my parents didn’t go too regularly. They’d go on holidays and occasionally; they weren’t in there three times a week like a lot of people.

But growing up in an area where organized religion was such a huge part of life, that wound up being an undercurrent of the person I have become — in some good ways but also in a lot of things I’ve struggled with. I mean, there’s so much guilt and shame just for being in the world in the first place. That’s part of the doctrine, part of the dogma: If you start out as a sinner, you’re kind of always working backwards from there so it’s hard to feel comfortable in the world in that way.

Some parts of it are hard to overcome, but in retrospect there were positives, too.  

Everybody needs a story to tell and that’s a hell of a story. And you look at it like what would I be as a writer without that particular perspective? It’s an interesting way to grow up. Every culture has their version of that; there are so many different religions and they’re all taken seriously by who’s practicing them. So I think it informs the human experience; if you can get over all the different ways that fucks you up, you can use that to your benefit.

You always have something to write about, and you have these biblical references, which is basically like a collection of things we all have in common. When we’re raised in this fundamentalist Christian background, we have points of reference. If I say “Job” to you, you know exactly what I’m talking about. We have shortcuts, all of us people who grew up this way. We can use those to articulate very specific emotions.

Your childhood memories show up sometimes on the album. So let’s get to that. I can project all kinds of things I think this record is about, but what’s it about to you?

I try to stay away from themes. I think over the course of the last 20 years of writing songs and making records, I have learned that the process of trying to figure out what my album is about is better suited to critics and listeners than to me. I can tell you about individual songs, but if I sit here and tell you the themes, I think that undermines the whole process. I shouldn’t even know all of the themes.

That’s the beauty of making an album. I shouldn’t even know what this album is about; it’s perfectly alright for this to be about what’s not in my conscious mind and for the listener to not know exactly what I think it’s about. But it is possible to get it horribly wrong, like when people are using “Born in the U.S.A.” as a rabble-rousing patriotic anthem. I mean they’re missing the ball. If I spend time at the front of the process worrying about connecting themes, then I won’t write the best songs.

You write songs like a short-story writer or a novelist, using a lot of great literary devices.

The more you read the better you are at writing no matter what you’re writing. A lot of songwriters miss that and don’t see the connection there, and I’ve always felt like you’re more able to communicate if you have a bigger toolbox to work with. But they’re only literary elements insofar in that we can apply language to discuss them. When you’re reading a novel you don’t feel like she’s using imagery or perspective to make you feel a certain way. You just recognize it as something that moves the story. What we might call "literary elements" are really just the way we communicate with each other. Good storytellers use them all the time. I grew up around a lot of them, so that helped. And you sharpen those tools the more you read.

A lot of writers say they walk through the world with heightened senses. Do you?

That’s my job as much as anything else is — to pay attention, to stay vigilant when it comes to that. On a good day I feel like my senses are heightened. You have to make sure you’re not numbing yourself, you’re not dulling yourself as you get older and things get harder, physically and emotionally, so you stop paying attention to what’s going on around you. If you’re going to write, you’re going to have to force yourself to really study the world.

The opening track onThe Nashville Sound, “Last of My Kind,” is a good example of this, where the narrator is noticing so much.

That song is not necessarily a first-person, personal account. I’m not the narrator, although some of me is in there. There’s more of me in that narrator 20 years ago when I first started seeing the world. It can be frightening — going out into the world; you feel the bridge is burning behind you and you can’t go back home again. I think that’s a story that’s important, the way we have to go into the future but also look back.

I’d say that having a child ups the ante of what we notice, too.

Oh yeah, it gives you a new perspective. We take a lot for granted about learning things. We pick up a box and start opening it and that’s it, but for her she has to figure it all out, where her hand goes, where it sits on the floor, that it’s a container. So watching her learn in these baby steps is really interesting to me because it reminds me that we had to all learn from scratch. I like watching that. Let’s face it: Everything that I am talking about, every story that you can tell in a song — it’s all been told a thousand times before. So if you can just find perspective, that’s the key. That’s the only thing we have an infinite supply of, perspective.

In “Cumberland Gap” you get at the complicated reasons people find themselves in poverty or addiction, how those things aren’t just cut-and-dry things people choose.

I feel like that’s something that’s not explored enough. To be really compassionate, you have to look at cause and effect in a way that is deeper than the surface. It’s like when people say, “If you don’t like it, then just move.” To me that shows a big willful ignorance to what somebody else is experiencing in life. What’s a choice for you may not be a choice for someone else. There’s a lot of doors open for me as a white man that aren’t open for a lot of other people, like my wife or minorities, and it’s really obvious on an economic level. There are choices for me that aren’t choices for someone making $18,000 a year and sure as hell not choices for those who are making less than that. If I lived somewhere that isn’t beautiful or safe, I could move but some people don’t have that option.

And in that three-minute song you’re getting at all those complications in a way that some 300-page books about Appalachia or the white working class aren’t able to do.

There is so much rhetoric from our representatives about coal country and it’s obvious that those jobs aren’t coming back. If you retrain people in those areas, it’s going to take a lot of time and infrastructure, which doesn’t seem to be of interest to the politicians. That’s the underlying cause of the things the character in the song is dealing with. The choices he does have are that he can cash his check and get drunk from that money, he can leave town or stay there with his mother. He has some limited control. But the socioeconomic situation he’s been put into . . . it’s simply not one that gives people a lot of choices. I feel like a lot of folks are being lied to.

Here’s a couple lines in “Cumberland Gap” you just alluded to: “I thought about moving away/ but what would my mama say?/ She’s all that I have left/ and I’m with her every day.” It’s moments like these in your songwriting that get at that complexity I mentioned. And it’s that nuance that’s so often missing right now in a time when Southerners and rural people are being discussed so much in regards to the election and such.

Yeah, that troubles me, but it also gives me a story to tell. That’s the thing; things like that could bother me but they reaffirm my belief that I have found my calling. So when I take the time to describe a more nuanced portrayal of Southern or rural people, I feel like I’m doing my job. I think this mass media culture is going to take every possibility for exploitation, and in doing so everything becomes disposable. It gives us a reason to write these stories or songs.

We sure have plenty of reasons these days.

We’re living in an “American Idol” sort of culture. I mean imagine that Tom Waits was on “American Idol.” He’d be on the episode where they make fun of everybody. It would be a joke for them; they wouldn’t give him a chance in hell and then they’d move on. He’d be disposed of. Think of what we’d be missing out on if he came along now and took that route. The story is not what you can throw away; the story is in reforesting culturally, trying to paint a picture of people that doesn’t at the same time destroy them, that doesn’t make them feel like they’re living wrong.

The album’s not even out yet and people are already referring to “If We Were Vampires” as a classic. When you get a song that good, do you know right away that it’s a special one?

I did with that song. I certainly did — in large part because it was hard for me to sing it without choking up a little bit. You can hear that sometimes on the recording. There are moments on there where I’m struggling [to not cry]. I’ve written a lot of songs but the thing that serves me best is my taste, I think. The fact that I’ve studied a lot of songs — that helps. So when I stumble up on one that expresses exactly what I want it to say while also having a solid structure, that’s when I know it’s special.

How do you write a song like “White Man’s World” without letting the issue take over and become too didactic?

You just have to stay as personal with it as possible. You have to be more concerned with the narrative and your own story and how you see the world rather than how you feel other people should see the world. If you yell at people they’re going to stop listening to you. So in that song I’m trying to figure out my own role. In a society where I’ve been given so much access, what do I do to do my job correctly?

I think a big part of that is to try to consistently re-evaluate what my role is as a white male and try to figure out how I can make the playing field a little bit more equal. It is sort of a tightrope because a lot of people say if you’re a representative of the oppressor then you’re not the best person to talk about the oppression. People say Springsteen is too rich to write about working people but good songs are about empathy, compassion. I don’t think they always have to come from the mouth of the person who is being oppressed.

The idea of consciousness shows up a lot on the album. Do you think the election has had a positive impact in that it’s made people more conscious?

There’s gonna be positives and negatives to everything. I personally think the negatives outweigh the positives on this. It’d be easy for me to say, “Well it’s got people talking about it, out in the streets, motivated.” But the thing is that I’m not one of the people who’s being severely fucked over — a woman or a minority. For me, as a white man, barring some kind of terrorist incident, people like me are going to be fine as long as we don’t all get blown up.

So I can’t look at it from my perspective and say because this is motivating people it’s a good thing. I have to say there are people who are trying to be more equal and they’re being denied that. And I have to be conscious of that. We’ve been making progress for years. It’s like we’ve been climbing a ladder and we’ve fallen a few rungs. I don’t think we’ve fallen all the way, but we have fallen.

You do a great job of articulating the feeling of anxiety in one of the more rocking songs, “Anxiety.”  

Mine isn’t clinical diagnosable anxiety. I have day-to-day worry. I have probably too much of that, more than is probably healthy — most likely because of where and how I grew up. But I don’t have crippling anxiety or panic attacks. That’s the only song on the album I didn’t write by myself. I went to my wife for help with that one, and she co-wrote it with me because she knows more about this particular kind of anxiety than I do.

I wanted it to be about more than just typical run-of-the-mill anxieties like I have. I get to make music for a living. I have a great family. I don’t have a lot to be upset about. But I still have a hard time enjoying all of this all the time. It’s a constant effort for me to allow it all to be OK. I don’t know if that’s how I grew up or if I spend a lot time thinking about other people and their issues or what. But it’s something I work on all the time.

I don’t know if this is what you were thinking but “Hope the High Road” pretty much captures the way I and many people felt in the months after Trump was elected — the stages of grief, conjuring hope, trying to find positives.

That song definitely came about after the election. I was trying to find a way to deal with my emotions. It occurred to me that possibly the best way is to approach this with self-respect and human dignity. I think a big part of the problem is that we’ve gotten so caught up in the issue, so caught up in the fight between one type of American and another type of American that we forgot the rules of the game, the rules of civilized discourse. I feel bad that we elected a person who had no concern for civility or dignity or self-respect whatsoever.

A big part of the problem for me is that I can’t understand how we got to the point where we are throwing so many rocks that we elected the great rock thrower of all time — someone who has no decorum. He’s not a statesman. He doesn’t have interest in being one. How could we put someone like him in charge?

And the rules of the game have gone out the window as we’ve gotten more wrapped up in the combat, the aggression, the battle itself. I think the best thing we could do at this point is try to restore civility, try to go back to the point where we’re debating rather than yelling at each other. Everybody’s point gets swallowed up by the din that’s created when we’re all talking at the same time. No progress gets made. Part of the beauty of the American experiment is that we were able to have this civilized discourse. And once that’s gone, it’s so hard to get it back.

The frightening thing to me is that he’s not the problem; the culture is the problem.

He’s the sneeze not the disease. We have a cold and he’s the runny nose of it all.

So what do we do now?

Well, the American experiment wasn’t perfect but the one thing we did well was to argue with each other and come to an agreement. And we need to try our best to get back to that point. First we have to learn how to argue with each other again. We’re just yelling right now. It’s like the kid watching their parents, thinking, You guys aren’t going to get anywhere fighting; you have to go back to arguing like adults.

I wonder if we’ll ever be able to go back, due to the way the internet and social media has changed it all.

Yeah, it’s tough; it’s tough, man. What I’m hoping is that as younger people take over, they’re more savvy with these things. I don’t want to point the finger at old folks but a lot of people who didn’t grow up with social media have a harder time recognizing what is valid as far as information on Facebook, for example. I think that’s caused a lot of fake news. That term has been diluted now to the point of it really being kind of meaningless.

But it started out as a reference to things that older folks saw on Facebook and they took those things at face value without realizing there was no refereeing going on. They thought they were actual news stories. I’ve got an 18-year-old cousin who doesn’t fall for that shit. She never has and she never will. The whole of her sentient being has happened when there was Facebook or Myspace or some equivalent, so she knows how to recognize things like that. I think her generation does a better job of seeing that stuff clearly. Eventually I think we’ll get to the point where the majority of social-media users can recognize what is bullshit.

Do you think the birth of your daughter is one reason this album has such a hopeful and positive tone in some of its songs, especially “Something to Love” and “Hope the High Road?”

Probably so. I didn’t set out to do it that way but in the process of writing things that were close to my heart I probably wrote more positive songs than I have in the past because there’s a meaning now, there’s a reason for all of this for me. Before she came along, it was kind of hard to see the whole point in life for me. Having a child gave my life an ultimate purpose I hadn’t had before. And there’s really nothing more hopeful than that, having a reason to exist.

It also gave me new things to write about. Music has always been my way to listen. It’s given me a way to support myself, and it has given me a whole lot of free therapy. I hope that my daughter has something she can depend on in that way. I wrote “Something to Love” about that and it turned out very hopeful. That hope just accidentally found its way into my brain when she came along.

By Silas House

Silas House is the nationally bestselling author of six novels. His latest, "Southernmost," will be released in paperback on June 4.

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