The pews of the Ryman were packed and humming, with a crowd that was above average, perhaps, in their musicological bent. It was the Americana Music Association’s annual awards ceremony last September, and one legend after another took the stage. Taj Mahal, Jackson Browne, and Flaco Jimenéz were on hand. Robert Plant and Patty Griffin sang a duet. Rosanne Cash performed. Ry Cooder, Buddy Miller, and the McCrary Sisters were in the house band. Loretta Lynn, on the fifty-fourth anniversary of her Grand Ole Opry debut, wore a long-sleeved purple gown. But if the night belonged to anyone, it belonged to Jason Isbell.
Song of the Year. Album of the Year. Artist of the Year. Riding his resurgent, sober Southeastern and its redemptive ballad “Cover Me Up,” Isbell took every category in which he was nominated.
A small Oxford American contingency was seated in the balcony, church left, and throughout the show, Isbell and his wife, Amanda Shires, would emerge from a side door nearby to watch the other performances. An usher kept shooing them back inside. I got the sense that they weren’t there for the spoils; they seemed excited to be invited. Later on, Isbell posted a backstage selfie with Robert Plant on Instagram.
But no one questioned the sweep. As Dwight Garner had written in a feature profile for the New York Times Magazine the year before, Southeastern “evokes powerful and intimate classics.” He compared it to Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love and Rosanne Cash’s Interiors and described Isbell’s fourth solo album as “prickly with loss, forgiveness, newfound sobriety and second chances.” It was a serious breakthrough for a serious artist, which, after the fanfare finally died down, naturally raised the question of how he could possibly follow it up.
Something More Than Free, Isbell’s answer, will be released next week on his own Southeastern Records. Tighter in production—Nashville slick to taste—and yet expansive in scope and theme, this is an album written not months into sobriety, but a couple years. Something More Than Free is episodic and narrative-driven, the kind of music that tempts the inevitable barfly analogy: these are stories you’d hear in a dive after last call’s come and gone and only the locals are left talking. Except these songs don’t feel like stories; they feel like people.
Each time I listen to the album I am drawn to a new song, for a different reason than the last time I heard it. The current case is “Speed Trap Town,” a quieter lament with lines that will make you bite your fist, or call up the cousin you haven’t talked to in a while. The first verse has been stalking me for weeks:
She said, “It’s none of my business, but it breaks my heart.”
I dropped a dozen cheap roses in my shopping cart.
Made it out to the truck without breaking down.
Everybody knows you in a speed trap town.
It’s a Thursday night, but there’s a high school game.
Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name.
These 5-A bastards run a shallow cross.
It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss.
I spoke with Isbell on a Saturday afternoon last month. He was on the road, headed to Aurora, Illinois. The night before, he and Shires—whom we interviewed in our Texas music issue last year—had cameo’d at John Prine’s show in Lexington. He answered my questions with a casual assurance, at ease talking music and books, the past or the future. Ask him what he’s doing differently, to explain the success, and he won’t give. Here is a writer seated at the rare crossroads of personal vision and professional return, having nothing short of a banner year. He and Shires are expecting their first child soon, and in October he’ll be back at the Ryman for an unprecedented four-night stand. Every show is sold out.
You have avowed your literary influences, and this new album, in a very literal way, is a collection of short stories. Where do your songs come from?
Just in general?
I mean, do you see yourself writing in the same vein as literature—this narrative, character-driven way?
Well it’s not like I’m doing anything new. The songs have been written that way for a long, long time. I read a lot, but I don’t have any illusions that my job is the same as that one. It’s a different discipline altogether. I have a very limited amount of time to tell a story, so it’s really important to pick the right details. There’re still some of the same rules—I feel it’s really important to build believable characters and to let those characters behave naturally. That’s rule number one for me, and probably is for a lot of people who write different kinds of fiction. I don’t always know where a song’s gonna end up when I’m starting it.
There’s a distinction that’s made often more times with writing than music, between fiction and nonfiction. Do you distinguish, in the writing process, between the memoir, first-person song and the straight-up character song? There are many shades of “I” in your voice, is what I’m saying.
One of the things I really like about writing songs is that they’re not classified that way. I don’t have to differentiate between what’s happening to me and what’s happening to somebody else. There’s no documentary songwriting style, so it’s easier, from my perspective, to blur those lines, and I really enjoy that about songwriting. And I think I’m always gonna find myself in those characters, and some songs are very personal and the story is something that comes directly from my own experience, but it’s never one hundred percent one way or the other.
So when you’re writing, for example, a song like “Flagship” versus a song like “Speed Trap Town,” those are coming from the same place and it’s not much of a code-switch?
No, and I think it’s obvious to the listener which one is me and which one isn’t. Usually I don’t have to try to make that obvious because there’s certain points in a song where if you’re writing from an untrustworthy narrator’s perspective you’ll deviate in ways that are pretty clear to the audience. It all starts in the same headspace, it all comes from the same place, it all winds up explaining something to me and hopefully communicating with folks. Whether it’s something that actually happens to me or not—I think that’s maybe the least important part of the equation.
It seems like you’ve written this album in a fairly condensed period of time.
Well compared to some people, you know. It’s all been written since Southeastern was done. Everybody’s different when it comes to the time it takes to work. Luckily, I have my own record label so I don’t really have anybody breathing down my neck to get a record out every eight or nine months. It’s nice to have that kind of time to work.
In our Texas music issue last year, Amanda talked about the experience of coming into her own, as an instrumentalist and as a songwriter. It seems that you’re in a pure vein with these last two records. Do you feel like you’ve come to a new understanding about yourself as a writer? From the outside perspective, it’s hard not to romanticize it that way.
It’s hard for me to adopt the outside perspective—I don’t spend too much time thinking about that. I’ve had a lot more time to work and my work has gotten better because of that. But I try not to steer myself in particular thematic directions. I try to write about whatever’s important to me at the time. Production-wise, when it comes to styles of music, I try to write what I enjoy and what I know I’m capable of doing. I’m probably not gonna make any hip-hop records, I’m not capable of doing that. I think the older I get, the more I know what I’m good at. Luckily, I’m in a place where what I’m good at is something that I enjoy doing. That’s not always the case—I see a lot of artists, especially young artists, who are really, really good at one thing and that doesn’t seem to be something they enjoy and you see their live show and it’s a mess because they’re good at singing country music and they’re trying to play something more progressive, or the other way around sometimes. I really enjoy making the kind of music that I make, so I don’t see that changing too drastically in the future.
And you’ve got a great band together and your audience is certainly not asking for anything different.
Yeah, they’ll follow us wherever we go I think. Probably because we took the time to build those audience members one at a time, and it wasn’t ever based on a whole lot of promotion or a whole lot of hype. The band—I mean, I’m really, really fortunate to have those folks and it’s a group that’s a lot closer than if we had hired guns or local hipsters playing on the records. I’m very fortunate to have people that I’ve known for a long time, musically and personally.
Your home base has never strayed too far from northern Alabama and from the South. Are these songs based on people you know? Are you still very close with your Alabama roots?
Well my family’s there and that’s very important to me and I try to stay close to those folks. I still have a lot of friends in that area, so I feel like I’m still connected to it. As far as material for the work, for writing songs, I feel like, to me it’s important to stay in touch with people who don’t have exactly the same life, that I have. That we don’t have the same schedule. People get up and go to work every day and don’t see a whole lot of reward from that other than the opportunity to keep getting up and going back to work. I think those people have a more interesting story in a lot of situations. Like Guy Clark did in a lot of his songs: it’s important to me to try to take people whose lives might seem commonplace and paint those people in a way that it makes it obvious to the listener that working class heroes exist, for lack of a better term. It really takes a lot of courage and a lot of discipline to go out and be an average, normal middle class American, more so than it takes to be a celebrity or a nomad.
Another thing that makes this new music so powerful is that it doesn’t feel like you’re writing about a bygone America. I think this genre—country/Americana music—can have a backward-looking tendency, romanticizing the past.
Yeah, I’m not all that interested in throwback music. You’re not gonna make Fifties rock & roll better than Chuck Berry did. You’re not gonna sing hillbilly music better than Hank Williams did. There’s nowhere else to go; those people cashed out. For me, for a new band to come up and dress like they’re from the Thirties and play a bunch of string band instruments—you have to challenge the creative levels that people got to seventy or eighty years ago and I just haven’t heard anybody do that yet. I think the best that we can do as songwriters is try to document and try to record something about the time that we’re living in. I’m still interested in a lot of the old ways when it comes to recording sound, just because I think a lot of ’em sound better. Some of ’em don’t. Sometimes I’ll record digitally—I’ll use proTools, things like that. If it sounds better to me, that’s what I’m gonna go with. Very often that’s analogue tape and old microphones. When it comes to the creative side of things I think it’s important to stay current. If you want to connect with people who are alive now—unless you’re singing to ghosts—you better talk about things that are happening in the present.
We live in a region that has long been defined by the past, but is changing as quickly as any place in the country. The South belongs as much to first-generation immigrants—from abroad and also from elsewhere in the U.S.—as much as it does folks who can trace their roots back before the Civil War. And this complex legacy comes through in your music. What do you make of the Southern identity today?
Well it’s what I know, and I wind up writing what I know more often than not. I’m a Southern person, I’m a country person, so no matter what I’m doing it’s gonna have an accent. But, I mean, my family’s been in this part of the United States for sixteen generations. I’ve seen a lot of changes. A lot of it I’m not at all proud of. I’m not a fan of the Confederate flag; I’m not a fan of the backwards laws when it comes to equality between different groups. A lot of it’s shameful to me. But I don’t know of any locale that anybody can be completely proud of unless they’re a little bit insane. A part of being a patriot, a part of being a good resident of a certain state or part of the country, is working to make that place better.
The things that I love about the South are familial ties—the fact that I grew up very close to my parents and my grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins, and learned to play music from those people. A lot of that is out of necessity—parents couldn’t afford childcare so they took me to my grandparents’ house, and because of that I wound up learning how to play instruments, and it’s given me a way in the world. I don’t think it would have happened the same way if we had grown up in a larger city. I see a lot of those divisions as rural and urban divisions—a lot of the main differences in between people’s ethical standards and in their cultural standards—a lot of those are really made between people who are not in the country and who live in big cities. I’ve noticed that people in upstate New York and rural Michigan and Pennsylvania and even northern California are very, very, very similar to folks from the South in the way they go about their daily lives. I’m proud of being from where I’m from because it has a history of music—Muscle Shoals, specifically—and because it’s what I know. I think if I’d grown up in Arizona I’d be proud of being from the southwest.
You and your wife have both studied writing in school with the intent, I think, of having that educational foundation for writing songs. Are there any particular books or authors that influenced your music?
She’s studied it a lot more intensely and intentionally than I have. I did take a creative writing major in college, and I read a lot, and especially when I quit drinking I had a lot more time to read. I like Denis Johnson, I like Adam Johnson, I like Peter Matthiessen. I like Walter Kirn—he’s become a friend, and I think he’s a really, really brilliant writer. Right now I’m reading McCarthy’s Blood Meridian—anybody that writes any kind of country songs should be reading all McCarthy’s books. The best book I’ve read in a long time is Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen. It takes place in Florida after the Civil War—a beautiful, huge epic book.
You can pack so much into just a couple lines and I think concision is what makes the greatest literature and the greatest music. Do you see an interplay in your reading and your songwriting?
Oh yeah, anytime you read it makes you smarter—makes you better at talking and better at writing and better at making your way through the world. It definitely helps when I’m writing songs just because I get used to knowing what works and what doesn’t—which details work. What kind of things when you’re reading a novel: what kind of sentences and paragraphs make you put that book down for a second and just sit back and take in everything that you just read. The more you know about that the better you’re gonna be at creating it yourself.
Right now we’re working on our Southern music issue, this year featuring Georgia. You spent a lot of time in Athens over the years, one of America’s great music cities. Do you carry anything with you from the time you spent making music in Athens and in Georgia?
Yeah, a whole lot. I didn’t really listen to much alternative rock, not real true alternative rock, not pre-Nirvana alternative rock, until I joined the Truckers and spent some time in Athens and heard Neutral Milk Hotel and Elephant Six Collective, and then songwriters like Vic Chesnutt. Andy LeMaster was doing really good work at the time and still is. He had a band called Now It’s Overhead. Clay Leverett, who was a drummer for Bright Eyes for a while, had a band called Lona. There was a lot of great music from Athens in those days that I still listen to quite a bit. I’d never really gone back in depth into R.E.M.’s catalogue until I started spending time there and hanging around with people who were obsessed with it.
One thing that always struck me—I remember talking to Dan Baird about this at one point, a great Georgia musician—we were talking about Fred Schneider from the B-52’s and Dan was saying, “Imagine what kind of courage it took for somebody as flamboyant as Fred to go out and play college parties and frat parties with the B-52’s before they were a famous band. That guy had to have a lot of patience and he also probably had to know how to defend himself.” And I’ve always thought about that and had a new respect for Fred Schneider after Dan put that in perspective for me.