Jason Isbell is searching for an ice cream cone. It’s just a few hours before an April show in Roanoke, Virginia, but at the moment the singer-songwriter is wandering around downtown and trying his best to avoid being buttonholed by fans as he searches for his afternoon sugar fix. “If I can find some,” he says, “then my day will be complete.”
Isbell, thirty-eight, wasn’t always so easily satisfied. At twenty-two he was the prodigy guitarist in Drive-By Truckers, who mastered Southern rock in both theory and practice. Over the past decade and a half he has emerged as the closest thing we have to a country-folk singer-songwriter superstar, with 2015’s Something More Than Free having debuted at number one on the country charts.
After spending his twenties wrestling with a failing first marriage and a ruinous alcohol addiction, these days Isbell — husband of four years to fellow singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, father of twenty months to their daughter, Mercy Rose, and soon-to-be proud owner of a scoop of buttery caramel — is as happy as he’s ever been.
Since his 2013 breakthrough, Southeastern, Isbell has mostly written songs reckoning with the sea changes — namely, getting sober and falling in love with Shires — that reshaped his life in his early thirties. Yet his new album, The Nashville Sound, feels like a marker: a fitting conclusion to a trilogy of post-sobriety records, a moment in which the songwriter has decided that his personal narrative no longer needs to be the primary focus of his art, that there are more important stories to tell.
“When you get your life to a point where it’s livable and maintainable and you’re actually thriving, you’ve got to find something to write about,” he says. “You have to look outward, and you have to really get better and better at empathizing with other people. I can’t just keep writing about my own lonesome, drunken self, because I’m just not that person anymore.”
Or, as he puts it on the album’s lead single, “Hope the High Road”: “I’ve heard enough of the white man’s blues. I’ve sang enough about myself.”
In conversation, Isbell is relaxed, genial, and clever, as willing to own up to his love of the show Hoarders (“it makes me feel a lot better about myself”) as he is eager to delve into his theories on the historical correlations between artists who double-track their vocals and those who become heroin addicts (Lennon and Cobain, for starters). His own musical tastes are wider-ranging and more unpredictable than you might think of someone who’s won the Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year award three out of the past six years. His new album has moments that lean more Elliott Smith than Townes Van Zandt.
Isbell specializes in songs that merge the plainspoken, detail-oriented observation of John Prine with the literary, character-based approach of Randy Newman. “Last of My Kind,” the opener on The Nashville Sound, is the first-person tale of a potentially upwardly mobile working-class American struggling to adapt to the rapidly modernizing country he lives in. “I tried to go to college but I didn’t belong/Everything I said was either funny or wrong,” the narrator explains.
Isbell gravitates toward these sorts of characters because they’re a type he knows well, one that he grew up around. “It’s that feeling that you don’t belong with people that might intimidate you because they’re more culturally or socially developed,” he says. “It was an adjustment to make for me when I got out into the world. I didn’t get on an airplane for the first time until I was twenty-two years old.”
Isbell, who grew up in the lower-middle-class town of Green Hill, Alabama, knows that writing about the white working class has taken on a new weight over the past year. As he wrote his most recent record throughout 2016, he came to the dispiriting realization that he no longer recognized or understood the community he grew up in.
“It’s hard for me to feel sorry for the type of people who might be considered Trump supporters: Bible Belt, salt-of-the-earth Americans. There was just so much hatred and fear and bigotry that had to be overlooked to put him in that spot that I can’t feel sorry for anybody who voted for Donald Trump,” he says. “I thought I had an understanding of what rural country folks were like, what everybody in America was like. I was wrong.”
On The Nashville Sound, Isbell interrogates white male identity with a newfound scrutiny, most directly on the slow-burning polemic “White Man’s World.” “Over the last year, I’ve been seeing all these things that old white men are doing while at the same time realizing that with a little bit of luck, I too will one day be an old white man,” he says. “I’ve been through the addiction and rehabilitation process, so I know not to be guilty or ashamed of something I have no control over. But at the same time, it’s really important that people like me remain as aware as possible.”
He continues: “We have a job and we have a responsibility. It’s like the reason that the Seinfeld gang wound up in jail: We can’t just sit back and watch while terrible things continue to happen.”
In 2006, Isbell asked Muscle Shoals musician Jimbo Hart if he could crash on his couch. “Jason was kind of off the rails at the time,” says Hart. “And I was hosting the party, so I was off the rails too.” Isbell was on the verge of splitting from both Drive-By Truckers and his first wife, Shonna Tucker, the Truckers’ bassist at the time. He ended up living with Hart for some six months. When he started playing solo shows, he asked Hart to join him on bass, and his band the 400 Unit began to take shape.
The Nashville Sound is Isbell’s first studio effort credited to the 400 Unit in six years. Though much of it follows the same country-folk model as his last few albums, a healthy portion nods, loudly, to his roots as a rock ’n’ roll frontman. (To some degree, Isbell still sees himself primarily as a guitarist, one who harbors dreams of being a sideman on someone else’s metal or blues album.) The core of the 400 Unit has remained intact since the start, and has gone from playing for dive-bar crowds of a few dozen to a three-night run at the Beacon Theatre that begins June 22.
When I ask Isbell if those early days of crisscrossing the country behind his first solo albums were hard on his band, he stops me short. “You know the answer to that question,” he says. “Of course it was. It was terribly hard on them. If I had been a sideman in that band, I would have quit that gig long ago.”
Hart recalls one particularly grueling stint in the winter of 2008, when the drummer quit mid-tour, the rest of the band fell ill, and the group’s gear was stolen. “We all referred to it as the hell tour,” says Hart. “But we all persevered, and those of us who stuck through it have formed a really strong bond.”
You can hear how strong on newly aggressive rock songs like “Anxiety” and “Cumberland Gap,” the latter a tale of a down-and-out worker struggling to succeed in the land of “churches, bars, and grocery stores” that is 21st-century Appalachia. “That character is not looking at things with insight,” Isbell explains, showing the attention he pays to his writing and the characters he creates. “He’s allowed himself to buy into the myth of place, this idea that who you are is where you are. Hopefully, listeners will understand that on the one hand, you’re supposed to empathize with this character, but on the other hand, you’re also supposed to realize what he’s doing wrong.”
“Jason’s strength is how he’s able to work in forms that reference traditional music while still bringing something fresh,” says Craig Finn, the Hold Steady frontman. “His lyrics have a brutality that stops the listener in their tracks. He’s able to write something sad without being maudlin, he can write about love without being corny, and he can be ultra-serious while still letting some humor in too.”
Isbell’s new record traces the evolution of a songwriter who’s finally matured enough to focus on unearthing more of the beauty and tragedy in the world around him. Over the course of the record, the attention shifts away from Isbell’s own plight; pronouns change from “I” to “you.” By the last song, “Something to Love,” Isbell is advising his daughter to hold her passions close.
There’s a trick here, in that the advice is the act itself: Isbell’s parental counsel doubles as a tribute to the possibility of art as empathy, a means of escape, and a form of healing. “I’ve always had this thing that I did that in my mind made me different from everybody else,” Isbell says.
“It’s the reason that I’m in Virginia on tour and not at home working at a grocery store managing produce. But even if this hadn’t been my job, I would still have this thing that I could go to when things got too hard, which is explaining my own world to myself with songwriting. All the major difficulties in my life, all the really low points, I’ve been able to write my way out of those.”