Jason Isbell on New Album 'The Nashville Sound': 'It's a Risky Statement'

Americana's biggest star talks mixing old and new Nashville with his band the 400 Unit on introspective LP

Jason Isbell and his band the 400 Unit, including wife Amanda Shires, released the guitar-heavy new album 'The Nashville Sound.' Credit: Danny Clinch

On a Friday afternoon in January, Jason Isbell was sitting at home in Tennessee, his eyes glazed, an episode of Hoarders flickering across the TV screen.

"I like that show," he says now, only half-guiltily. "It makes me feel better about myself."

Recording sessions for his sixth album, The Nashville Sound, were scheduled to begin the following Monday. He'd been working on new material for weeks, sitting in his bedroom with an acoustic guitar and a headful of ideas while his wife, Amanda Shires, finished her master's thesis several doors down. They'd developed a good system. Whenever Isbell finished a song, he'd type the lyrics into his laptop and send it to the printer in Shires' office. She'd take the document, jot down some corrections with a pencil and bring it back to Isbell for revisions.

"I know she loves me because she didn't use a red pen," he jokes. "For any writer, a red pen is such a trigger."

The printer was silent on Friday, though. Isbell wasn't writing. Instead, he was distracting himself with daytime reruns, watching obsessive-compulsive people stock their homes with things they didn't need. It felt good to let his mind rest. He still didn't have enough material for next week's studio visit and Shires eventually came knocking, insisting he turn off the TV and get back to work.

"She reminded me that the show is on at least seven times a day, so it's not like I couldn't catch it another time," Isbell remembers. "So I turned off the TV and wrote 'If We Were Vampires' that afternoon. Once I got rolling, it just fell out."

Released this month, "If We Were Vampires" is The Nashville Sound's emotional centerpiece, its lyrics rooted in the intersection of marriage and mortality. If "Cover Me Up," the kickoff track from 2013's Southeastern, reads like a broken man's confessional to the woman who's piecing him back together, "Vampires" dives deeper into the complexities of love, taking a sweet, sobering look at the limits that death and time place upon any relationship. "This can't go on forever, likely one of us will have to spend some days alone," Isbell sings during the chorus, seconds before his voice audibly breaks. Much of the buzz surrounding The Nashville Sound's release has focused on the album's return to a faster, more guitar-driven sound, but it's quiet moments like these that show just how deep Isbell's words can cut.

"If we hadn't had the success we've had, I wouldn't get away with calling this album The Nashville Sound."

"The first day we started tracking, Amanda kept saying, 'I can't wait for you to hear the 'Vampires' song,'" remembers Dave Cobb, who produced the album at his RCA Studio A headquarters. "I heard that title and thought, 'What are y'all doing, watching Twilight?' But then Jason played the song and it absolutely floored me, like 'Elephant' did four years ago. I remember thinking, 'Oh God, he's done it again.' He takes these seemingly normal things and turns them into beautiful songs about life and relationships and family. The sentiment in 'Vampires' – would our relationship mean anything if it didn't have an expiration date? – is just incredible. It makes you look inside your own head."

The Nashville Sound was largely written at home, during the weeks leading up to the recording sessions. For Isbell, few muses are more effective than a looming deadline. Even so, several tunes began taking shape on the road, where Isbell and the male members of the 400 Unit – guitarist Sadler Vaden, bassist Jimbo Hart, drummer Chad Gamble and keyboardist Derry DeBorja – found themselves performing without Shires for much of 2016. She was busy with her own tour, crisscrossing the country in support of her first solo album, My Own Piece of Land, in three years. Only halfway through their promo cycle for 2015's Something More Than Free, Isbell and the 400 Unit continued playing shows as a slimmed-down boys' club, with a different lady – daughter Mercy Isbell, who turns 2 this September – tagging along.

"Amanda was traveling in a van, so Mercy was with me," Isbell remembers. "I had a nanny and a designated 'baby bus,' and we had a good time. I don't know if I could've done that a decade ago, but now, it's great. You always have a lot of time on the road, and you have to fill that time up with something. I just hang out with the baby. You have to make sure the schedule works, though. You've got to get in the naps and the feedings and the bedtime when they're supposed to happen."

Isbell sings about Amanda and Mercy on "White Man's World," a snarling blast of bar-band blues inspired by the sexism and bigotry of Trump's America. One of several political moments on The Nashville Sound, it's the pissed-off foil to "Hope the High Road," whose lyrics preach a message of empathy and tolerance. Somewhere in the middle of the political gamut is the album's first track, "Last of My Kind," whose protagonist finds himself lost in the city, unable to find anything – culturally, geographically, socially – to remind him of home.

"There's certainly some of me in that song," Isbell admits of "Last of My Kind." "Some of who I once was, I think. Right when I started touring, there was this wariness I had of the world outside of my small town. But I'm not that person anymore, and I was never completely that person. The guy I'm talking about in that song has grown up in a naturally sheltered existence, then he gets out and sees the rest of the world and doesn't understand it. It's like the bridge is burning as he crosses it. He realizes there's no way to go back, and I think that's scary for a lot of people.

"The acceleration of technology has probably caused that to happen at a pretty rapid rate," he continues. "The world changes fast, and a lot of the old country folks have a hard time keeping up with it, and it makes them sad. Some people have mistaken the character I'm writing about in that song as a Trump supporter, but that's not really what he is. Let's put it like this: I don't think he's the kind of guy who'd vote at all. Like we heard growing up, he'd probably say, 'They're all crooks.'"

Isbell prefers his characters to be flawed. It makes them believable. On "Tupelo," a brokenhearted man drinks wine from a plastic cup, building up enough liquid courage to ditch town and relocate to Mississippi. "The summer is blistering, so there ain't no one from here that'll follow me there," he rationalizes. Another track, "Cumberland Gap," reads like a journal entry from a depressed boozehound in rural Appalachia, his horizons literally limited by the surrounding mountains his father once mined. And on the autobiographical "Anxiety," Isbell rallies against his own demons, enraged and embarrassed by his inability to focus on life's blessings. The song ends with an eruption of chromatic guitar crunch, with Isbell and Vaden – perhaps the finest guitar duo in Americana music – saluting shredders like Mike Campbell and Jimmy Page.

In a town that's traditionally paid more attention to the likes of Tom T. Hall than Tom Petty, Isbell remains one of the most commercially successful examples of the new Nashville frontman. His songs offer up country twang and Southern-rock bang in equal doses, steering clear of Top 40 radio along the way. It's raw music. Real music. Most importantly, it's a different sound than the one generally associated with Country Music USA, which is what prompted the album's bold title.

"I think if we hadn't had the success we've had, I wouldn't get away with calling this album The Nashville Sound," he says frankly. "It's a risky statement, but at this point, with the success you see from a lot of people who are coming from our side of the musical tracks, I think it's alright to say Nashville is a different place than it was 10 years ago. There's an incredibly diverse mix of music happening here right now. The Black Keys are here. Paramore is here. All these bands that don't have anything to do with mainstream country music are here, and I think bands like that – Americana acts and people playing the left-of-the-dial type of country – are more important now, as an export, than the mainstream country that's being made here. The sound has changed."