Jason Isbell on Getting Sober, Finding the Perfect Rhythm Section

Backstage with the singer-songwriter as he talks bringing his daughter on tour and staying focused on the music

Jason Isbell discusses how getting sober helped him refine his craft. Credit: Roger Ho for Rolling Stone

Ninety minutes into a sold-out theater gig in Austin, Jason Isbell dives into the darkest reaches of his back catalog. He and his band, the 400 Unit (which includes his wife, Amanda Shires, on violin), launch into "Danko/Manuel," which Isbell wrote more than a decade ago, when he was a member of the Drive-By Truckers.

On record, it's one of Isbell's most harrowing songs, a shuffling six-minute elegy for two deeply troubled members of the Band. But tonight it becomes a triumphant, 10-minute Southern-rock slow-burner, as Isbell's band amps up the dynamics and stretches every beat, building a thunderous catharsis. It's an emotional knockout — one that Isbell might not have been capable of half a decade earlier.

"I hadn't been onstage sober until about four years ago," Isbell says backstage before the show. "That took some getting used to. But we just did three weeks in Europe, played a cruise and started this tour two days later. If this was 10 years ago, I would be exhausted."

Isbell got clean in 2012 and has been on the rise ever since. His audience, once a cult within the Truckers' cult, exploded with 2013's solo LP Southeastern and grew even more with last summer's Something More Than Free, which topped the country charts, went Top 10 on the Billboard 200 and earned Isbell a slew of praise as a songwriter with a penchant for granular details — including ones about his darker days.

Things just got even better for the 37-year-old: Three nights after the Austin gig, Isbell will win his first two Grammys — one for Best Americana Album and another for Best American Roots Song, for "24 Frames." Isbell credits a post-booze focus on craft for his success. "It's a direct result of spending more time working on the songs and not being dragged away by things that happen after dark," he says.

In Austin, Isbell plays with the easy confidence of a man who knows his career's lucky second act will be better than his already impressive first. His set works over old tunes and shines up new ones. Vintage Truckers songs ("Never Gonna Change," "Decoration Day") turn into Allmans-worthy guitar blowouts. The fan-favorite ballad "Cover Me Up" retains a delicate intimacy, just Isbell and Shires sharing their love.

"I hadn't been onstage sober until about four years ago. That took some getting used to."

Isbell has found a crack band to handle his adventurous sets. "I was talking to Chris Stapleton last week about how hard it is to find a drummer that doesn't beat the shit out of everything all night or a bass player that doesn't wish he was playing guitar," Isbell says. "But I grew up with Chad [Gamble] and Jimbo [Hart], and I thought a more classic R&B kind of rhythm section would work really well with a set that goes from country tunes to rock songs — just give it a little more swing."

Isbell pauses. "It's hard enough to dance to Americana music," he says. "Some nights, when the crowd starts clapping along, I have to stop them and be like, ‘Come on, guys, let's not kid ourselves.'"

Isbell and Shires brought their baby daughter on tour (and Isbell's mother for sitting duties), and Isbell moves a baby seat off a backstage couch before plopping down. "It was really important to me to get to this level," he says. "Sleeping on people's floors when you're 22 is fine. But when you get your life in order and have a family you want to keep and a certain level of health, touring bigger means you can keep going for longer."