Jason Isbell’s second musical act has been underway now for nearly as long as his first, but he’s the first to admit that he’s still getting used to it. It’s been five years since the Alabama native got sober, after having spent his 20s spiraling into addiction that precipitated the end of both his first marriage and his six-year stint with Drive-By Truckers. Now remarried and a first-time father, Isbell has turned his life around, spurred on by the success of his Grammy-winning 2015 LP Something More Than Free.
Just ahead of the June 16th release of The Nashville Sound, Isbell’s new album with his band the 400 Unit, Isbell spent a day in Music City with Men’s Journal writer Larry Katner. Here are five things we learned from their encounter.
Isbell doesn’t consider himself a country singer
Katner’s article starts off with Isbell visiting a new exhibit dedicated to him on the third floor of the Country Music Hall of Fame of Museum, an honor that he expresses mixed emotions towards. “It’s a little weird, because I didn’t grow up wanting to be a country singer, and I still don’t really see myself as one,” Isbell tells Katner. “I mean, I don’t feel like I have much in common with those folks. Their job is to sell out arenas. Mine is to make art. Big difference.”
But he does have an appreciation for country fashion – and expensive shoes
“Man, that Jim Lauderdale always looks good – he’s got more western suits than anybody,” Isbell enthuses while he examines some of the other exhibits, also singling out a pair of Miranda Lambert’s boots. “Randy Travis also had some awesome sneakers on the night they opened this exhibit. . . I didn’t know Randy was a sneakerhead,” he adds. Isbell and Travis have that in common, as he’s sporting a pair of $800 Givenchy shoes during the interview, which he bought in Las Vegas. “I would have lost more than that gambling,” he figures.
Those fine tastes extend to Isbell’s guitar collection, too
“Oh, man, look at that! A Martin, a ’57 D-28. I’ve got a ’56,” Isbell says at another point while walking through the museum. While he’s built his reputation as a solo artist on his songwriting chops, it was his guitar playing that landed him his gig with the Drive-By Truckers back in 2001, and he hasn’t lost his passion for the instrument. Apparently the acoustic Martin is just one of many, as Isbell’s home on the outskirts of Nashville includes climate-controlled storage for at least 30 instruments.
He has no regrets about his tumultuous years with Drive-By Truckers
Isbell was ultimately booted from the Drive-By Truckers in 2007, as his alcohol and cocaine consumption had deteriorated his playing and left him out of shape and unreliable. It took five more years before he got clean, but those years with the band – a very different beast from his solo work – were worth it to him. “There were more positives than negatives by a long shot,” he says. “You know, to go in and be accepted by that band, to be doing something that was really magical, weird, violent, vulgar, extreme…”
Isbell’s father was prepared to resort to violence to protect him, and he’d do the same for his daughter
Isbell recalls an occasion when, as a 5-year-old in
the Alabama “country ghetto,” he accidentally flew a kite into a
neighbor’s yard, prompting a fight to break out between the neighbor and
Isbell’s father. The fight escalated to threats of using guns. The pair
eventually made amends without any shots being fired, but Isbell claims he’d do
the same for his young daughter Mercy. “Yeah, if I needed to. I have a
shotgun,” he says. “But we live in a little different neighborhood
than I grew up in, so I don’t think I’d have to.”
Read the full interview at mensjournal.com.