Jason Isbell on the Art of the Livestream, Supporting Indie Record Stores, and That Feral Hogs Meme
First-round Grammy voting gets underway on September 30th and runs through October 12th. For our 2021 Grammy preview issue, we asked a series of likely contenders for next year’s awards to reflect on their past experiences at the ceremony, look ahead to the future, and discuss the albums and singles that could earn them a statue come January.
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Jason Isbell released his seventh studio album, Reunions, in May, combining his signature gut-punch songwriting showcases like “Dreamsicle” with a more prominent guitar attack on songs like “Overseas.” Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, however, the Alabama native has been sheltering at home with his wife and bandmate, Amanda Shires, and their daughter, Mercy. He’s not starting any new projects right now, despite the indefinite postponement of touring. “I’m trying to keep my normal rhythms workwise as much as possible,” he says. “Usually when I put a record out, it’s more of an input time than an output time for me.”
Back in February, you announced Reunions with “Be Afraid,” which feels like you could have written it last week. Did you have any idea that it would continue to be so resonant?
I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew all about the virus. I knew all about the social unrest. I have the only copy of a book that tells me — that’s how I write all these songs that keep getting sadder and sadder as the years go on. No, I mean, you would think people would look at songs and movies and books that seem to be a premonition and say, “Well, maybe we already had these problems.”
On this album, you shift between specific, vivid narratives and more big-picture approaches. A lot of writers can do one or the other, but not both.
[With] most songwriters, usually you start out writing about yourself and your own personal things. But Dylan did it the other way around: He started out writing protest songs and then wound up writing about Bob Dylan for 40 years. Now he’s able to mix those two things in a way that really appeals to me. He can have songs that are simultaneously about himself and about historical events that seem to work, not just because he’s Dylan, but because his life has been a thread through all of these things. That’s something that I’m trying to work toward. If you have the kind of life where you stay aware and you stay involved, then eventually you can use your own path as sort of a series of markers through things that have happened historically.
The song “Overseas” really emphasizes your guitar playing, which sometimes gets a little overlooked because of your songwriting. I hear you doing things that sound like David Gilmour and Mark Knopfler on that song and the rest of the album.
First of all, it kind of should be overlooked for the most part, really.
Why do you say that?
Because the songs are the important part. There are a dozen great guitar players on my street, and there are like six houses on my street. It’s not really all that important. Just in the grand scheme of things, I love playing the guitar. That’s the thing that I enjoy doing the most. And I probably consider myself a guitar player foremost. That’s been extremely informative and helpful for my songwriting over the years, because it helps me understand melody and melodic phrasing and chord progressions and just all kinds of things. But guitar playing doesn’t really move the needle anymore, and whether it should or not — I mean, I don’t lament the fact that guitar playing is not as popular as it used to be. It doesn’t bother me, because not everybody has access to acoustic instruments or electric guitars the way I did when I was a kid.
This record, I spent a lot of time with the guitar parts and the guitar sounds. And I met Mark Knopfler just a little while before we went into the studio — he had been listening to Southeastern that day, so I was really moved by that. Gilmour, too, is another example of somebody who used their guitar playing for what’s really the higher purpose of writing great songs that resonate with people. The Knopfler thing, you know, this is sort of the next phase that I went into around the time I started writing these songs. There’s some of it on the Highwomen record, the title track on their album. I guess Reggie Young had played on the original Highwaymen record. But what he played on that song, and a lot of that record, sounded a lot like Knopfler. Whether or not he was directly influenced by Mark’s playing, Reggie’s playing on the Highwaymen record made me revisit Knopfler’s playing in a different way, and I kind of got obsessed with it. I still am, really. I’ve still just been playing a whole bunch without a pick and just trying to see how expressive I could get and how vocal I could get, on mostly Fender guitars.
You gave indie record stores a chance to sell Reunions a week before your official release date. Why was that important to you?
They’ve always had my back. I knew that a lot of records would be going directly to streaming. It made me feel bad for these record stores who were trying to keep some product on the shelves, and maybe it would boost some of them a little bit. And it did. But we didn’t know then how long this was going to go on.
You’ve done several livestreams since releasing the album. Does it change the way you perform or interact with an audience?
Yeah, definitely. It becomes a different kind of show altogether. I wouldn’t feel right doing big rock moves and running around all over the stage if there’s nobody in the room. A lot of my approach is based on the energy and the place where I’m playing. So probably it’ll be more of a songwriter night type of show — I’ll stand there and play, talk between songs, and make it sort of conversational as opposed to, you know, a big exhibit of ability.
It’s funny you say that. For a lot of people, myself included, the only time we make big rock moves is when we know no one’s watching.
Oh, well, that’s a good time to do it, I guess. It’s weird, because it’s like, if I just stood there, played a whole show, and there were 3,000 people in the audience, that would be boring. But if I did it with nobody in the audience and everybody watching it from home on their couch, it would be ridiculous. I have to try to keep myself from being memed. And if you’re standing on the monitor in an empty room, you’re gonna get memed.
As a very active online personality, do you worry about that?
It’s not something I worry about too much. But it could happen. Although, the thing is, it would probably happen and then it would turn out to be a really good thing. Like the feral hogs thing. I didn’t expect that to go crazy, but it wound up getting the message out [about gun control] in a way that I couldn’t have without the help of the memes.
It’s amazing how that one still comes back every so often.
For me, it comes back every damn day. Somebody always says, “I’m out having lunch with my kids on the patio today. And they’re like, ‘Watch out for the hogs!'” Every single damn day.
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You’ve also been putting live shows and unreleased music up on Bandcamp. Do you have a lot of that stuff stockpiled?
That’s another way that we’re lucky, because I’ve been making music for so long. For the last seven or eight years, I’ve been in a situation where everything sounded good, and the venues were nice, and we could record the shows. That wouldn’t be the case if I was where I was 10 years ago. That breaks my heart, to think about people who have great creative work and are looking for ears and they’re not going to find them now for a long, long time. It’s a disturbing thing. We’re going to miss a lot of voices 10, 20 years from now.