With the release of his sixth album, The Nashville Sound, set for June 16th, Jason Isbell is gearing up for another summer of extensive touring. This year, however, there are some changes that Isbell and his longtime band, the 400 Unit, are eagerly anticipating. The most obvious shake-up is the more urgent and consistently hard-rocking material on Isbell’s new LP with the group.
“I’m looking forward to being able to keep everybody awake with songs that have been recorded in the last year, rather than 15 years ago,” says Isbell, who launches his tour June 17th in Asheville, North Carolina. “It’ll be more of a rock show I think than what we’ve had in the past.”
Expect the focus to be on his three most recent releases – 2013’s Southeastern, 2015’s Something More Than Free and The Nashville Sound – and less from his earlier LPs and his days with Drive-By Truckers. “When you’re deciding what songs to take out of the set to fit the new songs in, the first consideration is quality, but the second consideration is the amount of time it’s been since you recorded that song,” he says. “I try to keep things as recent as possible.”
The tour will also find Isbell largely eschewing the summer festival circuit in favor of fan-friendly two-hour headlining sets, with handpicked opening acts like Mountain Goats, Strand of Oaks, Frank Turner, and Isbell’s wife Amanda Shires. “I got tired of playing short sets at weird times of days,” Isbell says of his break from the festival grind. Part of that decision comes from feeling like his style of stripped-down, lyrics-first country-roots music is largely out of sync with today’s massive pop-culture gatherings. “Last year, I did ‘Elephant’ at every festival I played, because fuck ’em,” says the songwriter, nodding to Southeastern‘s brutal ballad about cancer.
But there is one package show Isbell is excited to join: the Outlaw Music Festival Tour, featuring Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan as co-headliners. Isbell is still getting over seeing his name plastered on a headline with the two songwriting legends. “It’s like Jesus, Santa Claus and me. I hate the word ‘surreal,’ but that’s what it is,” he says.
Getting to tour with heroes like Nelson, Dylan and John Prine – for whom Isbell still regularly opens – is, in fact, a large part of the appeal of life on the road for the 38-year-old, who has spent the last decade touring more or less non-stop.
“You’ve got to find things about touring that make you happy, because the money won’t make you happy, and the people applauding won’t make you happy, not in the long run,” Isbell says. “People can get used to any amount of accolades or any amount of money or success, but you’ll never get used to being around Willie Nelson – and if you do, there’s something wrong with you.”