Jason Isbell’s Interview With Foos Guitarist: 5 Things We Learned
The newest episode of Chris Shiflett’s podcast Walking the Floor arrives as the longtime Foo Fighter wraps up a trip to Nashville, where he’s been recording a new solo album with producer Dave Cobb. Coincidentally, the episode focuses on one of Cobb’s career-making clients — Jason Isbell, another guitar-playing songwriter who established himself as a bandmate before kicking off his solo career. For Isbell, it was in the Drive-By Truckers, while Shiflett has been lead guitarist in Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters for nearly a decade before launching his Americana side project, Chris Shiflett & the Dead Peasants.
The two have a lot to talk about (listen to the episode below). Recorded backstage at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, their 40-minute conversation finds Shiflett and Isbell musing about the ass-kicking abilities of Willie Nelson, the challenges of fatherhood and the wisdom of redneck barflies. Here are five things we learned from one of Walking the Floor‘s most engaging installments yet.
1. Jason Isbell and Willie Nelson have similar taste in women.
A lifelong fan of country music, Isbell has opened a string of shows for Willie Nelson since the 2013 release of Southeastern. During one of their earliest shows together, the younger songwriter watched Nelson introduce himself to Isbell’s wife — songwriter Amanda Shires, who was wrapping up her own solo tour at the time — in a rather unconventional way.
“Amanda had just shown up right before our set,” Isbell remembers, “so [she and Nelson] had not met or anything. We were onstage, and we were playing with Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas and her band. They were up there with us and we were all playing together. Willie walks over to my wife, Amanda, and takes his headband off and puts it on her head, and kisses her right on the mouth! He’d never met her or anything.”
Isbell took the unexpected show of affection in stride. When a worried Shires asked if he was mad, he responded with, “Honey, first of all, it’s Willie Nelson. Second of all, he could probably whip my ass. He’s, like, a fourth-degree black belt. And somebody who smokes that much weed, you never know what they’re gonna do in a fight. They could come up with some weird shit.”
2. These days, touring with Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit is a family-friendly activity.
Clean and sober since the months leading up to Southeastern‘s creation, Isbell would rather spend his days on the road with his family, instead of with the vices that dominated his final days with the Drive-By Truckers.
“My wife and I have a baby that’s eight months old,” he tells Shiflett. “When we take her [on tour], it’s great… We took the baby and my mom out on the first tour this year. Ten years ago, I would’ve been like, ‘There’s no way I’m touring my mom in the same bus.’ But it was great. It was really fun. We’ve gotten to the point where we’re almost like Scientologists backstage. We don’t do shit.” Later, he added, “Today, we got to lay out by the pool, but that’s about as wild as it gets.”
3. Isbell may not be your typical Music Row songwriter, but he respects those who are.
“My best friend in high school — we were in our first band together — his name is Chris Tompkins,” says Isbell, referencing the Music Row songwriter who penned hits like Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” and Jason Aldean’s “Burnin’ It Down.” The two pursued different careers after graduation, with Isbell joining the Truckers and Tompkins landing a Nashville-area publishing deal. They don’t share the same stage these days, but Isbell admires his childhood friend for finding a stable job in an otherwise volatile industry. “He never goes anywhere without an Alabama cap on,” he adds. “He plays golf. He hangs out with his kids at the pool. For him, it’s a 9-to-5 gig.”
4. Grandparents and “old rednecks” can provide plenty of songwriting inspiration.
“I like to remain conversational,” Isbell says of his songs, many of which shine a light on the lives, loves and losses of blue-collar Americans in the Bible Belt. “I like to try and use language that sounds natural, and language that you could overhear. The things that have stood out to me the most in conversations throughout my life have been things that are very poignant — but it might take you a minute to realize that. Things that old rednecks say. Things that my grandparents would say, or somebody at a bar where I was hanging out in Alabama. . .I’m not trying to go over anybody’s head, and I’m not trying to write anything that sounds ‘songwriterly,’ for lack of a better word. I want it to sound like a conversation.”
5. Speaking of grandparents, Isbell first learned about blues from his grandfather, albeit with a bit of censorship involved.
Isbell’s parents didn’t play music, but his grandparents did, often inviting the entire family over for Sunday night dinners and accompanying jam sessions. It was during those song swaps that Isbell began playing rhythm guitar, struggling to keep time on his grandfather’s dreadnaught acoustic with the old man wailed along on a fiddle solo. The repertoire tended to focus on gospel and country songs. Afterwards, if Isbell had played admirably, his granddad — a Pentecostal preacher — would treat him to something a bit bluesier.
“I was big into the blues from an early age,” Isbell says. “[My grandfather] would lay the guitar on his lap and play with a pocket knife. . .He would turn [the knife] around and use it as a slide, as if it were a lap steel. He’d play those things for me as my reward, for putting up with all the country and bluegrass songs all day long.”
In 1990, Isbell joined his grandfather on a trip to the local record store. Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, had just been released, and his grandfather bought him a copy on cassette.
“And he overdubbed it!” Isbell says with a laugh. “He had a cassette recorder at his house, and he took out the songs that were vulgar, and gave me the overdubbed cassettes. Because he was a preacher!”
A half-decade later, his grandfather gave him the original tapes, deeming Isbell old enough to overlook some of Johnson’s racier lyrics.
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