When Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit performed at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles last month, the Americana singer-songwriter sat for an interview prior to the gig with Pod Save America co-host Tommy Vietor. A former spokesperson for President Obama, Vietor is also a passionate Isbell fan and caught up with the Nashville-based artist to discuss everything from the lack of empathy affecting the United States to why the Dixie Chicks got a raw deal. He also recalls how he once — unknowingly — performed a private gig with Texas Republican senator Ted Cruz in attendance.
Here’s six things we learned from Vietor’s chat with the “If We Were Vampires” singer, who’s nominated for four awards at Wednesday’s Americana Honors and Awards.
As Isbell sees it, a little caring for our neighbors goes a long way.
“The Trump [election win] would never have happened if we were still acting like civilized grown citizens,” says the singer. “I’m not saying people should be socialist or communist, but just in the way we treat each other on a day-to-day basis, it might be in your own self-interest for your neighbors to be happy. You can still be as selfish as you want — you’re just going to have a way better day if everybody is being treated fairly.”
Isbell thought the recent insult from the National Republican Senatorial Committee that he’s part of the “unhinged left,” for playing a fundraiser for Democratic Tennessee senate candidate Phil Bredesen, was laughable.
“It was a great moment for Phil’s campaign because it just completely backfired and it showed how out of touch the people who crafted that insult were. If there is anything that my career has been about the past six, seven years, it’s been hinged-ness,” he says. “But it’s good for me to feel dangerous. My wife looked at me differently after that: ‘Ooh, you’re unhinged. You gonna get a motorcycle?'”
He regrets missing his chance to make Ted Cruz squirm by playing him his song about white privilege, “White Man’s World.”
“I played this benefit show in a crazy ski town a while back for all these people who donated a ton of money to some organization they had. It was a good thing, I had a good time,” says Isbell. “But no one told me until after I played my set that Ted Cruz was in the audience. It was probably smart to not tell me that, but I didn’t play ‘White Man’s World’ and I was so mad that I didn’t find out until the show was over. I was like, ‘Can I just run up to him and play this song in his face right now?'”
Isbell is convinced the conservative right doesn’t believe what they’re selling.
“They don’t believe any of this shit … they’re just doing that because they think they’re going to get more powerful that way. Nobody really believes that shit. Maybe Pence. Pence looks like enough of a Mennonite to maybe go along with that kind of stuff. He looks like the kind of guy who wouldn’t marry a woman who wore pants.”
He says there is only one reason the Dixie Chicks were blackballed from country music for speaking out against President George W. Bush.
“It’s because they were women. If Tim McGraw had done it, nobody would have cared. It’s because they were women; they were talking out of turn,” he says, citing Eric Church’s recent cover story interview in Rolling Stone, in which he criticized the NRA. “Watch Eric Church’s record sales. They’re not going to drop … Nothing is going to happen to Eric Church. Guys like me can say whatever we want to say. But that thing happened because Natalie [Maines] was a woman … It gave them the opportunity to push another woman out of the entertainment business.”
Blind trust of any government is a dangerous thing.
“I love my country very much. I love my daughter very much. But it’s my job to try to help her be better. That’s a type of patriotism that rings more true to me. It’s your job to stay reasonably educated… about what goes on in your country and try to do what’s right and encourage people in leadership positions to do what’s right. In order to love an institution you most certainly do not have to agree with every decision they make.”