After paying a visit to a former Comedy Central titan on Monday night, Jason Isbell was back in the spotlight with one of the network’s current stars on Wednesday, June 21st. The singer-songwriter’s appearance on The Daily Show With Trevor Noah included not only a performance of a song from his new album The Nashville Sound but also an interview with the show’s host.
Proving himself a charming, funny storyteller, Isbell gamely discussed songwriting, misconceptions of the South and the political themes that seeped into The Nashville Sound. Noah introduced Isbell as the “definition of folk music right now,” and Isbell tried to make a distinction on the contentious fault line between folk songwriting and country.
“Folk music deals in narrative more than anything else,” he said. “That’s what I think I’m trying to do more than anything else, is remember the world and my own experiences and explain them to myself. If you’re doing that you’re a folk musician – no matter how loud your amps are, no matter how tight your jeans are, no matter how bedazzled your cowboy shirts are, you wind up being a folk musician.”
Showing his awareness about the frequently heavy, emotional material he prefers to record, Isbell acknowledged that he’d prefer people sat with it instead of using it as background music.
“I’ve got songs about cancer and shit,” he said. “If you’re driving to the Iron Bowl in beautiful Alabama, you’re not gonna put on a cancer jam on the way to the football game.”
Noah also picked up on the political undercurrent of The Nashville Sound, bringing up Isbell’s depiction of privilege in “White Man’s World.” Isbell repeated his story of the song’s genesis, thinking about his daughter the day following Donald Trump’s election to the presidency.
“The thing that popped into my mind first was ‘Thank God she’s an infant, because I don’t have to explain any of this to her,'” he said. “She’ll figure it out as she grows up, but if she was a couple of years older I would have to be like, ‘OK, honey here’s what happened today and this is why your father doesn’t really know anything about human people in this country anymore.”
For his performance, a solo Isbell stood on the humble Daily Show stage, fingerpicking a resonator guitar as he sang “If We Were Vampires,” a standout from his newly released The Nashville Sound. The fact that he performed the song alone – without the minimal accompaniment and harmonies of the studio version – may have just been the simplest option, since the Daily Show doesn’t have many musical performers, but it’s all the more poignant given the song’s key lyric about a relationship severed by death: “It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever / One of us will likely have to spend some time alone.” Watch it below.
Tonight, Isbell plays the first of a three-night engagement at New York’s Beacon Theatre, with his wife Amanda Shires opening all three shows.