Past Drinking and Near Divorce: 8 Revelations in Jason Isbell’s New HBO Documentary
In the opening scene of Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed, the new HBO “Music Box” documentary out this Friday, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires can’t seem to get on the same page. As they fumble through a quarantine performance on their front porch, something is always off: the placement of the camera, the key they’re playing in, or the way the intro of the song goes. It seems innocuous enough, but it’s an ominous sign: By the halfway point of the film, the couple is inching closer to divorce.
Isbell’s name is in the title of the film, but Running With Our Eyes Closed — which centers around the recording and release of Reunions, his 2020 album with his band the 400 Unit — is really a study of what it’s like to make art when your spouse is your chief collaborator. The results aren’t always pretty.
“I have to come to terms with things that don’t make me look cool or don’t paint me in the best light or don’t promote an idea I have of controlling my own image,” he says. “I think controlling your image is the opposite of creating art.”
Here are eight things we learned from Running With Our Eyes Closed, an intimate document of a songwriter, his romantic and creative partner, and the tension that drives him.
1. Isbell isn’t much for rehearsing in the studio.
One of the first scenes shows Isbell, Shires, and the 400 Unit members huddled around a table at RCA Studio A in Nashville with producer Dave Cobb as the singer runs through “Running With Our Eyes Closed.” It’s the first time any of them, save for Shires, has heard the song — and they’re about to have to record it. “Prior to Jason, any recording I’ve done there would always be weeks of rehearsal,” says drummer Chad Gamble. Isbell, however, prefers to do things “day of.” As Shires puts it, “It’s just really scary.”
2. Shires is her husband’s most trusted editor.
A particularly revealing scene in the early minutes shows Isbell and Shires debating word choice in “Running With Our Eyes Closed.” For anyone not interested in the finer points of articles, tenses, or prepositions, it may seem like insider baseball, but the exchange reveals a fascinating teacher-and-pupil dynamic. Shires — the one with the MFA in creative writing, as Isbell’s manager, Traci Thomas, points out — walks him through, firmly but patiently, until he comes around to the correct way of thinking. “Once the songs get past her, nobody scares me. Nobody,” Isbell says.
3. Being a couple in a creative partnership is as hard as it sounds.
Isbell describes his work with Shires as “a different kind of collaboration” from the rest of the group. “I still don’t think of it as she’s in the band,” he admits. “I need her to do different things, and I think she has to have a different role.” That’s fine on paper, but it puts his wife in an increasingly uncomfortable and ill-defined role, one that leaves her questioning what she’s doing there. “I know how he gets when he makes records, whether or not he sees it at the time,” Shires says. “I’m not comfortable being the whipping girl, so I just chill.”
4. The conflict is all about mental health.
“Songwriting has gotten harder for me as time has gone on, just because I won’t accept things that I used to accept,” Isbell says at one point. Others see it differently: as a function of his anxiety. Isbell’s history with substance abuse hovers in the background throughout, but even his battle with alcoholism is re-contextualized as a coping mechanism for previously untreated mental health issues. “There was no culture of psychological help for children or adults, whatsoever. You were either fine or you were crazy,” he says of growing up in Alabama. Despite that self-awareness, Isbell still gets wrapped up in his feelings in the studio, and it drives a wedge between him and Shires.
5. Divorce was on the table.
The disagreements build steadily and mostly off-camera, with Isbell showing up to the studio alone one day and the others asking Shires where she’s been when she returns after several days away. But the trouble was very real. “My wife and I got to a spot that was pretty close to probably just calling the whole thing off,” Isbell says. A careful bit of editing shows the disconnect between how the two interpret events, and it’s particularly heartbreaking to watch Shires — hands shaking, voice quivering — read off one of the messages that she sent him while they weren’t speaking to each other.
6. Quarantine might’ve saved their marriage.
Reunions was released in the midst of pandemic lockdowns in 2020, and the footage here — including behind the scenes from Isbell’s release party in Nashville — demonstrates just how much of a letdown it was to not play shows together. But the time spent at home, and with their precocious daughter Mercy, seems to help reunite the couple. Eventually, it helped Isbell relinquish the control he tried to cling to in the studio. “It’s really saved my ass to be able to sit down and play the guitar for hours,” he says.
7. The footage of Isbell’s last show before rehab is hard to watch.
Isbell’s rise and fall with the Drive-By Truckers is a meaty middle portion of the film, but the big reveal comes with never-before-seen footage of a private gig in Virginia from February 2012 — Isbell’s last before seeking help for his drinking. Overweight and sweating profusely, he looks unhealthy if at least functional at first. But after chugging several bottles of Jack Daniel’s, he’s reduced to giggling and panting into the mic while the audience heckles him. “It’s just something I’ve always tucked away, just in case he ever slipped,” Thomas says of the footage.
8. Isbell’s recovery left a lasting mark on Shires as well.
It’s no exaggeration to say Shires helped save Isbell’s life: as he says here, her unwillingness to be with him when he was drinking gave him the motivation to seek help. Isbell mined the darkest depths of those experiences to forge his art, but that means his wife is still transported back to those places when they play certain songs. “There’s a couple parts in ‘Cover Me Up’ I still don’t like to hear, but I listen to it anyway,” Shires says, nodding to Isbell’s signature ballad. The marital issues during the Reunions sessions forced Isbell into some careful self-reflection. “The part that hurt her the worst is that I didn’t understand it,” he says, “because I wasn’t willing to go back and actually look at what really happened.”