At this year’s Grammys, where he was up for several awards, Jason Isbell didn’t exactly tear the place up. “We weren’t on the televised part of the show, so we didn’t get the good seats,” he says with a good-natured laugh. “We wound up eating chicken fingers from the concession stand.”
His closest celebrity encounter was the moment he shared an elevator with Tony Bennett. Still, the night proved momentous: Isbell went back to his New York hotel with statues for best Americana album (for last year’s The Nashville Sound) and best Americana roots song (for “If We Were Vampires,” his poignant ode to making the most of our ultimately limited time with our partners).
In a pop world dominated by club-ready bangers and hip-hop swagger, The Nashville Sound is an outlier: Its blend of honky-tonk, unplugged folk and heartland boogie contains zero hints of EDM, and its songs are meaty, detailed ruminations on adulthood, screwing up, and life in Trump’s America. Yet it still managed to debut in the Top Five of the Billboard album chart, cementing Isbell’s status as one of today’s most vital songwriters. On Twitter, where he regularly shares wisecracks and political zingers, Isbell, who recently turned 39, weighed in with, “The Nashville Sound just had the best week of any album we’ve ever made. So much for alienating half my audience by speaking my mind.”
As to why he’s having a moment, Isbell admits, “That’s a tough one,” but he feels the consistency of his work is key. “I spend a great deal of time on lyrics and melodies,” he says. “I don’t go in the studio until I have a dozen good songs. I don’t want people skipping over anything.” But he also admits that his personal saga has made him relatable. “The fact that I used to be a drunken idiot and got my act together and my life got a whole lot better after that – people root for you under those circumstances,” he says.
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At one point, Isbell’s day-to-day was as much of a trainwreck as those of characters in his songs. Growing up in northern Alabama, the son of a house painter, Isbell owned his first guitar at age seven and was hanging out at an early age at the famed Muscle Shoals studio a quick drive away. He grew up on his father’s George Jones and Merle Haggard records but also cranked early Van Halen in the family car. At the University of Memphis, Isbell studied creative writing but ran out of money shortly before graduation. Luckily, he was offered a job – playing guitar in the Drive-By Truckers, who lived as hard as they Southern-rocked.
“It’s amazing to see your guitar behind glass next to John Prine’s guitar. I kinda felt sorry for John having to see my shit sitting next to his.”
In that band, Isbell contributed songs like “Outfit,” about his father advising him to avoid his own manual-labor fate, but Isbell took a bit too much to the rock life; he began drinking and doing coke and was fired in 2007. At the same time, his marriage to the band’s bassist, Shonna Tucker, collapsed.
His life began turning around in 2012. That year, “Alabama Pines,” a track from his third album on his own about a lost soul pondering his mistakes in a motel room, was awarded Song of the Year at the Americana Awards. Then, with the help of friend Ryan Adams and singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Amanda Shires (Isbell’s girlfriend and later wife), he spent two weeks in rehab in Nashville.
Over the next few years, his work confronted his dark side and mistakes, and his writing grew journalistic-sharp; 2015’s Something More Than Free netted Isbell his first two Grammys, and paved the way for The Nashville Sound, which rocked harder (“Anxiety”) and dug deeper into social issues. “White Man’s World,” written soon after the 2016 election, tackled racism. It started with Isbell at home, holding the daughter he and Shires had in 2015. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘Thank God I can’t explain this to you, because I don’t know what I would say,'” he recalls. The song became a way trying to do just that.
Given the attention Isbell pays to writing, it’s no surprise that he’s taking his time developing a new record; in the meantime he’s considering a live album from his current tour. Along with his current breakthrough, Isbell is also still taking in being included in a new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. “It’s crazy,” he says. “It’s amazing to see your guitar behind glass next to John Prine’s guitar. I kinda felt sorry for John having to see my shit sitting next to his.”