Jason Isbell Locates His Musical Compass On 'Southeastern'
This interview was originally broadcast on July 17, 2013.
When singer-songwriter Jason Isbell used to get drunk, he'd sometimes tell his then-girlfriend, the musician Amanda Shires, that he needed to quit the bottle — and that if it was going to take, he'd have to go to rehab. Eventually, she said the next time he told her that, she'd hold him to it. And she did. And he went. And, he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "The jury is still out on whether or not it worked, but it worked today and all the days leading up to this."
Initially, he says he was scared about what sobriety would do to his personality and his creativity.
"The changes can't all be good changes," he says. "There's got to be something that you're losing there, some kind of potency, or humor even, or some sort of attractiveness — not only to the person you're with romantically, but to your family, to your friends."
But his fears have thus far proven unfounded. Shires has since become his wife, and his solo album, Southeastern — some songs from which he plays for Gross — has been turning heads. In these songs, Isbell, a former member of Drive-By Truckers and current frontman for The 400 Unit, lays himself eloquently and emotionally bare.
While long-recognized as a brilliant songwriter, Isbell credits sobriety with his newfound openness on Southeastern.
"I think there's an openness you really have to accept if you're going to make a change like that," Isbell says. "You have to be all right with saying, 'I have weaknesses.'
"[W]hen I've got a piece of paper in front of me, I feel like that's therapy for me in a whole lot of ways," he adds. "So I feel like I should go ahead and get it out and tell it all like it happened."
On whether he felt pressured to find a 'higher power' while going through rehab
"For a lot of folks who get sober, the process of getting and staying sober becomes their higher power, and it becomes a religion that sort of consumes a whole lot of them. I just don't think that that's necessary. I think that that can be a side note rather than the story of your life. I think a lot of people are scared, and I know I was scared to get sober, at least using this as an excuse; 'I don't want to be one of those sober people.' And I don't think you have to be. I think you can be one of those people who happens to be sober. For me, no, I'm not a particularly religious person. I was determined not to convert during that process."
On the characters in his song 'Elephant,' which deals with cancer
"I like to mix people together and make characters, especially with a song that's this heavy, with a subject matter that's this heavy. I like to build characters and allow them to behave as naturally as possible, and I think the two people that wound up existing in this song, I think they really did behave the way those folks would.
"I think the original inspiration for this [was] I used to spend a lot of time in this bar downstairs from the apartment that I lived in, in Alabama, before I moved up here to Nashville. Gradually, the regulars would start to disappear. Almost always, it was cancer-related. Over time, there were probably eight or nine people who just would sort of vanish almost right before your very eyes. These were people who weren't having the best life. They were spending a whole lot of hours sitting at a bar, but I think I got that idea. I imagined a couple of folks who were drinking buddies, nothing more than that, and how their relationship changed when one of them got sick. I've known a lot of people who have gotten cancer and died. I think everybody has at this point in time, but those two folks aren't necessarily people who exist in reality."
On his parents' views on him being a musician
"My dad, he worries a bit, usually with good reason. There were quite a few years there where he was probably trying to resign himself to fact that I wouldn't live too much longer, just because of the way I was living. ... There was a moment for Dad where he realized it was going to work out as a career and he called me, he pulled over on the side of the road in his truck, this is probably 8 or 9 years ago. He was listening to demos from my first solo record; he pulled over on the side of the road on his way to work and called me and said, 'Well, son, I don't think you're going to need a backup plan. I think you can go ahead and do this. I just wanted to tell you that.' Which is a big deal for my father. It was always, 'Have something to fall back on.'"
On the name of his band, The 400 Unit, being inspired by the unit of a mental hospital
"It sounds a little insensitive now, I guess. I think [the hospital] changed the name of the place. I don't think that's our fault. I think they changed it anyway, [but] they would take folks out, their day patients. They would take them out once or twice a week, and they would give them all 10 or 15 bucks and put a name tag on them; they would get out of a big white Ford van downtown in Florence, Alabama. They'd walk around and try to get lunch. It just scared the locals. The locals saw the van and knew what it was, and they got out looking real disheveled and disoriented, and they would try to exist in reality as a normal person for an hour or however long it took to get a Subway sandwich or something.
"We had been on the road for about a month. We stopped somewhere and we all got out of the van and we were drinking pretty heavily and not getting a whole lot of sleep, and it was the middle of the day and we were all hungover and smelled pretty bad, and I handed everybody 10 bucks because it was their per diem for the day, and we all went to get a sandwich, and I thought, 'Man, that reminds me so much of something I've seen somewhere before.'"
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. When our rock critic Ken Tucker compiled his top 10 albums of 2013, leading that list was the latest by Jason Isbell. Tucker said no music moved me more, did more to make me think about life a little bit differently than Jason Isbell's continually revelatory album "Southeastern."
It cohered as a statement about love, regret, loneliness and joy. It was self-conscious without being self-aborbed, unquote. Many of Isbell's fans first heard his work with the Southern rock band The Drive-By Truckers. When Terry Gross spoke with him earlier this year, she asked him to bring his guitar along. To start, she asked him to perform "Cover Me Up," the song that opens the new album, his first since getting solo.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COVER ME UP")
JASON ISBELL: (Singing) A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun. You can't trust anyone. I was so sure what I needed was more, tried to shoot out the sun. In days when we raged, we flew off the page. Such damage was done. But I made it through 'cause somebody knew I was meant for someone.
(Singing) So girl leave your boots by the bed we ain't leavin' this room 'til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom. It's cold in this house and I ain't going out to chop wood. So cover me up, and know you're enough to use me for good.
(Singing) Put your faith to the test when I tore off your dress in Richmond all night. But I sobered up, I swore off that stuff forever this time. And the old lovers sing, I'd thought it'd be me who helped him get home. But home was a dream, one I'd never seen 'til you came along.
(Singing) So girl hang your dress up to dry, we ain't leavin' this room 'til Percy Priest breaks open wide and the river runs through, carries this house on the stones like a piece of drift wood. Cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good.
(Singing) So girl leave your boots by the bed we ain't leavin' this room 'til someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom. It's cold in this house and I ain't going out to chop wood. So cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good. Cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Oh, that's beautiful. That's Jason Isbell performing a song that's the lead song on his new album, and that song was called "Cover Me Up." Jason Isbell, thank you so much for coming to FRESH AIR. So you wrote that song for your wife, Amanda Shires, who is also a musician and songwriter and singer. So I hope she liked it.
ISBELL: She did. She liked it a lot. She did. She wasn't my wife, and she is my wife now, so apparently she didn't hate it.
GROSS: OK. So part of the song is about getting sober and about how she helped you do that. Is it easier to write a really emotional personal song like this that you said was difficult for you to write before, is it easier to write it now being sober? Is that making a difference in the emotional quality of either your writing or your singing?
ISBELL: I think so. I think there's an openness that you really have to accept if you're going to make a change like that. You have to be all right with saying I have weaknesses, and I think that was a big problem for me. You know, when I was still drinking, I thought I was kind of in control of everything in my life, and other people's lives, and I realized at some point that that just wasn't the case at all.
And I had to turn over some of that control, and I think it did make it easier for me to open up.
GROSS: There's a song that's on your new album "Southeastern" that seems to me to be about - in part about giving up alcohol and about making the journey back to being sober. It's called "New South Wales." I'm going to ask you to perform that song for us, but first tell us the story behind the song.
ISBELL: This one, I'd gone over to Australia a few years back with Justin Townes Earle. This is one of the older songs for the record, and actually he was the person going through that kind of struggle at that point. He and I went over just the two of us and did a whole bunch of shows and raised a whole lot of hell and had a really great time.
But, you know, when we got home, it sort of spiraled out of control for both of us, I think, after that, but that trip was just, I don't know, debaucherous in a whole lot of ways. And yeah, I wrote the song about that.
GROSS: The song has a line God bless the busted boat that brings us back. Listening to the song, I was thinking that that was whatever it is that gets you back to sobriety or whether that brings you salvation or whatever, but am I misinterpreting that?
ISBELL: No, no, that's there, too. Yeah, that's also there. It's a concrete thing. But my wife hates it when I talk about allegory, but I guess that's what that is. She's in the middle of a bunch of James Joyce right now in graduate school, so the word allegory really...
ISBELL: The word allegory is not allowed in the house at this point.
GROSS: Yeah, would you do "New South Wales" for us?
ISBELL: Sure, yeah, yeah, I'll do that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW SOUTH WALES")
ISBELL: (Singing) Here we sit cross the table from each other, a thousand miles from both our mothers, barely old enough to rust. And here we sit tending both our hearts' rancor, taking candy from these strangers amidst the diesel and the dust. And here we sit, singing words nobody taught us, drinking fire and spitting sawdust, trying to teach ourselves to breathe. We haven't yet, but every chorus brings us closer. Every flyer and every poster gives a piece of what we need.
(Singing) And the sand that they call cocaine costs you twice as much as gold. You'd be better off to drink your coffee black. But I swear the land, it'll listen to the stories that we told. God bless the busted boat that brings us back.
(Singing) Morning's rough, don't give a damn about the mission, has no aesthetic or tradition, only lessons never learned. I'd had enough about a month ago tomorrow. (Unintelligible) holds no trace of sorrow for the bitter and the burned. And the piss they call tequila even Waylon wouldn't drink. I'd rather sip this Listerine I packed. But I swear we've never seen a better place to sit and think. God bless the busted boat that brings us back.
(Singing) And the sand that they call cocaine costs you twice as much as gold. Be better off to drink your coffee black. But I swear the land, it'll listen to the stories that we told. God bless the busted boat that brings us back. God bless the busted boat that brings us back.
GROSS: That's Jason Isbell, performing a song that's also on his new album. The new album is called "Southeastern." As you say, you grew up in the Bible Belt. You grew up in Alabama. So religion was a big part of your house. What about the church and church singing?
ISBELL: Yeah, I went to church. My mom's family, they were Church of Christ Southern, Church of Christ, and my dad's family were Pentecostal. My grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher. And so there were two very, very different styles of church music coming at me. The Pentecostal church had a full band, and they were really loud.
And then my mom's church, you know, you're forbidden to have musical instruments in the Church of Christ. So it was all voices. You know, I would get those two mixed up in my head every once in a while. And, you know, the Pentecostal church, like when you're supposed to pray, everybody prayed out loud at once. Everybody just said what they had to say.
And then at the Church of Christ, it was very quiet, you know, and that wasn't the thing. I remember one time I got them mixed up in my head, and when I was at the Church of Christ with my mom, and it was time to pray, I just started yelling. I was probably five or six years old.
ISBELL: I started yelling out all my - my mom grabbed me by the hair, don't do that, don't - that's not here, that's the other place.
BIANCULLI: Jason Isbell, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2013 interview with singer-songwriter Jason Isbell. His latest CD, "Southeastern," was named by our rock critic Ken Tucker as the best album of the year.
GROSS: I want you to do another song from your new album. This is a song about cancer. Not that many people write songs about cancer, and I'd love for you to tell the story behind this song before you sing it and if it's about somebody who you know.
ISBELL: I think the original inspiration for this, I used to spend a lot of time in this bar downstairs from the apartment I lived in Alabama before I moved up here in Nashville. And gradually the regulars would start to disappear and, you know, almost always it was cancer-related. But, you know, over time they were probably eight or nine people who, you know, just would sort of vanish almost before your very eyes.
And, you know, these were people who weren't having the best life. They were spending a whole lot of hours sitting in a bar. But I think I got that idea, you know, I imagined a couple of folks who were drinking buddies really, nothing more than that and, you know, how their relationship changed when one of them got sick.
I have known a lot of people who, you know, have gotten cancer and died, I think everybody has at this point in time, but this one, you know, those two folks aren't necessarily people that exist out in reality.
GROSS: So the song is called "Elephant." Would you sing it for us?
ISBELL: Yes. I will.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEPHANT")
ISBELL: (Singing) She said Andy, you're better than your past, winked at me and drained her glass, cross-legged on the barstool, like nobody sits anymore. She said Andy, you're taking me home, but I knew she planned to sleep alone. I'd carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from the floor.
(Singing) If I had (bleep) her before she got sick, I'd never hear the end of it. She don't have the spirit for that now. We drink our drinks and laugh out loud and bitch about the weekend crowd and try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow.
(Singing) She said Andy, you crack me up, Seagram's in a coffee cup, sharecropper eyes and her hair almost all gone. When she got drunk she made cancer jokes. She made up her own doctor's notes. Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone.
(Singing) I'd sing her classic country songs and she'd get high and sing along. But she don't have much voice to sing with now. We'd burn these joints in effigy, cry about what we used to be and try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow, somehow.
(Singing) I buried her a thousand times, giving up my place in line, but I don't give a damn about that now. There's one thing that's real clear to me, no one dies with dignity. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow, somehow, somehow.
GROSS: That's Jason Isbell performing his song "Elephant," a song that also featured on his new album "Southeastern." So you have a song called "Outfit" that was first recorded by the Drive-By Truckers when you were with them. And the bridge is advice that your father used to give you. Would you just sing the bridge for us with the advice?
ISBELL: OK. Yeah.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUTFIT")
ISBELL: (Singing) Don't call what you're wearing an outfit. Don't ever say your car is broke. And don't worry about losing your accent, 'cause a Southern man tells better jokes. Have fun but stay clear of the needle. Call home on your sister's birthday. Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus. And don't give it away. Don't give it away.
GROSS: So that's great. So why was he worried that you'd call what you were wearing an outfit?
ISBELL: Oh, yeah. That's, I'm - I don't know. There were certain things that were pet peeves for my father. I think he did want me to be a certain level of masculine, and that's probably where that came from, but I know that wouldn't cut a whole lot of weight nowadays. You can't really tell your kids stuff like that anymore with good reason.
But, yeah, in those days you could have probably gotten a black eye for saying, you know, something about your outfit in school.
GROSS: And don't ever say your car is broke?
ISBELL: Right. You should know what's wrong with it.
GROSS: I suppose that's as opposed to broken? Oh. Oh. Oh.
ISBELL: No. No. No.
GROSS: Oh. Oh. Oh. I thought it was correcting your grammar.
ISBELL: No. Not gram - you should know what's wrong with it - alternator or something.
GROSS: Oh, you should say or it's the alternator, it's the carburetor.
ISBELL: Yeah. Exactly.
GROSS: Use your spark plugs, that kind of thing?
ISBELL: Yeah. If you can at least know that much when you take it into the shop you're not going to get run over as easily.
GROSS: That is good advice.
BIANCULLI: Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, speaking with Terry Gross earlier this year. His latest CD, "Southeastern," was named album of the year by our rock critic Ken Tucker. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.