It can’t be a coincidence that Isbell’s creative evolution has coincided with getting sober — he was reportedly kicked out of the Drive-By Truckers in 2007 for his hard-drinking ways — nor can it be overlooked that those albums have been the three created since he began a relationship with his now-wife Amanda Shires and started his collaboration with producer Dave Cobb.
But that’s not to say The Nashville Sound isn’t a slight departure from those earlier albums, each of which was as somber and introspective as anything Isbell had done in his 20-year songwriting career. The new record — his first to officially name-check his backing band, the 400 Unit, since 2011’s Here We Rest — is more sonically diverse, artfully weaving hard-charging Rock & Roll (“Cumberland Gap”), Classic Country (“Tupelo”), Blues (“Hope the High Road”) and Folk (“If We Were Vampires”) with the affecting, detail-driven lyricism that has made Isbell one the most heralded songwriters in recent memory. Best of all is “Anxiety,” a genre- and emotion-spanning epic in which Isbell admits, “Anxiety, how do you always get the best of me?”
Isbell recently took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to discuss everything from why he wanted to work with Cobb again to his need to inject politics into his songs.
CityBeat: Your songs have always come across as pretty personal, but this record seems even more personal than anything you’ve done previously. Was that intentional or did it just happen to come out that way organically?
Jason Isbell: I think that may just be a sign of me getting better at it, you know? I think the better songs are the more personal songs. The reason I say “better” is that I mean higher quality. Songs that connect with people in a more serious way are usually the ones that seem the most personal to the lives of the songwriters. I think the reason for that is that’s the only way to tell a story that is unique, because every song has been written a thousand times before and every story’s been told over and over and over for years. So the only thing we have really is our own perspective, and I think the more personal you get the more your own perspective works into those stories.
CB: A lot has changed in your life over the last 10 years. What do you think the Jason Isbell of 10 years ago would say about the guy you are today?
JI: I don’t know. I didn’t think who I am today was possible 10 years ago. Ten years ago I thought I was always going to be drinking. I thought I was always going to feel like shit. I thought that I was never going to have a consistent relationship with anybody or a family to take care of me, so I would definitely be encouraged if I knew this is where I was headed.
CB: Why did you want to work with Dave Cobb again?
JI: Because I’ve had the most success I’ve ever had with Dave Cobb. He’s the best producer in the world right now, if you ask me. It wasn’t broke, so I didn’t want to fix it. The two (previous) albums with him are by far the best albums I’ve made in my career, and I still felt that we had more things to explore. Plus I enjoy being around Dave. He’s got great ideas. He doesn’t make the studio intolerable. Sometimes big, successful producers can treat you like you’re unimportant. Dave is not that way.
CB: There are songs on this record that some people could and probably will interpret as overt political statements. What do you say to those who criticize artists for making political statements in their music?
JI: I don’t think those folks really want to hear artists at all. I think they want to hear entertainers. The word “artist” is way overused when it comes to the music business. Not everybody with a record deal is a recording artist. That’s a word that the record labels started overusing quite a few years ago. It made it seem like what they were doing was more important than just making money.
Yes, if I’m listening to an entertainer, if I’m going to a Broadway show or if I’m going to see somebody in Vegas just simply for the entertainment of it and I’m not looking to be challenged, then, yeah, I might not want to hear about sad or dark things or any kind of belief systems from the person who is giving me the entertainment. But I’m not an entertainer. I set out to make something that I could call art, and for me to do that I have to include my voice. That’s just how it’s going to be.
CB: The title of the album, The Nashville Sound, can be taken in few different ways. Why did you want to call it that?
JI: Part of the reason I did that was we recorded it at (RCA Studio B), which was originally called the home of the “Nashville Sound.” That was the nickname of the studio. That is what inspired me to consider that for a title, but the reason I really went with it is because I wanted people to understand that there is a lot more music being made in Nashville than just commercial Country music. There are a lot of things going on there that have a lot more to do with Rock & Roll or Folk music or even Hip Hop than there ever has been in the past. I think it’s important that people notice that Nashville is a music city; it’s not just a Country music city.
JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT perform Saturday at the PNC Pavilion at Riverbend. Tickets/more info: riverbend.org.