By Brian Wise.
Jason Isbell has been the hottest artist on the Americana music scene for the past few years and the fact that his latest album, The Nashville Sound, debuted at No.1 on the Billboard country charts means that he might be about to nudge Chris Stapleton for the crown in that genre too.
Since he moved to Nashville five years ago Isbell’s career has been on a meteoric course. In the past five years Isbell has won 6 Americana Awards and two Grammys! He was even nominated for an Americana Award in the Artist of the Year category this year before his new album was even released. Stapleton has also won two Grammys but has more than a dozen country music awards and two US No.1 country albums. Let’s call it a draw!
The point is that Isbell – who we first saw in Australia touring with Justin Townes Earle a decade ago – is now a major star. That has been the result of some hard work and also overcoming a few personal demons. If you saw him here in the early days you would know that he liked a drink, or two. By his own admission, those wild days are behind him and ever since he won his first Americana Award in 2012 his career has taken a definite upwards path.
Southeastern (2013) established Isbell’s reputation as a singer-songwriter and its follow-up, Something More Than Free (2015), released after his marriage to musician Amanda Shires, garnered him a Grammy Award for Best Americana Album and Best American Roots Song. The Americana Awards had been on board for years and now it was time for a wider audience to recognise Isbell’s talents.
What is so appealing about Isbell’s music? I’ve pondered that question as I have watched him overtake plenty of other younger songwriters and some older veterans in the acclaim and success stakes. Maybe it is Isbell’s time in the Drive By Truckers and the fact that he spent time at Muscle Shoals that has infused his music with an array of influences. He can rock out when he wants to – and always with a powerful groove – but he can also write a heartfelt ballad. It is that line he walks which helps him appeal to a rock audience and now to country fans.
For Record Store Day this year, Isbell released a live recording that might further help unlock the secret of his recent success. Welcome to 1979 features a song he recorded with the Drive By truckers along with versions of Springsteen’s ‘Atlantic City’ (maybe the best cover ever done of that song) and the Rolling Stones’ ‘Sway’ and ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.’ It is a neat encapsulation of Isbell’s influences.
The Nashville Sound was produced, as were his two previous albums, by Dave Cobb, who just happens to be the hottest producer in Nashville these days. The album also reunites Isbell will his band, the 400 Unit (Derry deBorja, Chad Gamble, Jimbo Hart, Amanda Shires and Sadler Vaden) for the first fully-blown album since Here We Rest in 2011.
The 10 songs on The Nashville Sound not only deal with personal issues (such as becoming a parent) but they also confront politics and contemporary American culture (‘Cumberland Gap,’ ‘The Last of My Kind’ and ‘White Man’s World’).
I spoke to Isbell by phone on the release of the album last week.
Before I ask you about the new album, and congratulations on that, I believe you released a live album for Record Store Day.
Yeah, we did. It was an EP and it was mostly covers. There was one song on there that I wrote, but it was something that we recorded in one take, straight to tape. We just went in and recorded it and that was it. It was done. It was a challenge. It was a lot of fun though. It was a lot of fun.
I was in Memphis on Record Store Day and I went to the store but I missed out on getting it. I don’t suppose it’s still available, is it?
I don’t think so. I think it sold out pretty quick, but we might put it out in some other form at some point.
There were some interesting covers on it I believe…………a Springsteen song, Stones songs. Can you tell us about the selection on the album?
A couple of Stones songs, both off Sticky Fingers, and ‘Atlantic City’ from Springsteen. A song that I wrote for the Drive-By Truckers, ‘Never Gonna Change, and then a John Prine song, ‘Storm Windows’. They were just favorites of mine, all those songs. They’re ones that we had been playing live periodically throughout the last few years so I thought we would do those songs on this recording and sort of retire them from the live show. So we probably won’t be playing those again with the exception of ‘Never Gonna Change’. Since I wrote that I’m sure that’ll find its way back into the set. Just songs that meant something to me, songs that had shaped my development.
Well, I think it’s a pretty neat encapsulation of some of your influences. I read an article recently that called you the King of Americana, which I think is a pretty accurate description these days, and I was trying to figure out a reason for that. I guess it’s the fact that you combine all those influences into your music. That might be one of the secrets of this phenomenal success that you’ve had over the last few years.
Well, there are a lot of people that do what I do particularly well. We’ve been really lucky with the last couple of albums. The Americana community has been very welcoming, which is a great thing for me because a lot of my heroes make records under that banner nowadays.
When they have their awards show and you see people like Don Was playing the house band, and Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams giving out awards. It’s pretty special.
I think one thing that Americana music does that’s really beneficial for those of us who make it is it isn’t specifically directed at one age group or at one type of person. We can cover the bases as far as kids all the way up to old folks who like their old hippie music from the ’60s. It pretty much covers all that ground. I listen to a lot of different types of music and music from a lot of different eras and, hopefully, if I do it right that’ll find its way into the music that I make.
Well, it seems to me that one of your secrets is the fact that you’ve been able to connect with those different audiences of all different ages and tastes and that’s a pretty important thing because you’re nominated again this year for some more awards, aren’t you? It must be very gratifying for you.
Yeah, it’s sweet. It’s honestly kind of silly because I didn’t put a record out this year but it’s the Artist of the Year award. I guess touring as much as we did and continuing to work as hard as we work probably led to that. Also, part of me thinks they wanted me to show up for the Awards show, so they were like, “We’ll nominate him. Maybe he’ll fly in from tour and come to the show.” I’m going to do that. I’m going to show up for them because they are so kind to me.
That kind of thing, the awards, I’m grateful for those and Grammys and things like that. I’m very grateful for those awards but I definitely feel like there are a lot of people that I’ve known throughout the years that we’ve toured with who have deserved those sorts of accolades who haven’t gotten them. I’m grateful, I’m thankful, but I don’t for a minute let myself believe that I deserve those things because I really don’t think we know what we deserve. I think we just work as hard as we can and hope good things happen.
Let’s talk about the new album. It’s titled The Nashville Sound, which sounds like it could have been an album title in the ’50s or ’60s. There’s a little bit of irony in there too, isn’t there?
Yeah, I think so. It’s not exactly irony. I think it would be irony if Nashville wasn’t such a quickly changing and growing city. There’s so many different kinds of music that I think of when I think of the city that I live in now. You have Jack White and Third Man, you have the Black Keys, you have Paramore, you have all these great punk rock bands like Diarrhea Planet, Jeff the Brotherhood, and then you have the Americana scene that covers everything basically from arena rock to old time music, with country music in between.
I try to tell people that there’s more to Nashville than there was 20 or 30 years ago. This can be a really
fantastic city for somebody who, like me, really hates what’s on most popular country radio stations these days. I really, really don’t enjoy most of that music at all, with a few exceptions – Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Eric Church from time to time – but for the most part I don’t want to listen to that music and I still love Nashville. So I think that says something about what the Nashville sound is these days.
Well, if you look at the cover of Bob Dylan’s, or the back cover of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and look at Nashville now, it is a completely different city. You’re right, the changes have been amazing.
It is, yes. It’s a very different city. It’s a different city than it was when Todd Snider made East Nashville Skyline.
Your producer is Dave Cobb again. You’ve worked with him now on three consecutive albums. He’s just about now the hottest producer in Nashville. You obviously get along well with him.
Yeah, we do. We like each other. We’re good friends and Dave has really, really great ideas. I genuinely believe that he makes the albums and songs better than they would be otherwise, but it’s also not like pulling teeth.
When I go in the studio with Dave, I wind up on the other end of it thinking, “Should that have not been harder?” It seems like it was too easy. That’s what you want. If I go in with my homework done and a dozen or more songs written, then we have a lot of fun working machines. Usually, I wind up with a really nice product. One thing I love about Dave is you can’t really pinpoint a signature sound. You can’t listen to something and say, “This sounds like Dave Cobb.” It just sounds like quality usually.
A lot of producers have their signature sound like T Bone Burnett or Daniel Lanois or something like that, but I don’t think you’d be able to say that about Dave, would you?
No, and I don’t mind that when it’s somebody who’s really talented. Nigel Godrich who you can tell. You can definitely tell with those kind of producers. Rick Rubin even, but with Dave you just can’t. You can’t. A Rival Son’s record is not going to sound anything like a Chris Stapleton record.
You also recorded the album at the legendary RCA Studio B, which I’ve been lucky enough to stand in. Could you describe that and the feeling there when you were recording and what sort of a room it is?
Yeah. We were in A which is next door, which is the same room Stapleton had. He left the night before we came in actually, so Dave didn’t even go home I don’t think. I don’t think he even took a break.
That whole area there, that studio was almost gone. It was almost torn down a couple years ago and then a local fellow swooped in and saved it at that last minute, so we were very grateful. That’s really where Chet Atkins sort of ran the place in the ’70s. That was when the outlaw country movement really was born because people like Waylon and Willie wanted to record there and not where their record label wanted them to record.
A lot of great RCA records were made in those rooms, both of those studios. In the B room you had Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley cutting in there and then the A room was where that countrypolitan Nashville sound they called back in the ’60s where that sort of got its birth. It was a big deal for us. It’s a huge room and it sounds fantastic. It’s in great shape so we were very happy to be there.
It’s kind of like the weight of history sitting there in the room behind you while you’re recording, isn’t it?
Well, I’m from Muscle Shoals, Alabama so I’m used to that. I’m just more concerned whether everything works or not, and it was nice. It was real nice to make one of our weird independent records on Music Row because I felt like at any given point on a street with a bunch of really expensive studios and a lot of pop country music being made, I felt like what we were doing there at RCA was probably the most important thing that was going on that day. That was a good feeling.
Tell us about The 400 Unit, because they’re credited on the album alongside you. It’s really a band record, isn’t it?
It is. They’ve been with me for a long time. After a couple of weeks of recording I thought this wouldn’t be the same record without their contributions, and so I wanted to give them credit for it. It was really that simple. I decided after we had worked a little while that it should be listed as a band record on the album cover because they did more than hired guns would do. They did more than I could have done myself, that’s for sure.
When you go out on tour, Amanda will be with you and you’ve recently had a daughter which has obviously affected your life pretty dramatically I would imagine over the last few months.
It has. Yeah, it’s changed a lot of things. Luckily, we’re a little bit older now. We didn’t have kids when we were super young so I think that makes it a little easier on us. We got a lot of those wild hairs pulled a long time ago. Yeah, she’s an easy kid. She sleeps good. She likes to tour. She’ll be on the bus with us for most of the summer. We like that. If I can tour with the family, I can stay out there for a long time and get a lot of work done.
Has it affected your outlook and your song writing as well, having a child?
Yeah. If you’re the kind of songwriter I am, everything that happens that’s a major occurrence is going to affect you and that’s probably about as major as it gets. Yeah. I could go into great detail about that, but I think the simplest way to put it is it gives you a different perspective. She’s looking at the world from down close to the ground and I think we take for granted what it looks like from down there.
The thing that we’re trying to do as songwriters is come up with a new way to tell really old stories that have been told over and over and over and over. I think that whole circle of life, for lack of a better term, really makes you think about things like life and death in a different way. Anytime you can think of something in a different way, it gives you another language as a songwriter.
Let me ask you about one song because we haven’t got long. Could you talk about ‘Cumberland Gap’? It’s a place that’s significant but a lot of Australians might not know about it and it’s a really interesting song that you’ve written about it.
Yeah. In a lot of ways it marks a border between a rural part of America and your more urban East Coast region. It kind of blocks off sort of…….. the gap is right between the mountains and the East Coast. It’s a place that for a long time has been coal mining country. Now a lot of those people are having a hard time finding jobs, keeping their families fed. The song really deals with an individual who’s feeling the effects of that. Some of the things that he’s dealing with are his fault and some of them aren’t. It’s kind of just a chronicle of this one person’s struggle with being from a rural part of America where the way of life that they used to know is not really existing anymore.
Along those lines, ‘Hope the High Road’ has a really interesting line in it. You sing, “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know.” You pop in some interesting commentary in there without being too overt about it, I suppose.
There’s a point of diminishing returns. If you yell at people they sort of stop listening to you. If you want to get anything done and finding a common ground, you have to be subtle about those kind of things. It was a difficult year on a lot of levels. A lot of people that I consider to be heroes passed away. Just Bowie and Merle Haggard just to name a couple. That combination right there sort of sums up all the music that I’ve made. I think for my career what I’ve tried to do is somewhere between those two individuals.
It was a bad year on that side of things, but also politically. It was just a really difficult transition and it I think brought out the worst in Americans and not just Americans. These things are happening all over the world right now. A lot of the fringes are getting louder and louder. Yeah, it’s becoming difficult to deal with for a lot of people.
Well, listen. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. You’re about to go on a huge tour. It’s going to take you all the way through the States. Hopefully, I’ll be able to see you at Americana at least for one night, and you’re going across to Europe. Are we likely to see you back in Australia at some stage maybe in the New Year or something?
I hope so. We don’t have any plans on the books but I know we usually get over there every year, so if we’re not over there this year it’ll be early next year I think.
Great. Hey, congratulations on another terrific album and those awards are richly deserved. I look forward to catching up with you over in the States hopefully.
Thanks a lot. Thanks for your time.