We’ve Got A File On You: Jason Isbell
We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.
There were all these other lives Jason Isbell could’ve led. He could’ve never left Drive-By Truckers, and spent a steady career as one of the band’s several singer-guitarists. He could’ve easily wound up someone who wrote songs for other artists in the background, or become a reliable studio hand. He could’ve never gotten sober, in which case not only would his music have taken a much different form, but by his own admission he might not be here at all right now. None of that is what happened, of course. Early last decade, Isbell underwent a couple rebirths. And from his 2013 breakthrough album Southeastern onwards, a whole new direction unfolded for him.
Isbell hasn’t just walked a new path in terms of his own biography, but one unlike those of his contemporaries. He’s an old-school singer-songwriter — in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, there was talk of how much bigger Isbell would’ve become in the ’70s. He’s the kind of musician that aging forebears find kinship with, while his outlook and persona are still distinctly of his own time. He straddles worlds — beloved by that classic rock establishment, embraced by current indie listeners, flitting around the outskirts of the country music world’s dichotomies and mechanisms — and yet has not languished as a cult figure, but instead has inched towards becoming a household name.
In recent years, a lot of that has to do with Isbell’s crucial contribution to the A Star Is Born soundtrack (and, presumably, the similar opportunities that’ll follow), but all along it’s really come down to his songwriting: a startling level of craft in terms of lyrics and melody forms the bedrock for raw, emotional storytelling. His latest, the great Reunions, is no different. From the surging opener “What’ve I Done To Help” onwards, the existential stakes are high but the stories are intimate. Isbell keeps refining his ability to find the smallest exchanges and details that suggest a whole person’s inner life, single lines that bear decades of struggle and will absolutely cut right through you.
When Isbell and I spoke, it was already a ways into quarantine. He was at his home in Nashville, and as usual he had a lot of perspective on life — acknowledging those we’ve lost during the pandemic, drawing on his own experience to worry about those who are suffering through active addiction during this. But Isbell’s perspective also comes with a wry sense of humor. “I’ve been to jail in Alabama, dude, multiple times,” he said. “This house is nice.”
Isbell is also quite a talker. Over the next 90 minutes, we dug deep into moments scattered throughout his career — from Reunions back to Drive-By Truckers, and all kinds of collaborations, other projects, and strange internet occurrences in between.
STEREOGUM: You’ve already said there are a lot of ghosts on this album, and that these are songs you wish you could’ve written 15 years ago — one of the “reunions” being with an older version of yourself.
JASON ISBELL: I think I’ve been trying to do that the whole time. The songs I’ve had the most success with are songs that deal with more raw emotion — like “Cover Me Up,” for example. That song is pretty sparse in terms of word use and phrasing, it’s really about being very direct and very honest. I think I’ve always had a gift for that, in a certain way. It was always something I was capable of accessing in myself. But refining the use of language and melody to get to a point where I can make a song that has that kind of emotional heft but also appears conversational — but isn’t, that opens itself up to broader meaning — that’s something that’s taken me a couple of decades of writing songs to be able to do.
I don’t say that meaning I’ve reached the peak of my ability, because I don’t feel like I have — especially not musically. But I think lyrically, I’ve gotten to a point now where I can write with the same kind of emotion but not quite so raw. The kind of emotion that’s filtered through the process of writing songs with the intention of making things more relatable and find the right details to transport the listener from one place to another.
STEREOGUM: Like you’re maybe getting ever so slightly wiser with time?
ISBELL: In some ways, and I think also just better at the craft of writing the song. The art of it is a very messy, very sloppy, strictly creative pure thing that comes out of wanting to express yourself without targeting the results. But the craft of it is a lot of intellectual labor. It takes a lot of thought to figure out how do I hide the trick, how do I hide the work, how do I get these songs to a place where — I want it to sound like I’m not a very good songwriter. I want it to sound like I’m somebody who just vomited up this story. And to have that happen, you have to write a whole lot of songs. For people to forget they’re listening to a song, that’s the ultimate goal. I just want them to feel like they’re consuming a story.
STEREOGUM: In recent years, were there particular things on your mind that brought you towards Reunions?
ISBELL: I think the big thing that happened for me was I had reached a point in my development as a person… I hate to relate everything to sobriety or recovery, because it’s bigger to me than that. But I think the period, almost a decade ago, where I got my shit together — I stopped drinking, I started paying my bills on time, I stopped running around chasing after people, I started sleeping at night and taking care of myself and trying to form myself into some version of a mature adult. For a few years after that, it was very dangerous for me to forgive the person I used to be and come to terms with that.
Because that person could not be a part of my life for that time period, a lot of the relationships that I made in those days — it wasn’t safe for me to revisit those. Some of that was on a personal level, like actual people that I talk to now that I didn’t talk to for quite a few years. But a lot of it was inside my head. It wasn’t OK for me to go back and think, “You weren’t that bad.” That was dangerous for me for the first few years, because it was possible that I would slip back into that persona and go back to being that person. I feel like in the last couple years I finally got to a point where I feel strong enough and confident enough in the decision-making process I have now that I can go back and hang out with the person I used to be.
STEREOGUM: Right, on this album you write about this from the perspective of some years, not the immediate or visceral phase but being more reflective down the line.
ISBELL: And I try to do that with my relationship with recovery, but also with my relationship with my wife, and with my family. If I’m looking for an interesting angle to write a song, very often I’ll go to that. What is this like in real time? Most of us are dealing with the long, drawn-out period in between when you fall in love with somebody and they die, or you clean your act up and you die. There’s a lot of space there that most of us are living in, and it’s not as explored in music or art as it should be.
Love songs have been written so many times, in so many different ways. For me to try to find something that hasn’t necessarily been said before, I have to look at it from a different time, from a different angle. There are so many train songs, but most of them happen outside of the train, you know? You don’t hear many songs where people are describing the inside of a train car, it’s always the sound of the wheels of the train coming by.
STEREOGUM: Back when we last interviewed you, Something More Than Free was coming out and you were saying you didn’t actually feel too overwhelmed by following up Southeastern. Things have just been getting bigger and bigger incrementally for you since. This time around, did any of that weigh on you? Did you think about Reunions needing to take on a certain scope?
ISBELL: Yes, and I mean, I think there was a good chance I was lying the last time I talked to you guys. [Laughs.] But it took me a long time to figure that out, I didn’t know that’s what was going on. I thought, “Well, you’re focused.” And it’s very easy to confuse being focused with feeling pressured. I think I did that for a long time, and finally that boiled over when it came time to make this record. Amanda and I were having a lot of trouble in the studio, because I was mistaking that pressure for something else and not really admitting to myself that in fact I did feel like there was a lot riding on this album and this set of songs and how they were written and recorded.
I feel a lot better now that I’ve figured out I was feeling a lot of pressure the whole time, but it did take me a decade to figure that out. I think part of why I wasn’t necessarily admitting that to myself is that all of these are good problems to have. But I think it’s possible to be extremely grateful and also just freak the fuck out at the same time.
So I try to let myself have those emotions now. And going into the studio, I was thinking, “What if this sucks? What if I’ve gotten too far from the original intent? What if I’ve convinced myself what I’m doing is great just because it’s me doing it? What if I’ve paid too much attention to the people in the past who either kissed my ass or appreciated the work I was doing?” Either way it’s really dangerous.
In the process of making these songs, and the couple years leading up to recording this album, I lost a couple of friends who I think had really given in to the idea of staying inside their own bubble. People who had taken all of their critics and all of their editors out of their immediate circle, and wound up surrounded by people who would do everything they asked, just yeasayers. I’m always very, very worried about that. If you have any kind of success in the music business, or probably any business, you always have the option of kicking everyone out besides the people who just kiss your ass all the time. Sometimes I look back and think, “Am I criticizing my own work and my own songs enough? Have I lost touch with what’s good?”
But, you know, turns out I didn’t. I haven’t lost that yet. But it really took a lot of work to admit to myself that I was feeling that way, and I think I felt that way ever since Southeastern came out. Because in the time between recording Southeastern and releasing it, I didn’t know what it was. I know now what it was. I’m extremely proud of it, but I also don’t want it to be the last, or only, great thing I do. There’s a lot of space between good enough and great. It’ll freak you the fuck out, but it’s still a really good problem to have. People are listening to what I have to say, and that doesn’t seem to be slowing down at the current moment. I have a lot to be grateful for.
“Maybe It’s Time” From A Star Is Born (2018) Plus Eddie Vedder Covering It (2019)
STEREOGUM: This was something you were pretty skeptical about getting involved with at first.
ISBELL: I had just finished recording The Nashville Sound, and then [Dave] Cobb comes around with this movie he’s working on and he says he needs songs for this movie and feels like I’d be perfect for it. My first instinct was, “I don’t have the mental acumen left to do something like this. My brain is exhausted and I don’t feel like messing with that right now.” He told me what the movie was and I thought, “This sounds like a terrible idea, why do they keep remaking movies over and over, are there no more movies? Are there no more stories?” So I was just kind of grumpy and irritated by all of it.
Luckily my wife said, “Maybe you should reconsider this, because I think you have some old songs that could work on and bring in that would be pretty perfect for this, and I think they’re kind of counting on you for it, and if they’re counting on you for it, that means they’re going to treat you pretty well.” Well, OK, maybe so. Maybe my participation in this wouldn’t be tertiary, it’d be something that’d actually be important to these people. So I went through my songs, and found “Maybe It’s Time.” I had already started working on the song and I moved some things around a bit, brought it in and sang it to Dave and he was just floored. “Oh this is perfect! This is perfect!” The whole time I’m thinking, “Yeah, it’s perfect but they’re gonna make me change most of it.” Because that’s how they always do. But they didn’t. They didn’t change a thing.
I met Bradley [Cooper]. He came to a show, hung out, talked to me a little bit about what his ideas were. It started to make sense. Then the movie came out and I saw it, and it was good. In the meantime, he had sent me a demo of him singing the song, and I was afraid to listen to it. I had never heard him sing before, and I thought, “This is going to be awful.” This is going to be like Wolverine singing in Les Mis or something. And I thought, “I’ve already gotten so far in the process, what happens if I don’t like it? I’m not gonna be able to tell this guy, ‘No, I don’t want anything to do with this.'” And is that even legal at that point? Is it just gonna be something I hear and hate it and have to tolerate for the rest of my life?
So I took a flight across country and when I got off I was like, “OK, I gotta go ahead and listen to this now.” And it was good! He did a good job. He sounded like a country singer. I texted him like, “This is great, thank you for doing this, I appreciate you not changing anything,” and all that. I didn’t know until when he was doing interviews for the movie that that was a big deal. He told a story that the most tense moment for him was waiting on me to approve his singing of the song. I had no idea. I thought it was going to be like, “This songwriter doesn’t like it, but we’re going for it anyway.” But turns out it was pretty important to him, and then when I saw the movie I realized there was more of me and my story in that movie than I had previously thought there was going to be.
STEREOGUM: That song, obviously there’s a resonance with that character’s arc in the movie and also a thematic commentary it provides to the movie as well. You mentioned it was just an old song you brought in. Did you then rewrite anything to this prompt, sort of? Like, even the line, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” were you already playing with that?
ISBELL: Oh, yeah, I already had that. In all honesty, there wasn’t a lot of it I wrote with the movie in mind. Most of it was just for me. I think it was one of those things that… I think Dave Cobb did the right thing there. I think he knew that things I wrote about for myself would apply pretty perfectly. That’s when a music supervisor, or whatever job Dave had, that’s when that job really comes in handy. Because he knew I had those songs, because he knows me.
STEREOGUM: Then there was this sort of bizarre full-circle moment where Eddie Vedder, the guy Bradley Cooper had partially based his character off, winds up playing this song. Now I know at this point in your career, plenty of surreal things have happened, but you’re of the age where Eddie Vedder was like, one of the biggest names on the planet when you were a kid.
ISBELL: Oh, yeah, for sure. When Ten came out, I was 13, 14, something like that. I was playing guitar and learning all those parts. That record was a huge deal for me. And they’ve held up, they’re one of the rare rock bands that came around in that era and survived and nobody got all that tired of, which just speaks to the quality of the work. That was huge. I was jumping up and down when I heard him singing that song. Since then, I heard from Mike McCready, who’s a big fan of my songs, and we texted back and forth a little bit.
That was probably an even bigger deal for me, because Mike’s guitar parts were like a Bible for me as a kid. Honestly, it’s the first time I ever heard somebody play old guitars through big loud amps and have it played on the radio. Everyone up until then was playing pointy guitars or pastel ’80s guitars. Except for Slash, I gotta give Slash credit. He played his old Les Paul copy through the whole thing. But Pearl Jam was the first time I heard really Hendrix-sounding guitar tones on the radio every day and I thought, “Wow, you can still do that, people will still listen to that kind of rock ‘n’ roll music.”
Drive-By Truckers (2001-2007)
STEREOGUM: So obviously this is quite a different era of your career and of your writing. My coworker wanted to know: What’s your favorite song you wrote for Drive-By Truckers?
ISBELL: Probably “Decoration Day.” And the reason that’s my favorite is I think I nailed the assignment on that song. There are other ones, especially later on like A Blessing And A Curse that sound more like me, but “Decoration Day” is the song where I captured the sound of the band and wrote something they could use most accurately.
It happened because I had just started playing with them a couple months before I wrote that, and I woke up one morning in Carbondale, Illinois — we were staying at a friend’s house, we’d sleep on people’s couches in those days. I got up early and I wrote that song, and the bass-player Earl [Hicks], he didn’t like it at all. He was the first person to hear it and he was like, “Yeah, I don’t think that’s going to work.” But when Patterson [Hood] and [Mike] Cooley got up and I played it for them, they were blown away.
Patterson’s somebody who — he conceptualizes everything. He can’t help but do it. Honestly, I think he’d rather be making movies than making music, so he sees everything thematically and cinematically. So when he heard that song he saw what the next album could be, and not just from my input but from the band in general. That was the first time I ever really felt like I fit into this project. I was brought into it just as a hired guitar player just to fill the spot for the Southern Rock Opera tour. And when I played that song for Patterson I thought, “He realizes what I can bring to this and sees a direction he can go that will augment that.” So that was probably my favorite, but it comes with some context, it’s not just because of the song alone.
STEREOGUM: I like that you went with a sort of thoughtful, overall moment. My coworker was hoping you were going to say “Outfit” though.
ISBELL: “Outfit” is a better song, and it’s had more of an effect on people over the years. But I like “Decoration Day” better because I really did my homework. I thought, “What do I have to say? What story do I have to tell?” that would fit within the rubric of this band and this project. And that one really slid right in there.
Voicing Kyle Nubbins On Squidbillies (2016-Present)
ISBELL: What happened was the guy who was playing the reverend, the big blue teardrop, the guy who was doing his voice had a heart attack and passed away. So they were looking for somebody to play a new preacher on the show and they brought me in and drew up this character that’s very much like a megachurch modern day youth minister. Like the guy who would be Justin Bieber’s preacher, you know?
My backstory, I had gone to Bible school on a cheerleading scholarship. It’s a very soft, Southern, self-promoting type of character who’s still a straight man, I’m a foil — anybody who comes into Squidbillies is going to be the straight man and the foil because all the other characters are absolutely ridiculous. But yeah that’s been a lot of fun. It took me a while to get used to it, because when you’re reading — I didn’t realize this, I had never done any kind of voiceover stuff, but you don’t have anything in front of you to look at. They haven’t drawn the characters or scenes yet. You have to visualize all the jokes to get the timing to land right. That definitely presented a challenge, there was a learning curve there for me, but I enjoy it a whole lot.
STEREOGUM: So yeah, when they first came to you, you were just up for it immediately?
ISBELL: I was all for it, man. I’m always looking for ways to be funny, because it’s hard in these fucking sad songs to do anything funny. Most of the time, I’m making jokes, for better or worse, in my regular everyday life. I just didn’t think I would get the job. I thought I would go in with zero experience and they’d be like, “Yeah, we need somebody who can do this a little quicker.” But they really liked it from the start. I’m always excited to do something that’s not play a song for three minutes and then move on, you know? Like I did the Daily Show, and I just talked, did an interview the whole time. I love that kind of shit. When we went into the press cycle for this album, I told my publicist, “Anytime I get to sit in the chair and just shoot the shit with the host, I would rather do that than just play the song and move on.”
Making A Cameo In The Deadwood Movie (2019)
STEREOGUM: You were a huge fan of this show, and then you got to be in the movie.
ISBELL: I was, and that came out of me just begging to do it. That was only for me. My friend Earl Brown, who’s a musician and a really good actor, he played Dan Dority on Deadwood, the vicious bartender and right-hand man. I told him how much I loved the show. I think when we met they had already finished the original run. I still think it’s probably my favorite show ever. And I’d say, “If they ever come back, you gotta let me come be on the set, I’ll put on the Old West clothes and stand in the background, whatever I gotta do.”
So sure enough they made the movie happen and he called me and said, “Man if you can fly out to LA on these dates, we’ll suit you up and put you in the movie.” I was so excited. It was funny, I don’t think anybody knew I was coming besides Earl. He told the cast, and a couple of them had listened to my music.
So I get there and Earl takes me to where the extras were to get into costume, and obviously this makes sense in hindsight but I had never really considered it before because I had never been on a movie set: You know, the extras on these movies, they’re miserable fucking people. They’re not having a good time at all. They’re sitting there dressed in this crazy, uncomfortable Western attire — especially the women, they have to wear these bodices. They all look so unhappy, they’re sitting around trying to find 30 seconds to eat something, and they don’t get to go to the craft services table, so they’re having to eat their sack lunch on the set somewhere. And I come in and I’m super excited to be there, so obviously I’m already like, standing out like a sore thumb.
I go into the costuming area and they don’t have any kind of wardrobe prepared for me, I just gotta go to the cattle call and pick something out. As luck would have it, one of the guys who was working on wardrobe for all the extras was a huge fan. And I mean a huge fan. Not like a casual fan. After a little while, he stopped and said, “You know, you look a lot like Jason Isbell.” I said, “That’s because I am him. He and I are the same person.” He got down on his knees in this trailer and started doing the Wayne’s World bowing thing. The old guy who was working with him, probably his supervisor, the old Hollywood guy who had been in it forever, was just looking at him like he was crazy, like, “What the hell is wrong with you? Why are you doing that?” Then he started explaining to the old guy, and they said they weren’t gonna put me in the regular clothes, “Let’s find something that fits.”
And then I spent like two and a half days waiting to go stand in the background of the scene, but it was amazing. I felt a little guilty because when it would cut, all the extras go stand outside, away from the cast. The cast would go back into their director’s chairs and craft services and all that — and they would take me with them. “Don’t go out there with the extras, come over with us.” So all the extras are looking at me like, “This fucking asshole.” [Laughs]
They treated me really, really well and it was a long, arduous process that reminded me a little of mixing a record, because there’s so much start and stop, and wait and wait and wait. But it was really fun. We were passing a guitar around backstage, and I would play some songs. Normally I wouldn’t be up for playing 10 of my own songs in front of strangers, dressed up in an Old West costume in a director’s chair with arms that were uncomfortable for playing guitar, but you know, I was there. I figured I might as well take advantage of this. I got to meet Timothy Olyphant and hang out with him. And Anna Gunn, who I think was on the two best shows in TV history. It was a pretty incredible experience.
STEREOGUM: I know that arose from some pretty specific circumstances, but after that and Squidbillies and also writing a song for a big Hollywood movie, have you ever flirted with doing that stuff a bit more?
ISBELL: I could do it. I scored a movie called Adopt A Highway that Ethan Hawke was in last year. It was a really good performance by him. I had a good time making up some music for it. And I’ve written a couple songs for other things. I actually started writing “What’ve I Done To Help” for a movie, and I got about halfway done and said, “Man, I’m not giving this to them, I’m gonna finish this and put it on my own album.” So I wrote something different for them that they didn’t wind up using. I enjoy that. I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. But if those things come around, I’m always entertaining the options. It is something creative, but different, and it’s important to me for my own psychological well-being to break up the monotony. Even if it’s high-level monotony, I like to break it up when I can.
Playing On John Prine’s Final Album Tree Of Forgiveness (2018)
STEREOGUM: I don’t know exactly how to ask about Prine now. I thought your New York Times tribute was really beautiful.
ISBELL: Thank you, thank you. You know, we’re all sad about it, but I’ll talk about it. It doesn’t make it worse to talk about it. I met John when we were working on a Donnie Fritts album. It’s another one of those things where I got lucky to be from Muscle Shoals. Donnie had taken me under his wing when I was younger and always really showed me a lot of respect and attention. He was making a record with John Paul White, who used to have that band the Civil Wars, and they were recording in Nashville and they called me to come over and sing some backgrounds. John was there singing backgrounds with us on the same day.
That was, I think, the first time I met John. He had already heard Southeastern and I had heard through the grapevine that he really liked it a whole lot. We were friends right off the bat. My wife was there, too, and she and John got along — they wound up developing a really good friendship over the years, she was very close to John. Both of us at different times went out and opened a bunch of shows for him. Even when I got to the point where I could sell out those same rooms myself, I would still go out and open up for John, because I just loved him and I loved the work that he did. I loved seeing him happy in the later stages of his life.
That last record, I don’t think he was in the mood to write that record, but his wife Fiona and their son Jody, who runs his record label, they put him in a hotel room and took boxes and boxes of songs he had been working on over the years and said, “You gotta finish these songs and write some new ones and we’re going to make a record.” So he collaborated with some songwriter friends of his and finished some out himself, and went in to record with Dave Cobb, and they called us in to come play on some of it. The thing about it that struck me the most was that John still had something to say that was relevant. He wasn’t trying to write John Prine songs, he was trying to say something like he’d always been. And then it wound up being a successful piece of work for him and he wound up playing for bigger audiences than he ever had. It was really beautiful to see him go through that kind of renaissance late in his life.
STEREOGUM: I was thinking about this, the fact that you and Amanda got to work with him on that record… like a guy who influenced you over the years, and then you get to be a part of that record that brought him that sort of overdue legacy, that broader acclaim. It’s a special moment.
ISBELL: It was very special. But you know, that record would’ve done the same if we hadn’t been on it, anybody could’ve played on it. It was a very special thing and I’m sure with time it will stand out more to me. But right now with the immediacy of it, the things I wind up thinking about are just the times we spent together. John coming to my 40th birthday party, me getting to introduce him to my mom, who played his records for me when I was my daughter’s age.
Once I flew over to Europe to just hang out with Amanda and John and Fiona. My wife was opening a run of shows for him over there and I was off. John liked to drive from show to show. He would rent an SUV and drive, and we would ride with him. So it was just me and my wife and John and his wife. He started talking about songs and his life, telling us stories that I don’t think anybody had ever heard before. At one point he was talking about “Angel From Montgomery,” and he was like, “Now that I think about it, I think that song was about my mother.” I just looked at Amanda and her jaw fell open. Because you know, we were in the car with him and he was talking about these things — and nobody knew about those things! Just so much insight we got into his work and his life.
You know, playing on his album was a big deal and it will always be a big deal to me, but a bigger deal is just riding in the car with the man. Or going over to swim at his house with his grandkids. Because he represents something that’s different than, say, Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell to me. He represents more of a real person I knew, and understood to some extent, and that to me is more valuable to me than the work.
Performing “Ohio” And “Wooden Ships” With David Crosby (2018), Crosby Singing On “Only Children” And “What’ve I Done To Help” (2020)
STEREOGUM: So Crosby has this hilariously cranky Twitter presence, but he’s also got this gracious, excitable thing when he still discovers a new artist he really loves. He’d tweeted about you, and then later on you two wound up onstage playing “Ohio” and “Wooden Ships” together at Newport Folk Festival. And, to be honest, I was very taken aback. Like, how he can sing those songs still?
ISBELL: It’s amazing how he sounds. I don’t know how it’s possible he can still sing like that. I asked him, point-blank, “How are you still able to generate that much force with your voice?” He said, “I tried everything I could to kill it and it won’t die so I figured I gotta use it as much as possible.”
I think on Twitter, direct honesty can very easily come across as crankiness, especially when you’re 78 years old. That’s the thing about David. He’s not concerned with hurting your feelings. If he likes what you’re doing, you know he really truly likes what you’re doing, because he’s not trying to make new friends at this point in his life. He’s somebody who, I think, has a lot of regrets, but I don’t see it as shame with David. I think… I don’t want to speak on his behalf, but I think over time and through all the highs and lows David’s been through — which are pretty extreme on both ends — he’s learned the value of honesty, and honesty with yourself, and with your friends and your family and your audience.
It’s a good thing for me as an example. I believe David. And I don’t think he has any reasons left to lie to anybody. When he says, “I’ve been through the ringer and I’ve run off a lot of my old friends and I still love making music more than I ever have,” I believe him. It’s very hopeful for me. My highs have not been as high as his and my lows have not been as low as his, but it’s reassuring for me to know that as you progress through this kind of career you can end up loving music more than you did at the beginning. That’s the primary takeaway from my relationship with David. I was obsessed with playing the guitar when I was 10, 11, 12, 13 years old. And now I’m just as obsessed with it. Up until I met David, I kinda thought that might be an anomaly. I didn’t know that was a possible thing. But he’s just as into music as he was 50 years ago, and it’s a beautiful thing to see.
STEREOGUM: And then he sang on “What’ve I Done To Help” and “Only Children.”
ISBELL: He told me, “If you guys make another record, you have to fly me in to sing on it.” I said, “Well, OK David I will do that.” So that’s what I did. And I did it because his singing is unbelievable, not because he’s David. I got a lot of friends where I’ve got a lot of respect for music that they made in the past, but he can still sing beautiful, beautiful harmony parts. You know, he invented a kind of harmony singing that has been hugely influential on me and everyone I work with. So to have him be in the studio with me and my wife singing harmony parts on the song that I wrote, that he doesn’t think is a piece of shit, it was a really big deal.
Being Mentioned In Father John Misty’s “Mr. Tillman” (2018)
STEREOGUM: This is kind of a different one: You see people cover each other’s songs, but you’re actually mentioned in this Father John Misty song. I was in the studio with Josh for a day when he was making this album, and I remember him playing me this song in his truck afterwards. I actually laughed when I first heard the line, just thinking there’s this random Jason Isbell reference, before I paid attention and saw where that song was coming from. Now, you two have since toured together. But when this first came out, did he warn you? Do you remember the day it happened?
ISBELL: He sent it to me a few months before, just I think as a kindness, just to be sure I wasn’t caught off guard or didn’t take it the wrong way or anything. It’s a beautiful song. That whole record is really, really beautiful. He’s a very talented songwriter, and he just does something nobody else is doing right now.
When I heard it, I remembered exactly what had happened. We were in the same hotel. Amanda and I were there, I think, to go see Radiohead at Madison Square Garden. We were staying at the hotel, and Tillman was staying there, and I remember we were walking out to the sidewalk to get a car and Tillman was standing behind me smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk. The car came and I was like, “Oh, hold on a second,” and I went back because I wanted to say hey to Tillman. We didn’t know each other at that point.
I couldn’t find him, he had just vanished. But I guess he had seen me. I think he was on some kind of hallucinogenic drugs at that point, and I think seeing me sort of freaked him out a bit. Because you know, I’m Sober Man, Captain Sober. I think he saw me and was like, “Oh, no, that’s the last person I want to talk to right now!” So he turned in and hid behind the bushes or something inside the lobby. It was one of those hotels that has bushes in the lobby. He went in and hid from me in the corner and Amanda came down and I said, “Did you see Tillman standing anywhere in there when you walked out?” And she was like, “Yeah, I thought I saw him standing back in the dark, he wasn’t talking to anyone or anything.”
I think he went from there and played a show in Philadelphia where he got angry onstage about a battleship being in the background. I went back and watched his performance and thought, “Well, he’s pretty fucked up and he’s making a lot of sense.” It’s not like he’s wrong, he just wasn’t in the same exact reality as everyone else that day, I think. [Laughs]
Since then we got to be pretty good friends, and we had a really, really great time touring together. And I just love his music, you know? I think he’s a super talented guy. Every time I hear [that song] I’m happy and it was pretty funny hearing it every night on tour. I think the audience wanted me to creep onstage when he said my name or something, but you know it’s now a Vaudeville act. I’m not going to come out there in my underwear.
Recording With Barry Gibb (2019)
STEREOGUM: Just recently, you went into the studio with Barry Gibb.
ISBELL: I don’t know what I’m supposed to tell you, but I can tell you what I did. Cobb is doing some work with Barry. I don’t know what the project is going to wind up becoming. Barry has spent his whole life working as a very, very big star, so I think they’re a bit more reticent sometimes to let the cat out of the bag, and the decision-making at that level is baffling to me. What I do, when I’m making one of my records, I call and say I need the studio for three weeks, and I write a bunch of songs, and we go in and record those, and we mix and we master and we release them. That is apparently not how it works when you’re a Knight, you know? I don’t fucking know what’s going on with it.
I was terrified! I had to go sing harmony with Barry Gibb! At one part in one of the songs we were doing, I had the high part, and Barry Gibb was singing the part that was lower in pitch. It took a few tries and Dave was saying something from the control room, and I was saying “Dave! One of us is not Barry Gibb! You have to give me a minute here!”
One thing I will tell you, I asked Barry how he could still sing that high after all these years. These are questions you wanna ask people like that but you don’t wanna be offensive, like, “How is any sound coming out of your old, crusty mouth?!” [Laughs] You don’t want to come at them with that, but it’s very obvious that they’re a bit older than I am and Barry Gibb can still nail it. Even the falsetto stuff, he’s still got it. I said, “How is that possible?” And he said, [Barry Gibb accent] “Well, I never really liked cocaine.” Oh, OK! He was like, “Yeah, you have to keep doing it every 10 minutes for it to work, so I was like, ‘I don’t have time for this.’ So I never destroyed my sinuses or my vocal cords.” That’s amazing! That’s the best possible answer to that!
And there were other people coming into the studio. I sang on some things, I played guitar on some other things. I was in there working with him and there were other singers coming in. I’m talking about the best singers in the world. I’m talking about country singers that — if I told you the people’s names, you would say, “OK, those are the best singers in the world.” And they were nervous to sing around Barry Gibb.
It was a very interesting experience. At one point we were sitting in the control room — and I love Dave, because he’ll ask the uncool questions because he just wants to hear the stories. He says, “What’s the best show you guys have ever seen?” It was me and an extremely successful, popular country singer and Barry. The country singer had a cool answer, and I had some little stupid answer, and then Barry says: “You know, there was this club in London. And you would go in and they had one of those false walls and you would pull the right book out and the wall would open. So one night we were there, and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were both there. Brian Jones was asleep on the floor. This was during the concert, and the concert was Otis Redding.” I was like, “Holy fuck, how are there actual people who were in those situations.” It was amazing.
I’m one of those people where, I recognize the greatness of Barry Gibb’s songwriting. Hopefully, whenever they’re done with whatever this project winds up being, there’ll be more people who recognize that. But anybody I know who is a serious and legitimate songwriter, even Patterson and Cooley, I remember them talking about how great Barry’s songwriting was.
Anyone who takes themselves seriously as a songwriter, in this country at least, has spent some time with Barry’s songs and realized they don’t get credit because they were such big hits, especially in a time when people tend to look a little less favorably on American music. You know, there’s all that backlash against disco, which really in a lot of ways was racist and homophobic backlash. I think a lot of people don’t realize it’s like, Polish jokes. They tell a Polish joke and they don’t realize that was Nazi propaganda. It’s like that, people shit on disco and people don’t realize you’re really shitting on a gay Puerto Rican kid every time you make a fucking disco joke. But, that’s neither here nor there, the point of what I’m trying to say is: Barry Gibb wrote world-class songs and people have heard them so much they have forgotten how great those songs were.
Morgan Wallen Covering “Cover Me Up” (2019), Other Covers (2019-2020)
STEREOGUM: Morgan Wallen did his own version of “Cover Me Up,” it got real big, and became sort of controversial thing — you know, in that “authentic” vs. pop country type way. On Twitter you were telling everyone to chill out. That song also got sung by someone on The Voice, Luke Bryan covered it on his Instagram. The thing I’m wondering about is, with how important Southeastern and “Cover Me Up” are to your story, when you see it become part of the atmosphere like that… is there some part that’s disorienting?
ISBELL: No, no, I think I would have to be a jerk to not like all that. For people to want to sing this song… I’m not going to listen to all of them. I’m not going to put them all on a playlist for when we’re making dinner or something. But that being said, it’s a great thing: Other people like your song enough to sing it in public. That’s always good. I would get upset if it was being used for far-right propaganda or the president was walking out at one his rallies to one of my songs. But I don’t think there’s anybody that’s not qualified to sing my songs.
I think that’s kind of a ridiculous notion that probably belongs in the realm of unhealthy fandom. I think when fans think I would be offended by that, they’re not really considering me as an actual human person. I think that’s where a lot of problems come in with internet fandom and the lack of sensibility that entails. They don’t think I’m just sitting on my porch right now — I’m a normal person, I get up every day. Instead of going to whatever job they go to, I sit down and write songs. What if someone down the line took a piece of code you wrote for some kind of program, and told everybody how great they thought it was? That would not piss you off. You would not look at that person and say, “You’re not qualified to appreciate my work.” What the fuck is that? It’s ridiculous.
And if somebody like Morgan covers it and he’s out there playing it in these arenas every night, you know, I have infiltrated, man. I have worked my little weird ass into the mainstream in a way that cost me zero. It cost me nothing. I didn’t have to compromise at all. When I wrote that song, I wrote it exactly how I wanted it to sound, I did not write it for anybody other than myself and my wife. And it still found its way into the hands of thousands of people in an arena when Morgan’s out opening for Luke Combs or something. So, yeah, if that happens and you’re somewhat unhappy about it, then you really need to consider your priorities and what you’re trying to do as a creative person.
Also, I feel like people feel like Morgan somehow stole something from me. But he gave me credit and even if he hadn’t, that’s not part of the deal in our business. You don’t have to say, “So and so wrote this song” before you play it. If you did, most of the people who have any success in the country world would spend more time during their concerts listing off the names of the other songwriters than they’d actually spend singing their songs. I have no issue with Morgan or Luke Bryan or anyone else or the guy on The Voice, that doesn’t bother me.
"@TaylorSwift13 was on 'The Voice' and there was one moment there where she said, ‘Oh, I love @JasonIsbell.’ I was watching it and I told my wife, ‘OK, this is what I want for my birthday, I want a gif of what just happened on the TV.'"https://t.co/vLK4wrVmdq pic.twitter.com/sSnhVXP15G
— Stereogum (@stereogum) May 14, 2020
You know what happened on The Voice? Taylor Swift was on The Voice and there was one moment there where she said, “Oh, I love Jason Isbell.” I was watching it and I told my wife, “OK, this is what I want for my birthday, I want a gif of what just happened on the TV.” So the next day my wife was like, “Here I’ve done it,” and she texted me a gif of Taylor Swift saying “I love Jason Isbell” over and over. I have that now! That alone is worth all the not-work I did to get my song on that show.
Getting Invited To Audition On The Voice (2014)
Excerpt from REAL email I received today from a producer on "The Voice." He's been researching online. pic.twitter.com/OogkSs6WCh
— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) November 19, 2014
STEREOGUM: There was another funny moment with The Voice where they reached out to you to audition in 2014. Obviously there was some kind of misunderstanding there, but since your star has rise a little further, did they ever reach out and ask you like, “You want to come be a guest”?
ISBELL: I have been invited to come be on a show like that. I turned that down. My primary reason for doing that is, I feel like the problem with those shows is they make you sign a contract before you compete. When you sign a contract, you’re doing everything you can to get to the next level on those shows. If you win — by the time you win, by the time it’s over — you have already negotiated with the record label and the entertainment company, so you don’t have the same negotiating power that you should have. Because when you win that show, you’re a lot more valuable as an artist and entertainer than you were when you made it through the first round. Personally, I don’t think that’s fair. I think all deals should be negotiated in real-time, with the value the artist has at that moment, or they’re going to get screwed over. So I don’t participate in those shows because of that.
But, the thing that happened when they reached out to me to come and audition, you know, my manager got that and she sent it to me immediately because she knew what I was going to do with it. I remember getting that email and feeling like I had just been given a fucking Maserati or something. It was a huge gift. I know a little bit about the internet, and I knew that was going to be huge. I didn’t do it because I was offended. I don’t think that highly of myself. I did it because I thought, “This, is primo content.” I could put this up on all my socials and it’s going to get everyone’s attention and be hilarious, and sure enough it did.
30-50 Feral Hogs (2019)
Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?
— Willie McNabb (@WillieMcNabb) August 4, 2019
STEREOGUM: You were talking about this earlier with Squidbillies, always looking for chances to be funny. I was thinking about that with your Twitter presence, like you kind of having this jokier side that runs counter to what people might expect from you as an artist or persona. This actually wasn’t a moment when you were joking on Twitter, but it did lead to one of the funnier moments in semi-recent meme history —
ISBELL: Oh, yeah, I know where we’re going.
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] You know, between A Star Is Born and stoking the feral hogs meme you really had a year of taking over the internet.
ISBELL: I think the feral hogs moment is the most popular thing I’ve ever been a part of. All these years of writing songs and touring and playing shows, and the biggest hit I ever had was the feral hog meme. [Laughs] A lot of it is luck, because the point I was trying to make wound up being the ultimate point that got out. The ridiculousness of this idea that somebody in rural America would need an AR-15.
That was the ultimate point that I think people took away from all the feral hogs nonsense. And also, Willie McNabb in Arkansas, who made the feral hog comment, I think some of his needs were met, because later on that year the state of Arkansas gave some money to the feral hog problem, and I think that happened because of the popularity of that moment on social media. So, everyone won in that situation. That’s not always the case.
I understand exactly why it took off, because it was fucking hilarious, the idea of that many feral hogs running into your yard in that amount of time. Three to five minutes? Like every three to five minutes, do you get a new group of feral hogs? The ones that were just there, do they leave? Like clock out? Are they in a union? And also, is your idea to fire on the feral hogs with an assault weapon with a high-capacity magazine while your children are playing amongst the hogs? Are the hogs there for your children? Are they there to attack your children? Or is there some kind of hog nip you’ve accidentally farmed in your yard? Or do they go everywhere with this same kind of evil intention? There was so much that made it ridiculous.
Quarantine Covers With Amanda Shires (2020) And Backing Up The Highwomen (2019)
STEREOGUM: You and Amanda have played together in so many contexts. You backed up the Highwomen, she plays on the road with you. Now she’s doing these quarantine videos and you two have gotten together for some covers. Are these old favorites of yours, or songs that mean something to both of you?
ISBELL: It’s usually kind of a spur of the moment thing. Maybe the night before she’ll say, “I wanna try this.” For the most part I think it is stuff we’ve had in common over the years. When we first got together, a big part of our relationship was just sharing music with each other. I remember being really shocked that she liked a lot of the same music I did. At that point in my life I thought, “Nobody has heard of Neko Case or Calexico or Neutral Milk Hotel.” The stuff I’d been listening to in the Truckers van for years, I’d go back home to Alabama and there was nobody around who knew any of that music.
When I found her, she had been traveling and touring and moving in a lot of the same circles, so we really bonded over a lot of those songs. Some of those were mainstream things. Later on she wound up opening up for Gregg Allman, so we wound up playing “Melissa” and “These Days,” which was sort of a hybrid between the original Jackson Browne version and Gregg’s version. They all make sense within the context of our personal relationship. As far as musical taste goes, if there was a contest for the couples with the best musical taste, we would probably do really well. If it was just restricted country I think we would lose to Gil [Welch] and Dave [Rawlings].
She listens to way more new music than I do, she’s always got something I’ve not heard. Recently we’ve been listening to that new Lennon Stella record. Amanda played the new Dylan track for me when it came out. I’ll sit around and just listen to the same stuff over and over. Especially if times are strange and people are having difficulties, I’ll just sit around and listen to blues records all day. But she’ll bring in new things and try to keep me updated.
STEREOGUM: So are you guys gonna make an Isbell-Shires covers album during all this?
ISBELL: You know, if we do that, I don’t think we’d do covers. I think we’d just write a bunch of songs together. She’s been learning how to work Pro Tools. Depending on how long this lasts or how many times this keeps coming back, we might make a record together at some point. I think that would be fun and good.
But you know, for the Highwomen stuff. Man, I had a blast doing that. Since we’ve been together, I’ve always tried to go out and play with her when she was off, and she’s always done the same with me. It’s really, really fun and easy for me because I don’t have to sing all night and I don’t have to worry about the connection with the audience. I just stand back and play guitar. The show we did at Newport, where Dolly Parton got up and sang. That’s the first show I think I played, ever, as a professional musician, without a mic in front of me. That was incredible. I was in feral hog heaven.
STEREOGUM: The Highwomen was a unique situation because it’s this band she had with other people, but you just referenced the idea of the two of you making a record under both your names. Is there a reason you haven’t done that already?
ISBELL: Nothing’s really prevented it, we just haven’t really wanted to do it. it’s really as simple as that, I think. She’s had things she wanted to say musically that were very personal to her, and I have too. We help each other with those things, but it hasn’t really been necessary yet. And it’s always nice to not do something like that until you feel like you want to, until you feel like there’s a real reason. If we’re stuck in the house for a few more months and we can’t go out and tour, there’ll be a reason. Because we’ll have all this time, and I’m not ready to start selling guitars off just yet.
Reunions is out 5/15 via Southeastern, or you can get it right now from an independent record store near you.