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Jason Isbell’s ‘Nashville Sound’ conjures rural Americans and their concerns

June 27, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
In both ballads and hard-charging rock songs, Jason Isbell's storytelling prowess has made him one of today's most acclaimed singer-songwriters. On his new album "The Nashville Sound," Isbell's songs are filled with rural country characters, and offer a reflection of the nation's political and cultural fears. Jeffrey Brown reports from the first stop of Isbell’s international tour.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Nashville has long been considered the beating heart of the country music world, but the new album “The Nashville Sound” by Jason Isbell is infusing the genre with rock, folk and blues.

The Grammy Award winner has turned heads with his lyrics, which this time around address topics like poverty, race, and love.

Jeffrey Brown recently joined Isbell on the first stop of his international tour.

JEFFREY BROWN: In his song “The Last of My Kind,” Jason Isbell creates a character based on people he grew up around in rural Northern Alabama who fear how the world is changing.

JASON ISBELL, Singer-songwriter and Guitarist: A lot of people that I grew up with, went to school with in Alabama, and a lot of people in my family who told me growing up that cities were terrible places and anything outside of our little circle was scary and dangerous and frightening.

And I thought about the effect that had on people, when you start to believe that, and you let yourself be so afraid of other people and the outside world, that you never feel tethered, you never feel a connection with the rest of humanity.

So, I wrote that song based on that kind of fear.

JEFFREY BROWN: In both ballads and hard-charging rock ‘n’ roll songs like “Cumberland Gap,” Isbell’s storytelling prowess has made him one of today’s most acclaimed singer-songwriters.

His last album, “Something More Than Free,” won two Grammys and achieved the rare feat of topping folk, rock, and country charts in 2015.

Now 38, he’s back with a new album titled “The Nashville Sound,” and we joined him and his band, The 400 Unit, at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville, North Carolina, on the first day of their new national tour.

Once again, Isbell’s songs are filled with rural country characters, this time also reflecting the nation’s political and cultural fears.

JASON ISBELL: It’s just hard to tell people who are my family that anybody in government really cares about them, because I don’t think I can sell that. I don’t think I can convincingly tell Middle America that the government gives a damn.

JEFFREY BROWN: Disaffected white male, yes?

JASON ISBELL: Yes. Yes, you hear about that.

And I think a lot of people try to tell us that that’s who elected our current president, but I don’t necessarily believe that, because I know a lot of disaffected white males and disaffected white people in general who didn’t vote at all because they didn’t think anybody gave a damn about them.

JEFFREY BROWN: They just didn’t believe in the political system.

JASON ISBELL: No. They thought the system had been broken for a long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Isbell started out as many do, in bands that travel by van wherever the gigs take them.

His first big break was as a member of the southern indie rock band the Drive-By Truckers. That came to an end when his drinking and drug abuse grew so bad, he was thrown out of the band. It took him several years to sober up and restart his life and career.

JASON ISBELL: Before I stopped drinking, I thought, if I quit drinking, am I still going to be funny? Am I still going to be a good songwriter? Am I going to still be a rock ‘n’ roll person? Are people going to still want to be around me?

And then, is my creativity going to be there if I quit doing these drugs? Am I going to be able to record in the studio, these kinds of things?

And now they sound so ridiculous even just coming out of my mouth, like, of course, that’s not where the work comes from.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I can see where the anxiety comes from, because, I mean, in your business, it’s a thin line, isn’t it, between kind of making it and not making it or having success or not?

JASON ISBELL: Yes. Yes, it’s hard. It’s really hard to make a living writing songs and singing them, really, really hard. A lot of people, they try it out like as a lottery ticket. And then, if it doesn’t work, they go do something else. But that’s not the tradition that I come from.

I come from a group of people who pretty much set themselves to do this for the rest of their life, whether it kills them or not. And that’s how I was early on. That’s how I still am.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now he’s on the road with his wife, Amanda Shires, herself a singer and songwriter who performs on her own and as bandmate with her husband.

And they’re joined by their almost 2-year-old “Moon Shadow”-loving daughter, Mercy Rose. Isbell’s recent breakthrough success allows some newfound traveling comforts.

JASON ISBELL: We have recently gotten to the point where we can have multiple buses. That’s something I never really thought that I would get to. Maybe one bus, that’d be great, with a trailer behind it with our gear in it. That was always the goal for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is how you judge where you’re at, right, by…

JASON ISBELL: Oh, God, yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … whether it’s a van or one bus or two buses?

JASON ISBELL: Yes. Yes.

It’s practical concerns, you know? Because I have always made the art I wanted to make, and I will always do that. So, I’m going to judge my level of success by whether or not I can hear myself on stage, or whether or not my wife can come along with me and have a mirror to put her makeup on in, and my baby can have a bunk with this, like, dog gate that we bought at Petco and bolted to the outside of the bunk, so she doesn’t roll off in the middle of the night.

JEFFREY BROWN: In one beautiful love song on the new album, Isbell writes and sings as himself about a future of joy and sorrow with his wife.

JASON ISBELL: If you can write a good love song now that actually adds something to the canon of love songs, then you’re qualified, in my opinion, because that’s tough. That’s like painting a picture of a tree that needs to exists. How many times have people done that before?

JEFFREY BROWN: Another song getting much attention tackles racism in America today. It’s called “White Man’s World.”

JASON ISBELL: It’s important for me to just continue to notice that there are doors that are open for me that wouldn’t be if I wasn’t white or if I wasn’t male.

I’m not guilty about it, and I’m not ashamed of it. I had no control over it. And I need to consider those things, because, if I don’t, then I’m just running wild and never really considering what privilege that I have and how to make the world a better place for people don’t get what they deserve.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit will tour the nation this summer and into the fall.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Asheville, North Carolina.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as you heard, he’s on an international tour.

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