Jason Isbell Discusses Southern Storytelling, the Nashville Scene, and Singing About Race

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Photo: Gary Miller/Getty Images

When it came time to write and record his fifth solo album, 36-year-old alt-country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell had an unenviable task: following up his fourth album, 2013's Southeastern, which intimately chronicled his journey to sobriety and swept the 2014 Americana Music Awards, winning Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Song of the Year. It was a tall order, but the former Drive-By Truckers guitarist delivered, producing an album, Something More Than Free, that vaulted to No. 1 on the Billboard country music chart and No. 6 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart the week after its July 17 release. We grabbed time with Isbell to discuss his approach to the new record, the evolving country scene in Nashville, and whether he feels an obligation to address racial issues in his songwriting.

There are clear musical and thematic connections between Something More Than Free and your last album, Southeastern, but the new one contains many more songs written from the second-person. What motivated that choice? 
You get to a point where you’ve told your own story so many times. When I wrote Southeastern, I had just gotten sober and wasn’t really comfortable with the world. I still had a lot of questions about that big change in my life that I didn’t quite understand. With this latest album I had a little bit more of a grasp on that. I try hard to empathize with other people because that’s what I’m drawn to the most — people who aren’t leading the same kind of life that I am, people who might not get the same kind of rewards for their work. I get tired of talking about myself. I sorted through a lot of my own problems on Southeastern, and I feel like now it’s the time to broaden a little bit.

There’s a long and distinct tradition of southern storytelling that includes musicians and writers like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Townes Van Zandt, Johnny Cash, even Elvis. The founder of the popular storytelling organization the Moth, George Dawes Green, says that when he created it, he was trying to recapture the feeling of sitting around on porches in Georgia telling stories. What is it about southern culture that leads to this romanticization of storytelling?
More so than northern vs. southern, it’s the difference between rural and urban. In my case, I grew up very close to my family. I had to be close to my family for financial reasons: My family worked and couldn’t afford day care, so I stayed with my grandparents. That’s how I learned how to play musical instruments and tell stories and sing and, really, how to write songs. I started playing with my grandfather. I don’t think that would have happened had we grown up somewhere where my dad made a little bit more money and I went to day care every day with a bunch of other kids.

My granddad just wanted to keep an eye on me to keep me from breaking shit, so rather than letting me run wild he taught me how to play the guitar and sing songs because to him that was a good way to keep me entertained. The old guys aren’t thinking, I’m going to teach this kid how to do what I do or what my dad did or my grandfather did. It's just, I like this kid and it’s time I hung out with him. When you have to stay close to your family in order to survive, you end up with a lot of young kids spending time around old people who like to tell stories and have lived a lot of life.

You’ve settled down in Nashville, which is the beating heart of commercial country music. Has it been difficult to continue writing traditional, thoughtful country music in a town that emphasizes the pop side of the industry? 
The city gets a bad rap because there's a lot of terrible music on pop radio stations that has been created on Music Row. But without that money and talent, I don’t think independent artists would be able to do what they do in Nashville. The trickle-down effect has benefited a lot of us who are not making mainstream country music, but still have access to the same studios and producers as those big names. Engineers who spend all day making hit records will go home after work and record in their basements with people who are making actual good records. Without the pop-country world I don’t know that the independent music scene in Nashville would be as strong. Sly people have learned to take advantage of that. 

You strike me as a fairly liberal guy, speaking out as you do against the Confederate flag and in support of gay marriage. Within the country-music establishment there can be consequences if you go too far in vocalizing certain views, as we saw with the Dixie Chicks or Tim McGraw. Does that ever worry you or influence what you say during shows, on social media, or in your lyrics?
The best way to handle that is just to be honest. You might not wind up with as many fans, but how many fans do you really need? I’m not looking to be a superstar. I just want to be in a room with good people who are similar to me and are at least open to things that I have to say. If I’ve told them the whole time, This is who I am, this is what I believe, they’re not going to be shocked if I say something from the stage or one of my songs references a political belief.

Pitchfork seemed to suggest that you weren’t doing your part as a spokesman for the South because you don’t talk about race on the new album. Do you feel that it’s a fair criticism?
I don’t care what Pitchfork says. They write from a place that’s a little too self-aware for me to really give a damn about what they’re talking about. That being said, I do discuss race in a couple of my lyrics if you pay close attention. But I’m a white male. I feel like people are tired of hearing about what white males have to say about race. I will participate in the discussion, but I’m not going to claim any kind of insightful perspective because I’m very privileged, and I have been since I was born. I didn’t grow up with a lot of money, but I grew up with a lot of opportunities that many people don’t have. I talk about my own experience. I tell my own stories. Whatever kind of moral you want to glean from that, whatever kind of description of the South you want to take out of my personal story, that’s fine with me.

And again, it's not a North vs. South thing. When people say "the North" they probably think of New York, but Michigan is the North. Pennsylvania is the North. People there are often just as conservative, if not more so, than the rural folks in Alabama and Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. I mean, Ted Nugent and Kid Rock are from Michigan. That’s about as far north as you can get in this country, and they write songs that defend the fucking Confederate flag.

There's a set of lyrics on the album that jumped out at me. They're from "24 Frames" and they go, "You thought God was an architect / Now you know / He's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow / And everything you've built that's all for show goes up in flames." You’re sober now and married with a daughter on the way. Is that a character speaking those lyrics? Or are you worried that right when you've managed to get your life in order the rug might get pulled out from under you?
There's never just a character talking. It’s not me necessarily in those songs, not always, but there’s so much of me in there that I can’t separate the two. Even though I’ve gotten most of my demons beaten back, all that really does is take the guilt out of the occasion. It prevents me from being the architect of my own demise, but it doesn’t give me any control. Terrible things happen all of the time, and they can happen in a second. The best thing is to be prepared to react. If you try to control every little thing, you’re going to end up miserable — and you’re going to fail.