Jason Isbell on His and Drive-By Truckers’ Best Songs and Ripping Off John Prine

“I was like, ‘Man, I’m sorry, I ripped you off in this song,’ and he said, ‘I listened to it and I didn’t hear what you’re talking about. But, I heard you rip me off in some other songs.’ And then he wouldn’t tell me which ones. You had to let John be John.” Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by C Brandon/Redferns

The pandemic might have derailed Jason Isbell’s plans to tour his May 2020 album, Reunions, right out of the gate, but the beloved singer-songwriter and guitarist knows how to keep busy. On top of the occasional socially distanced concert and some jam sessions, he has acted as one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s adversaries in the new Scorsese movie, Killers of the Flower Moon, maintained a colorfully critical Twitter presence, and designed a signature guitar for Fender. The new ax, a re-creation of his favorite, road-worn ’60s-era Telecaster, is much like the man’s music: a blue-collar instrument, modern but reverent of the classics, not pigeonholed to any one genre. (“I was trying to come up with a guitar for people who needed to cover a lot of bases, musically,” he explains, adding, “I don’t think there’s a better design than the Telecaster” for the job of versatility.)

The Jason Isbell Custom Telecaster. Photo: Retailer

The Tele collaboration is just the latest milestone in his relationship with the instrument, dating back to his teen years in a country cover band. To mark the occasion, the Grammy winner revisits the highs, and a couple lows, of his career — including his six-string heroics, learning to play guitar under the tutelage of his grandpa and great uncles, his stint with Drive-By Truckers, songwriting and sobriety, penning love songs for his wife, the Highwomen’s Amanda Shires, and his friendship with the late John Prine.

Favorite Drive-By Truckers song

“Decoration Day,” because it was the first one that I wrote. It was kind of in that Southern Gothic family tradition, and I wrote it very specifically for that band. I remember it felt really good when Patterson [Hood, lead singer] heard it and liked it. Our bass player at the time, Earl Hicks, heard it first. He didn’t like it at all, which is hilarious. I woke up before everybody else and wrote the song, and then when Earl woke up, I played it for him. He’s like, “No, I don’t think that’s gonna work for us.” I would have taken that more to heart, but I somehow already knew that that song was going to be great for that band. Then when Patterson heard it, he was blown away. So that one will probably always be my favorite. And they named the album after it, which was just amazing for me at 22 years old.

I was really cocky back then. And I guess I still kind of am — I just know when to keep my mouth shut. But back then I was thinking, Man, I’m about to blow these old fuckers away. I can’t wait till these guys hear this. They’re gonna shit themselves. Then Earl was like, “No, this is not gonna work.” I’m like, “Well, you’re just a bass player, dude. What the fuck?”

Best guitar-playing moment

On the new record, I think “Overseas” went really well. That was one of those that I felt really good about because it started with the riff. Usually, I don’t start with that — I start with words and chords and build it the way a songwriter normally would. But I wrote that song as a guitar player. I played that main riff on “Overseas” for months before I got any kind of words or real melody for the vocal. And then the tone of that still really makes me happy. It was a live take — with a guitar solo and all, I did that in one take, so I was really happy about how that turned out.

And we did a cover of “Brothers in Arms” at the Ryman [in 2019] before the pandemic. I thought that sounded really good. I hit one terribly bad note, but other than that, it was really good. I didn’t release the performance or anything — it’s just, like, on somebody’s phone from the audience on YouTube. I could have it taken down, but I like to tell people, “That’s my way of showing you that I’m not playing to prerecorded tracks — by fucking up every once in a while.”

Best guitarist you’ve played with

Oh, man, I’ve been lucky that way. I’ve gotten to play with a lot of really incredible guitar players: [Wilco’s] Nels Cline, Tommy Emmanuel, Jimmy Herring, Derek Trucks, Blake Mills. And they’ve all, for the most part, been very merciful. When I went up to play with Nels, I thought, Man, I hope this guy’s not looking to embarrass me, because he could do it very easily. It’s like being in those situations where I know somebody could just eviscerate me at any second, but they choose not to do it. That gives me faith in humanity. We were doing a festival with Wilco [Mountain Jam 2016], and they got me up to play “California Stars,” the Woody Guthrie, Mermaid Avenue thing. Man, that guy can play. He doesn’t sound like anybody else.

Song that most reminds you of jamming with your family

On “Something to Love,” I talk about how lucky I was to get to do that with my family when I was a kid then carry it over into the rest of my life. Everybody in my family was very proud of me. Even when I was 9 or 10 years old, they were all paying close attention to my [musical] development. As the time went on, they would give me more solos, throw it my way more often, and it always made them really happy to see that I was learning, actually taking the time with the instrument, and that I enjoyed it as much as I did. That song, I wrote it after my daughter was born [in 2015], just in the hopes that she would have anything that meant that much to her.

Best Jason Isbell song

I usually go back to “If We Were Vampires,” just because it’s a love song. Writing anything for a woman is scary enough, you know? Because in most ways they could just swat us away like a fly. You know, why would you ever spend your time with a big, ugly man with all of his private parts on the outside of his body? I look at guys and I’m like, I don’t know why any of y’all [women] would ever have anything to do with us, but I’m glad that you do. 

One of the hardest things in the whole world to do is reinvent a love song and come at it from any sort of perspective other than these old tropes we’ve heard thousands and thousands of times. It wasn’t like it took me more time or effort than other songs, but I felt like I really had turned over the right rock with that song. I just started writing it thinking about other love songs and the clichéd ideas of “I love you because you’re beautiful,” “I love you because you saved me,” or “I love you because all these normal reasons that people give that aren’t exactly true.” By the time I got to the chorus, I realized the truth of it is “I love you because at some point I’m going to die. And if I wasn’t ever going to die, there wouldn’t be any reason for me to invest in this experience in this way. If we lived forever, we would probably never fall in love, really and truly, because I’ll get around to it later.” When I landed on that, I thought, Okay, I think I’ve hit something here that’s very real and more honest than most love songs are. So I’m really proud of that one.

Criticism that’s stuck with you

Somebody wrote of a live show one time that I sounded like Bruce Hornsby, but they meant it in a negative way. First of all, I’m a fan of Bruce Hornsby. And this was before Bon Iver came around and showed everybody that there’s nothing wrong with sounding like Bruce Hornsby. But I remember at the time thinking, This shows me that the person who is writing it doesn’t know what they’re talking about, and I don’t have to pay any attention to the rest of the article. They just don’t like me, and there’s another person they don’t like, and they’d like to compare the two of us to each other.

But, my favorites are … Pitchfork used to do this all the time — they’d write a long paragraph like, “This album is fantastic. There’s nothing wrong with this album. 6.3.” Rolling Stone would do it, too: “Well, this is amazing, the greatest album of his career, three and a half stars.” Then I figured out that the people who write the reviews aren’t the people who give the star rankings, and I think that’s fucking ridiculous. Like, what kind of sense does that make? I think it’s pretty obvious that whoever writes the review should be the person giving the damn ratings. But, you know, I’m no critic.

Song that you made you feel like “I can still do this” after you got sober

Man, I just skipped over that stage altogether and went to the stage of “Oh, this is mine now.” Like with “Cover Me Up”: When I wrote that song, it was all very in the moment and very from the heart, very direct. I wrote that song to my wife. I felt like I can do this for real for the first time now because I was an alcoholic and because I went through recovery and because I have a story now. All these years, I’ve been writing songs about family stories or tiny little heartbreaks and nothing that added up to anything in the grand scheme of things. All of a sudden, now I’ve got something to talk about. So that was a huge gift for me. Even being an alcoholic was a huge gift for me because if that had never happened, I’d still be looking for a story to tell.

Most misunderstood song

I think a lot of people don’t necessarily get the humor in “Outfit,” a song I wrote for the Truckers. But that’s okay with me. I’m not gonna take away their enjoyment of it. Whatever they think it’s about can be what it’s about. That’s kind of dangerous as a songwriter, to try to tell people that their interpretation of your song is incorrect, unless you’re Springsteen and it’s “Born in the U.S.A.” and somebody is using it for a campaign rally. Then you should probably speak up.

Song you worried about releasing

I don’t ever worry about the blowback from the people I disagree with. But sometimes I worry about not considering all of the people whom I do agree with, or the people who I consider are on my side. So “White Man’s World” was a tough one for that reason. I knew there would be a lot of pissed-off conservatives. Well, fuck them. I don’t care. That’s the point — I wanted there to be a lot of pissed-off conservatives. But what I didn’t want to do was incorrectly represent my experience or my opinion to people who aren’t straight white men like myself. I don’t want to put them on blast individually, but a lot of people who we probably both respect a whole lot came up to me and thanked me for saying those things. That meant a lot. Obviously, they were being generous because the atmosphere should not be so that those things have to be said over and over. Those problems should have been solved a long time ago.

So that one took some care and some caution. But I found that the best way to handle that is to speak in the first person and say, “This is what I’ve seen and this is what I have gleaned and this is what I have done.” That made it more doable for me, but it was definitely a challenge. That’s why everybody’s political beliefs are all vague and mostly bullshit, like, “We all need to unify and get along and get together.” It’s because they’re scared of saying anything more specific than that. That’s really when you have to know what you’re talking about, open your mind, and try to consider other experiences besides your own.

Strangest place you’ve heard one of your songs

Zac Brown [Band] used to cover “Dress Blues,” and I think they did it before, like, a national-championship college-football game or something one year. This was before A Star Is Born or before “Cover Me Up” kind of became part of the country-music consciousness. I was in the gym on the elliptical or something at home in north Alabama, and it came on TV, and there’s nobody around to tell. I’m by myself, and that was my song on TV before the big football game. I’m thinking, This terribly sad song that I wrote with this guy that I went to high school with is on TV, here in the gym. That was really weird, but it’s always good. I never mind that situation but it was just a strange place to be in.

Musician whose sound you rip off the most

“What’ve I Done to Help” off of Reunions sounds a whole lot like a Michael Kiwanuka song, [“One More Night”], but I knew that immediately after I wrote it. I tried to change it to where it didn’t and it just didn’t work as well, so we got in touch with Michael and asked him if it was okay: “We’ll give you songwriting credit on this and some of the money if you’ll just let us go ahead and sound like your song.” And he was cool with that, so that’s what we did.

There’s a couple of places in “Traveling Alone” that to me sound just like “Hello in There,” the John Prine song. I asked John about it years ago. I was like, “Man, I’m sorry, I ripped you off in this song,” and he said, “I listened to it, and I didn’t hear what you’re talking about. But, I heard you rip me off in some other songs.” And then he wouldn’t tell me which ones. You had to let John be John.

Favorite memory of John Prine

When my daughter was little, she loved “Clocks and Spoons” — that was one of her favorite songs. We went to John’s house one summer to go swimming in the pool and hang out, and I was like, “Hey, why don’t you sing your favorite song?” So she started singing it, then John was standing around the corner, and he starts singing along with her. She didn’t realize that that was John, you know? So she said, “That’s you! That’s you that sings that song!” He was just delighted. He loved her. He was overjoyed that she would sing that song. He stood there and sang it with her. There’s a lot of good ones, but that was my favorite.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jason Isbell on His Best and Most John Prine–Borrowing Work