Jason Isbell is Moving to Nashville and Getting Sober, but He's Not Starting Over



Although he's a good 11 years into his musical career, it seems as though Jason Isbell (Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, ex-Drive-By Trucker) -- playing Friday, June 29 at the Sheldon Concert Hall (3648 Washington Boulevard) is just now settling into a comfortable place as an artist. After sweating it out in dingy rock clubs over the last five years with the 400 Unit, more recently Isbell has found himself playing shows in three thousand seat concert halls across the world as a solo act opening for the likes of John Prine and Ryan Adams. Throw in the fact that he's sworn off alcohol, and he recently moved away from his longtime home, Alabama, and it's no wonder why the man seems to have a new lease on life. We recently caught up with Isbell while he was in the midst of moving and spoke with him about his recent successes, his plans to record with Adams, and getting more out of his days.

Michael Dauphin: Is this move to Nashville something you had always considered, or did this just kind of pop up?

Jason Isbell: I had considered it for a while. My girlfriend (Amanda Shires, singer/violin player) lives there, and she can't really live down in Alabama. She does some session work in Nashville so I couldn't ask her to move down to the middle of nowhere in Alabama.

Do you intend to immerse yourself into the whole Nashville scene, producing albums and whatnot?

I've been doing quite a bit of that in the past, and I intend on doing the same thing I've been doing. You know, I didn't really move up there to try to find job opportunities. It was mostly just for a girl, I guess.

Alabama is a place that has been deeply ingrained in your songwriting. Is it weird to leave that area?

I'll only be a couple hours away. I honestly don't think it's a whole lot different here and there. I try to keep a sense of place when I'm writing, and I'm sure I'll continue that. Nobody wants to live in the same place their entire life. Well, I guess some people do. But I don't.

I've seen you mention on your Twitter account that you're no longer drinking. Has touring been a different experience without booze?

Not completely. It was a little difficult at first but I got used to it. But the thing is, one time I heard a heroin addict say, "thank god I'm not an alcoholic." You don't drive by billboards with pictures of heroin on them, or open a magazine and a bunch of advertisements for smack or cocaine. But if you're going to quit drinking, you're going to have to do it wherever you are. People would think that being in bars and clubs every night would be more difficult. But, really, the world is a bar if you're a drunk. You can get liquor anywhere.

But it's been real fun for me and I've really enjoyed it. I get more time out of the days. I think the live show's better than it was before, and my voice has done some encouraging things. I heard the first thing you start to lose when you're getting drunk is your hearing. Since I quit drinking, I could tell that's come back a bit. I don't need the monitors as loud, which allows me to not have to sing as loud. I wouldn't recommend it for everyone, because I know plenty of people that really need a fucking drink sometimes.

Congrats on the four Americana Music Awards nominations. Were you surprised by that recognition?

Yeah, it was a surprise. I was really happy about it and I'm glad that folks in that world were paying attention to what we're doing. Because I do feel like that's where most of the best music is coming from these days. It's nice to have a lot of friends from all over in one place for the evening. We're not the kind of community that pats itself on the back compared to popular music or Hollywood. I've been to this awards show in the past and it's a laid back evening. Nobody really takes it too seriously. In a sense, Here We Rest is the first proper release by yourself and the 400 Unit, right?

Yeah, it was great. Chad [Gamble], the drummer, was the last person to come in and this was his first album with us. He really solidified our lineup. We had been waiting on him for years and we were off doing other things. Finally it made sense for him to join us and it's really nice to have all four of us working together. It made it real easy for me to just show up with the songs and we would sort of organically come up with our own parts. I like doing it that way instead of me dictating what everyone else plays. That can get tedious.

Much of your touring over the last year has been you doing solo sets as support for guys like Ryan Adams and John Prine. With Adams, he's brought you out for multiple tours and it seems like you two really hit it off. How has that experience been?

It's great, I really enjoyed it. He and his crew were great to me, and it's been nice to get to know him and Mandy [Moore] (wife of Adams). We've been trying to make some music together a little bit. It's been great. I'm fortunate to have friends like that.

Do you have plans to record something together in the future?

We are planning on doing some recording; we don't have all the details together though. But we'll probably do something in the near future. He has a studio in Los Angeles right now that's really nice. He has a lot of good gear, and there are good people out there. I'm sure we'll record soon but I don't know what it's going to be for or what format.

Between playing all of the solo dates and then heading back out with the band, do you get anything out of one that you don't with the other?

You really get back in touch with the songs. Just playing the songs on an acoustic guitar and singing them, it reminds you of when you wrote them in the first place. And I like that because it's easy to go on autopilot if you've been playing the same songs for 8 or 10 years. It's nice to be reminded of the mindset I was in when I originally wrote them. I think it breeds some new life into them.

But they are very different settings. I try to approach them as a very different thing. When I'm playing the [solo shows] live, it's more story-oriented; I talk more between songs. I try to keep things quiet and as calm as possible. It's not comfortable for me if I'm up there by myself and people are behaving the same way they would at a rock n'roll concert. And I don't want to bum anyone out and tell them not to have a good time. But it's more of a listening experience in that situation because I can only turn up so loud.

But if I have the band with me, we got knobs. We can turn up as loud as we want. And I'll tell you one thing: When you're playing with the band, you know you always have at least 3 other people in the room that are forced to listen to what you're doing. The guys on stage, if they don't listen, they can lose their job. If you're up there by yourself, nobody in there is going to get fired for not paying attention.

In terms of getting used to the storytelling aspect, I'm sure you can learn a lot from spending time with a guy like John Prine.

For sure. He's really great. He probably wouldn't want anybody saying this about him, but he's a survivor too [Ed. In 1998, Prine was diagnosed with squamous cell cancer]. He's a guy that has had to change how he does things; he has to tune down and sing in a little lower key because of his throat. But it's still, to me, just as good of a show as it ever was. And he's found the perfect audience. The people that are there want to be in the same room with him. They know he's going to be funny, and poignant, and melodic, and beautiful all at the same time. I actually sold more CDs at his shows than any shows I remember. Plus, his audience is older and they all have jobs, which helps.


Support Local Journalism.
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Riverfront Times Club for as little as $5 a month.