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Jason Isbell Feels Lucky to Have the Work



As a touring songwriter, Jason Isbell's life may seem worlds apart from the exhausted but appreciative laborer he describes on the title track of his newest album Something More Than Free. Yet the two share one important trait: a willingness to do the work.

Go back to David Bowie, Isbell says. "Would you rather be David Bowie or Morrissey?" The late Bowie was known for always staying busy while. as for Morrissey, after a spate of canceled shows, Isbell notes, "I've heard he can't even get some gigs anymore. He's become a disaster."

He adds, "One guy did the work and the other didn't, and they started out with arguably the same amount of talent."

Growing up in northern Alabama, Isbell was taught how to play music at an early age by his grandparents, who also served as his primary babysitters. A reliance on the family bond is still important in a lot of rural Southern families, Isbell says, especially in areas where basic services can be more than an hour away.

"Everybody has to work, they need somewhere to take their kids, too. Or a woman who's being beaten by her husband, [she needs to know] she has someone else to stay with," he says. "If not for family, people would still have really bad times." As much as characters from those families still inform Isbell's writing, his inclusion in another Southern family also played a large role in his development as a musician -- the legendary music community of Muscle Shoals.

"It's always been a really positive thing," Isbell says, mentioning his time spent with legendary bassist and Muscle Shoals Sound Studio founder David Hood, among others. "I got to know them as people before I knew their work. They were always hopeful for your future. There was no stress; [I was] trying to learn. It was always about the work."

Isbell's most recent batch of work, Something More Than Free, found the artist writing from a different perspective. Where his previous output dealt with with darker personal issues like addiction and divorce, he's now clean, married to fellow musician Amanda Shires and raising the couple's first child.

"I came to terms with all the emotional bullcrap," Isbell says of the time between 2013's Southeastern and the new album. Yet in making peace with his past, he also had no problem finding new things to write about.

"Inspiration is the easy part," he says. "I don't deal with writer's block; I don't get uncomfortable writing about personal things. It's my job. There's plenty of stuff out there to write about."

Isbell says he often finds the "spark" for his writing in something as simple as overhearing a conversation. While this can lead to him writing from the perspective of someone else, as he does on the album's title track -- the singer says he prefers to write in the first person as much as possible.

"Jokes and songs usually come out better in first person," he says, adding that he attempts to write as conversationally as possible, looking for "less flashy" words during the editing process. "It's important for me to write the way people talk."

Equally important, it would seem, is making sure people hear his songs. Speaking from a hotel room in Miami on January 30, Isbell had just returned from a tour of Europe before embarking on a songwriters' cruise featuring John Hiatt, Lucinda Williams and Shires among others. When that wraps up, he will embark on a U.S. tour that lands in St. Louis on Wednesday, February 17. Then it's on to Australia. Isbell's current schedule has him criss-crossing the globe through March.

He doesn't mind, though -- and his reasoning is a familiar refrain.

"I think a lot of people would like to have my job," he says. "If I'm going to have it], I might as well do the work."

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