June 13–Reality TV almost prevented Jason Isbell from writing one of the best songs on his new album. Maybe one of the best from his entire career.
On the Friday afternoon before Isbell was set to enter the studio the next week to begin recording his sixth studio LP, he was at home. He was supposed to be writing songs. But instead Isbell was in his bedroom watching “Hoarders,” the A&E series focused on individuals with compulsively hoarding disorder. Isbell’s wife, talented Americana singer/songwriter Amanda Shires, entered the room to check on him.
She talked him into turning off “Hoarders.” And, even though he said he already had enough material for the album, trying to write one more tune. “You might come up with the best song on the record today,” Shires said.
Isbell grumbled. Turned off the TV. About three hours later he’d penned “If We Were Vampires,” a poignant, smoke-ring contemplation on love and mortality.
The next Monday, Isbell entered Nashville’s RCA Studio A with his ace “backing” band The 400 Unit and producer Dave Cobb. These sessions became “The Nashville Sound” album.
Out June 16, “The Nashville Sound” travels a double-album’s worth of ground in its 10 songs: brainy skyscraper rock (“Cumberland Gap,” “Anxiety,” “White Man’s World,” “Hope the High Road”); dark twang (“Tupelo,” “Molotov”), novelist folk (“Chaos and Clothes,” “Last of My Kind”) and time-stopping acoustic art (“If We Were Vampires,” “Something to Love”). The 400 Unit, named for a Florence hospital’s psych ward, includes violinist/harmony vocalist Shires, keyboardist Derry deBorja, drummer Chad Gamble, bassist Jimbo Hart and guitarist Sadler Vaden.
In recent years, fans who’ve followed Isbell since his days with southern indie-rockers Drive-By Truckers have had to share him with more people. His 2013 breakthrough solo LP “Southeastern” rung up widespread acclaim and Americana Awards for album, artist and (for the track “Cover Me Up”) song of year. His next disc, 2015’s “Something More Than Free,” won the Greenhill native a Grammy for Best Americana Album. While “24 Frames” was also honored with a Grammy, for Best American Roots Song, some longtime fans weren’t crazy about the song’s polished, alt-rock-inspired sound.
But that’s the same kind of thinking as wishing more college football teams still ran the wishbone offense. “24 Frames” was Isbell’s finest solo recording up to that point — the music just as interesting as the brilliant, concise lyrics. And the evolved continuance of gems he’s been stockpiling since Truckers-period standouts like “Outfit” and “Dress Blues.”
Tight, classic-sounding and spirited, “The Nashville Sound” LP is likely to please old-school Isbellites and win the singer/songwriter/guitarist more converts. “Something More Than Free” debuted on the Billboard 200 albums chart at number six. “The Nashville Sound” seems poised to ascend even higher.
On a recent Wednesday, Isbell calls in for a phone interview from the patio of the pastoral, Nashville-area home he shares with Shires and young daughter Mercy. We talk about the new album, his career and beyond. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Jason, on the previous two records you received lots of acclaim for your lyrics. How nice is it to now to turn up the amps and rock on many of “The Nashville Sound” songs? To shake listeners’ bodies as well as their brains?
It’s a lot of fun. It’s always been a struggle for me writing rock ‘n’ roll songs because I can’t really write good boneheaded rock ‘n’ roll songs. And I don’t mean boneheaded as an insult because I listen to Bon Scott-era AC/DC and I think that stuff is amazing and incredible and there’s a huge place for it in my life, even though I certainly wouldn’t call it boneheaded.
I can’t write those songs. I’ve tried it and it’s bad. It comes out terrible. I don’t know if anybody can write them anymore, I think those days are gone, but it’s a really happy accident when something happens that makes a song more of a rock song and that very often has to do with lyrical content. With the tone of the lyric, the melody. Sometimes you just start playing something and you write a song and you think, “Alright that’s been a rock song since the start and that’s what it’s wanted to be so we’re not going to mess it up.” I used to do this, but nowadays I don’t start a song thinking I want to write a certain type of song. I just write the best song that I can and let it be what it wants to be. So I got lucky on this album and there’s quite a few up-tempo, loud rock ‘n’ roll tunes.
“The Nashville Sound” is your first album in a while to be credited to “Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit” instead of just “Jason Isbell.” For you, what are some of the coolest “and the” band names out there? Examples would be like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Tim McGraw did that with his band for a while — I thought that was really cool. He would give them billing on certain tours, certain things like that. I always think about obviously Springsteen or Tom Petty. I always thought Ted Leo and The Pharmacists was a great name and he’s a great songwriter and great musician. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars has to go up there, even though I guess that whole thing was bit of a character and period of reinvention for Bowie. Oh, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, you have to mention that one. There would have been no Springsteen and the E Street Band without them.
The epic song “Children of Children” was like the axis the “Something More Than Free” album revolved on. To me, the track “Anxiety” (co-written with Shires) plays a similar role on “The Nashville Sound.” What’s the last thing that made you anxious?
Last night as I was going to sleep, my wife was already asleep and our daughter made a really strange sound. And she’s going through this growth spurt right now, she’s eating a ton and sometimes she wakes up on the night which is not normal for her. But she made a really weird sound last night and I popped up in the bed and I was like checking on her, checking on her, checking on me, “Is she alright?” And my wife said, ‘You would make a good mother because you worry too much.’ And I thought that was funny. So we went back to sleep and she was fine.
After Gregg Allman died recently, you posted on your Twitter account a cool story about Gregg correctly guessing when Amanda was pregnant that she’d have a daughter. Since Gregg’s passing, what’s been on your mind about him?
To me, the thing to take away more even than the music and the artistry, more than his beautiful voice and the songs that he wrote was the fact that he was able to become an old man, which never seemed like it was going to be in the cards for Gregg Allman. He turned his life around in a very major, major way. And went from somebody who was really on death’s door for a long time to straightening out his path and taking better care of himself and eventually becoming a much better person. And that to me, there are a lot of people who write great songs, a lot of people sing beautifully. But I think for Gregg to make that turn around and really put some work into staying tethered to the world for as long as he did, will always be impressive to me.
Now that being said, I had a pretty close connection with that group, growing up in Muscle Shoals which is really where the Allman Brothers started as a band. To me that was just a huge part of the legacy and even the mythology of growing up in Muscle Shoals. Because when I met (Drive-By Truckers singer/guitarist) Patterson Hood, I was living in a house with Scott Boyer who had been in Gregg’s band for a while and had done a lot of work with Gregg over the years.
Gregg even called the house one day and I answered the phone and he called to talk to Scott and I was a teenager so I was just blown away by the fact that Gregg called that house. And later on, I met Gregg in Macon at a little blues club that no longer exists. And then my wife did a whole lot of touring with him so I went out and joined some of those tours and spent time around him. I can’t overstate what sort of influence Gregg and the Allman Brothers had on my development as a musician. But I think the really important thing to take away is he transformed his life and turned into a better person that could live quite a bit longer than anybody would have expected.
Is sequencing the order of songs on your albums difficult or easy for you?
It’s different depending on the album. This one wasn’t particularly difficult. What I do is I work based on the sides of a vinyl record. And so I sequenced this album based on what would play best on a vinyl record, and (we) talked about putting certain songs closer to the middle of the disc and certain songs closer to the outside edge.
Basically, you don’t want your louder songs to have thinner grooves. You want the heavier, more produced songs to get a thicker groove on the record so everything can be heard and so it doesn’t skip as easily and works like it’s supposed to. So I really sequenced by that on this more than anything else, so that made it kind of easy.
You mentioned Patterson Hood earlier. When people have asked you in the past about the possibility of you rejoining the Drive-By Truckers, your response was basically “Forget it, not going to happen.” But instead of a reunion per se, what if you and the Truckers did a tour together, where they did a set, then you did a set and there was a jam with everyone at the end? Is that an idea you’d be open to?
I mean I have no problem with it on a personal level but logistically I can’t wrap my head around how it would work, you know? Because I’m not going to ask them to come out and open for me. And I don’t think that would be particularly respectful. They don’t need to do that. They’re doing great headlining their own shows, but I’m at a different spot right now in my (career) than they are in theirs right now so if we were to go out and do something like that, either they would play first and I would feel bad about it or I would play first and some of my audience would probably be unhappy about it.
And then there’s the matter of the money. After everything we’ve gone through, how do you figure out who gets paid what? So, I really don’t think it would be worth it. Like right now I have a really good relationship with those guys and I don’t want to mess it up by getting back in business with them. And I don’t care enough about what the fans want in this particular situation. It’s been a long time. The people who were there saw some great shows, probably saw some bad shows too, but I think the Truckers are giving people what they need and what they want and I think I’m doing the same thing, so I don’t really see the point of stopping our own individual progress long enough for us to tour together.
Jimmy Iovine once said when he was making albums with John Lennon, Lennon would come in with like 10 or 12 songs written and those were the only songs they’d record. No outtakes. Is that the way you are? Or are there outtakes from these last three albums in the can somewhere?
There might be a couple. I think were two from this record that we used for different things but or just left aside but usually I won’t spend the time recording them if I don’t feel like they’re strong enough to make an album. I don’t want to waste everybody’s time and waste my own money recording songs that aren’t going to be on the record. And I don’t want to be in the studio for longer than a month. So yeah I don’t do a whole lot more. Usually I come in with 10 or 12 songs and that’s what we wind up with.
After your last two albums, people no longer expect good from you, they expect great. Are you driven by that? Do you feel those expectations?
I think so. But that’s a great thing. You want people to expect good work from you. And then when you’re writing you have to ignore it. That’s part of the job I think. If you’re on a roll where you’re making good music and writing things that matter to folks, I think your job is to keep that going by molding that pressure.
Because like Neil Young said, “People don’t want to hear a song you like, they want to hear a song that you wrote.” I take that to mean sometimes you have to let go of your own judgement while in the processes of creating something. You can’t sit there and constantly say, “Is this good enough? Is this good enough? Is this good enough?” Because sometimes that’s the enemy of creativity.
What was the first song you wrote that you thought was special?
I don’t know. It’s tough for me to look at it that way. Because they’re so personal. It took me a long time to get to a point where I could see the songs from an outside perspective and that’s a hard thing to describe and a hard thing to talk about, but I think after you’ve been writing songs for a couple decades, a lot of them and working really hard at it, for me it came to a point where I could listen to a song like “Cover Me Up” for example and sit back and think, “OK, if I hadn’t written that song would it be any good or not?” But it took me a long time to come to that conclusion.
So I would like to say something like “Outfit” or “Decoration Day.” But factually that probably didn’t happen until I had written, say, “Elephant” off of “Southeastern” because I didn’t have the ability to judge my own work as anybody other than its creator. I was too close to it. So anytime I heard one of my songs before that, I was always thinking, “Could I have done this better?”
“The Nashville Sound” contains 10 songs. That’s the same amount as “Sticky Fingers,” which you’ve said before is your favorite Rolling Stones record. A lot of Stones fans are “Exile on Main St.” people or maybe “Some Girls.” What do you love about “Sticky Fingers”?
I think musically that’s the best lineup of that band. Even though I love Ron Wood, I think he’s great at what he does, I think the Mick Taylor lineup was probably the strongest. And I feel like the songs on that record are better because I think they’re more self-aware and probably more honest songs. Songs like “Sway” and “Moonlight Mile” which are both very honest about the lifestyle that those guys were caught up in at that point in time, and I think they probably deal with those loss of Brian (Jones, Rolling Stones founding guitarist who died in 1969) on “Sticky Fingers.” Maybe more so than they did on a lot of other records. I don’t know.
It makes me feel like I know them a little bit better when I listen to that (album). And I think from start to finish it’s consistently strong. It’s one of those records like John Prine’s debut that I don’t ever skip anything when I’m listening to it. I just listen to it all the way through.
(c)2017 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
Visit Alabama Media Group, Birmingham at www.al.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.