Jason Isbell at Jazz Fest 2014. Photo by Stephen Maloney.

Jason Isbell: A Southern Gothic Songwriter Returns to New Orleans

Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell won two Grammy Awards this year, picking up Best Americana Album for Something More Than Free and Best American Roots Song for “24 Frames.”  He’s also been nominated for 11 Americana Music Awards since 2009, winning six of them. Musicality is a family affair for Isbell too, as his wife is Amanda Shires, an acclaimed singer-songwriter, fiddle player, and poet who is currently touring the East Coast.

I caught up with Isbell yesterday ahead of this weekend’s two-night stand at New Orleans’ Joy Theater. While Jason’s one-year-old daughter napped on the tour bus, the former Drive-By Trucker discussed Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize for Literature, novels and songwriting, Faulkner House Books, and politics in rural America.  

isbellThere’s no better time to talk about music and literature and songwriting with a great songwriter than a week after Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. How has Bob Dylan’s poetry and songwriting influenced your own?

Well, his songwriting certainly has. Leonard Cohen said it’s like pinning a medal on the tallest mountain for being the tallest mountain. I think anybody who writes songs for a living and probably most people who write songs as a hobby, you have to recognize that Dylan was really the pioneer for making folk music something that’s mainstream, and for writing the types of songs that most of us write nowadays. Whereas, before the Beatles came along you couldn’t really have any production influence on your own work, you know? Everybody in the studios were wearing lab coats and the artists had absolutely nothing to do with the production on the work they were doing. Well Dylan was the same way for folk music going into the mainstream. It just wasn’t an option before he came along.

So what would you say to the critics who might say that songwriting is not a pure form of literature?

Well, you know it’s not poetry. If it were the Nobel Prize for Poetry, I would have a problem with it myself because they’re two very different disciplines. But I think songwriting is a form of literature. It’s certainly probably sticking in the craws of novelists who never would’ve won a Nobel Prize anyway. But I don’t hear any of the Nobel Laureates complaining about it. Maybe they are, but most of the people who I’ve seen complain are people who’d never really have a chance at winning something like that in the first place.

As for traditional literature, you’ve mentioned Cormac McCarthy a lot and it’s been reported that you read a lot of Faulkner when you were at the University of Memphis. What books have been most influential to your songwriting?

Well, lately, I’ve been reading a lot of folks like Denis Johnson and Adam Johnson and Jennifer Egan and Jonathan Franzen. I read that—what’s his name, he wrote The Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, he’s really popular right now, an Irish fellow—David Mitchell, I just finished his newest novel [Slade House] last night. I try to stay pretty current with at least the artists, novelists, that are recognized as the best that we have right now. Obviously I don’t have the time or the resources to keep up with all of them. I don’t think anybody does, but I try to read as much as I possibly can.

I think Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen had a big influence on my writing around the time of Southeastern. I was reading a lot of their books, and I think they helped me figure out a way to be conversational while still being poignant, and to pick the right details. I think that’s what helps more than anything else: if you read a lot of really good fiction or nonfiction—you know, whatever kind of writing you do—I think the reading will help you learn how to determine which details are the right ones to include.

You’ve said in the past that John Prine is the best at that, and I wonder if it’s in the editing phase that you find or choose the right details? Or how do you narrow it down to the right detail for the right emotion?

Well sometimes. Yeah, sometimes it happens while you’re editing. But sometimes it just comes out right off the bat. I think it’s one of those things that’s really hard to pin down. It’s hard to say ‘This is the process that I use’ because to write a good song, I think you have to use everything you have available. All of your own experiences with books and movies and TV shows and music and conversations you’ve had. It becomes sort of innate. You learn to recognize, okay, that phrase could be of use to me at some point. Or that story is something I could make into a song. You take a lot of notes and then when you have the time to actually work on it, then that’s when you sit down and really start working. But I mean certain things when I’m editing I’ll look for clichés and I’ll look for inexactitudes—I don’t even know if that’s a word or not but that’s what I call it.

I think it is.

Things that aren’t exactly what I mean for them to be. I always try to edit in the direction of honesty, try to make the songs as true as possible whether they’re things that happened to me or the ways I feel about things.

So you’re constantly observing and taking notes and keeping track of what’s going on around you?

Yeah, I think that’s important. If you’re going to write in any form, I think that’s important.

The lyrics in “Flagship” make me want to be a better husband. Was it a similar emotion that inspired the song? Or is “the couple in the corner of the bar,” as you sing, a couple you actually saw at a hotel bar?

I was in a hotel. That one was kind of an interesting song to write because I had told myself that night ‘I have a day off and I’m going to sit here and write a song.’ Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve gotten better at it over the past few years, at forcing myself to write an entire song in one sitting. But that can be hard to do. And I when I was working on that—taking the entire day and didn’t have anything—so I just went for a walk around the hotel and started noticing that it was one of those hotels that the lobby looks a lot better than the rooms.

And then I did see some people there at the hotel bar. I don’t think there was a particular couple, but that struck me. Walking through the hotel, it reminded me of how many people there are sitting at the hotel bars not speaking to each other. So that’s where I went from there.

What about “Dress Blues.”  I heard you talk about a guy you went to high school with, but I always thought you wrote that song about my best friend, Ryen King, who was killed in Iraq in 2007 just a few weeks before he would’ve turned 21. How is it that you whittle a specific story down to its universal message for others to interpret?

That one, you know, was one of those that just came out as quickly as I could write it out on paper. It was about a guy, Matthew Conley, who I went to high school with, but sometimes you just kind of feel like you’re holding onto the pen, you know, and I know there’re writers who believe that that’s always the case. Leonard Cohen being one of them.

I can certainly appreciate that, a sort of spiritual outlook on songwriting. It’s true that every once in a while, there’ll be a song that—I think it happens to all the songwriters I know—a song that just seems to tell itself, seems to write itself, and that one did. I was coming home from a tour, and Matthew had died a week or so before, and they had brought him back home and were having a ceremony for him in the gymnasium there at the high school where we went. I was on the road and wasn’t able to go but on the phone with my mom, she was telling me about the ceremony because she’d gone. As soon as I got to the house, I just sat down and wrote the song in the time it took to write it on a piece of paper.

You’ve mentioned writing on a piece of paper and holding onto the pen. Do you start with pen and paper? Or do you ever start with rhythm and strumming the guitar?

It happens all different sorts of ways. Usually there’s a phrase that is accompanied by a melody. That probably happens forty percent of the time for me. I’ll start thinking something that seems to have a melody attached to it when it first occurs to me. But in the case of “Dress Blues” I already had the melody, I’d written another song that had the same melody and just threw all those lyrics out and wrote this one.

And then sometimes it works the other way around. What was it, there were a couple songs on this last album, “Palmetto Rose” and “The Life You Chose”—I was listening back to my own personal demo of it the other day—the lyrics were the same but the melody was completely different. So sometimes you just throw out one-half and do it over if you feel like it’s not really congealed like it supposed to. Any possible way I can make it work.

In “Palmetto Rose” you talk about learning from a taxi driver and watching the children sell their basket-weave roses and Sullivan’s Island, where the “big boats rolled in with the earliest slaves, their children, our earliest kin.” How do you think the arts—good songs like yours and good books—can help our country heal from centuries of racial tension?

Well, every little bit helps, I believe. If you can figure out a way to start a conversation or to put things in a different perspective for people, I think maybe you can start to change people’s minds. I wouldn’t assume any of the work I did really helped in those avenues. I think it’s possible that I helped people get sober. That’s probably about the best thing I could think of myself as far as that goes. But, you know, I talk about the things that are important to me. And what we find out is that you’re more similar to everybody else than you have maybe expected you were because those things turn out to be just as important to other people too.

Growing up in Alabama, the racial divide was a big deal for me as a kid and it still is now. I live in Nashville now which is a little more progressive than where I grew up, but it’s still in Tennessee, you know, still the Deep South. There’s still a lot of issues. If you’re not preaching to the choir—and in my case, I think I’m probably not—there are probably a lot of southern folks who may not necessarily have the most open minds who are listening to some of the music that I make—and the Drive-By Truckers make, or that a lot of other southern songwriters make—and might every once in a while make them think, ‘Well, maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way.’ I don’t know if that happens or not but, you know, I sure hope so.

On that same note, Rick Bragg—a north Alabaman—has been writing for years about the culture and poverty and struggles of Appalachian families. Those themes resonate in your songs, and, like you said, in Truckers’ songs. Could you comment on what’s going on in rural America and why the politics of our people—I’m from north Georgia—have turned so nasty recently?

Well, they’ve always been nasty. If we think this is a low point in our nation’s history, then we didn’t pay enough attention to the Civil War in our history classes. We were literally fighting against ourselves and more people died of diarrhea than anything else in that war. So that was probably a little bit lower than where we’re at right now. But I do think that if people are disenfranchised for long enough—whether it be African Americans or women or Latinos or poor southern folks or poor rural folks who don’t live in cities—if people are disenfranchised for long enough they get really, really angry and really frustrated.

And I think that the fact that we’re under the control of so many corporations that it’s causing a lot of people to get pushed out to the fringes. It’s causing the middle class to evaporate and it’s that old story of the rich and the poor fighting against each other. It’s been going on for a long, long time.

As far as the solution, I don’t know, other than trying to elect leaders who actually want to help and who actually have experience helping to bridge that gap.  I don’t know what else we’re going to do to make it any better, but you know when you see people who are living in really poor communities supporting conservative candidates who are looking to raise taxes on the poorest Americans, then you have a disconnect, I think. If they’re doing it for moral reasons, for religious reasons, I think it becomes pretty obvious that a lot of people are using the Bible to get into your pocketbook. And that’s a tragic thing because when people don’t have anything else to cling to, they cling really, really tightly to religion, and I think a lot of politicians use that. They come out and say ‘I’m the guy that’s the bigger Christian because I’m against whatever liberal rights or women’s rights, I’m a Christian so I’m against those things,’ and really they’re just looking to evaporate the middle class more and tax the hell out of the poorest people, and that’s a pretty big disconnect there between people voting their own interest and people just getting screwed over.

You’ve played Voodoo, Jazz Fest, a Dr. John tribute. What’s the feeling that keeps bringing you back to New Orleans? And you’ve got two days, so what are your plans in the downtime between shows?

We’re excited to be there. It’s a beautiful town. This time of year the weather’s great. The Joy Theater is going to be nice for a couple days. The second day of a two-night stand is usually great because it’s almost like a day off with a show at the end. Don’t need a sound check or load in or any of that stuff. So I’ll probably just take the baby in the stroller and walk around, see if I can go somewhere I’ve not been before.  

Have you ever been to Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter?

I have. It’s one of my favorite places. I try to go there about every time I’m in town.

There’s an old man who’s owned that store for a long time, Joe DeSalvo, who’s about 84 years old, who lives for talking literature with folks.

Yeah, that’s a great old shop. It really is. I’ll probably wind up there at least once, if not more. Sometimes I’ll go in and I’ll find something that, you know, I want but don’t need to buy. Then I wind up back in there and looking at it again.

Like a signed Faulkner or Flannery first edition.

Yeah, I’ll talk myself out of it, then go back and get it the next day.

Well, Jason, you’re touring with your daughter and she’s napping now. Do you sing her bedtime stories?

Oh yeah we sing. She likes the singing. She usually helps me warm up before the shows. It’s really funny because we have these little baby earplugs that we’ll put in before the show, and she likes the sound of her own voice, so when she gets the earplugs in she gets really, really loud. Really loud. She’s kind of like an old person wearing head phones, it’s pretty funny.

We’re really looking forward to the double-header in New Orleans.

Yeah, it’s going to be great.

Jason Isbell will perform at the Joy Theater on Saturday, October 22 and Sunday, October 23. Josh Ritter will open on Saturday, and John Moreland will open on Sunday. Tickets for the shows are on sale here.


  • Jim Pittman

    Jason Isbell is simply the best at his craft. I’m proud to say that I AM his biggest fan.