Alt-Country / Americana / Interviews / Rock / Southern Rock

INTERVIEW: Jason Isbell (2018)



Ahead of his recent return to Australia with his band The 400 Unit, Jason Isbell took Chris Familton through what he’s been up to in the wake of last year’s The Nashville Sound.

“I still don’t think of myself as a country musician,” says Jason Isbell, talking about the recent opening he attended for the new American Currents exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and his role as artist-in-residence there late last year. Increasingly over the last five years he’s found it harder to avoid the mainstream country establishment, given the critical reception of his last three albums, six wins at the Americana Music Honors & Awards and four Grammy awards.  

“It is an honour to be included with the kind of names that you see there. It’s a big deal for Nashville, a lot of people come from out of town to see the Hall of Fame. They definitely reach across the aisle in a way that award shows don’t. It’s something that the Hall of Fame understands better than the Academy of Country Music. They recognise that there is music outside of the mainstream that makes a difference. Usually it takes really good listeners or musicians to understand that sometimes the music that’s not the most popular can wind up being the most influential, so I’m glad to be part of something like that,” Isbell says.

It has been nine months since the release of The Nashville Sound and despite the countless shows and promotion there is still a passion and enthusiasm for performing its songs. “I haven’t got tired of it. Some bands go on stage and just jam, others have parts worked out and it’s the same every night and we’re somewhere in the middle of that, so songs do change over time. For example Last Of My Kind has got a lot more dynamic and a lot broader. I like to see how people react to White Man’s World. I like a song that challenges some members of the audience a little bit. I’m enjoying playing all of them,” enthuses Isbell.

Jason Ibsell, Press Shot 1

Life on the road can be both rewarding and testing and one extra factor for Isbell in recent years has been the birth of his daughter with wife Amanda Shires. Shires was absent from his 2016 Australian tour due to family responsibilities and this time Isbell will again be leaving the family at home. 

“Yeah, she’ll be home this time too. She has some shows with John Prine. I like to say that if the mailman is going to run off with your wife it might as well be that one,” laughs Isbell, making reference to Prine’s time spent delivering mail. “We’re in a much better situation touring-wise now though. I’m able to take the family with me a lot which is a great thing. That wouldn’t have always been the case, I’m glad I had a child at 36 years old rather than 26. That would have been a lot harder going on the road in a van. Now we have three buses so it’s much easier than it used to be. When we have to be apart we try to do it for a good reason and playing music is a good reason. When we’re together we really make that time count.”

Isbell and Shires have become close friends with Prine and his wife Fiona in recent years and had the honour of guesting on Prine’s forthcoming album. There are parallels that can be drawn between Prine and Isbell’s concise and well-edited approaches to songwriting and Isbell is quick to hone in on what he sees as Prine’s strength and influence on his own music. 

“He has a really nice way of making a conversational language into something really poignant and that to me is probably the highest calling for a song. It’s like when Pollack went beyond photorealism and started splattering paint on a canvas. It becomes about what you chose to do rather than what you’re able to do. When I listen to John I admire the choices he makes, not necessarily the abilities he has. He puts songs together that you feel very comfortable listening to and also reminds you of how moving everyday conversation can be if you’re really paying attention. I think that’s the best thing a song can do. He’s hilarious too. Going to dinner at John’s house is like going to dinner with Bob Dylan if he was a really nice guy.”

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