Jason Isbell is my favorite singer/songwriter. Has been for about two years now, since the release of his album Southeastern. So I was super-excited to have a chance to speak with him last month for an article about Father’s Day, fathers and sons. Isbell has a song in which he recounts the advice his dad gave him as the 21-year-old Isbell set off on the road with the hard-livin’ band Drive-By Truckers. (Here’s a very funny story about the song.)
The discussion morphed into a lot of other directions, including what saved his life and why he thinks checklists are a bad idea. Here is a transcript of our discussion, with my parts paraphrased (sorry, I didn’t need it for the article, so I didn’t transcribe my parts).
What happened when you shared “Outfit” with your dad for the first time?
I was probably 21 or 22, and it was one of the first songs I’d written after I’d first gone on the road with the Drive-By Truckers. It would have been late 2001 or early 2002. I brought a guitar on over and sat down and played it for him. I believe that’s what happened. Probably because we didn’t have a recording of it. You know, he liked it a lot. He has a good sense of humor and he understands what parts of that song are serious and what parts aren’t. And even the parts that aren’t are in tribute to the kind of person he is.
He’s a good listener, so he knew exactly what I was talking about when I sang it for him.
My parents are both used to becoming characters in my songs. At least they are by now, if they weren’t then. Because when I started writing, I didn’t have any siblings till I was in my teens — I have a half-brother and a half-sister who are in their teens now — so really the only world that I knew was family, and that was the kind of thing that I focused on. So I don’t think that any part of it was shocking to my father — except perhaps the quality of the song, that’s the only thing that surprised him. (laughs)
That song and “Decoration Day” were important to me because they were the first songs I ever wrote knowing that people would be listening to them later. Before that anything I had written had no audience at that point and they were just songs I wrote for the sake of practicing writing songs. So those songs I knew were going to be heard and so I think he might have been surprised that I had picked up my game quite a bit.
He and I have always been close. He was 19 when I was born, so we’re not that far apart age-wise. When I went on the road, he was very concerned. I had lived a little bit of a sheltered life in a very small town — not even a town, we lived in the country. And I think he was a little concerned about some of the things I’d be exposed to. So when I played that song for him, it told him among other things that I had actually been listening to what he had been saying. And that’s a big deal I would imagine for the dad of a 21-year-old [Editor’s note: I had mentioned I had sons 21 and 17]. That he listened to me—maybe he did in order to write a song, but at least he listened to me.
I don’t think where my dad was coming from had much to do with my sexuality as much as it did with masculinity as a gender role. My dad knew that I was straight, he knew that I was male, that it was how I identified, it was obvious from early on. He wasn’t attempting to disrupt the part of me that was open-minded. He was trying to steer me in the direction to not get my ass kicked. (laughs)
I went on later to get in a few scuffles, but that was because of drunkenness. The way he raised and directed me when I was a kid, if I had paid closer attention to it, I would have never got in much trouble at all. I had my own ways of rebellion. I was never a sullen teenager, I was never somebody who thought that I knew more than he did, but there were moments there.
I mention that resonates because the last person to take a swing at me in anger was MY dad, when I was in my early 20s and living in his house. And that in retrospect, I think he was completely right to do what he did — and now I kinda wish he’d clocked me.
That interests me because it’s one of the rare fights that you have to win, from the father’s perspective. I’ve discussed this with my dad since then, actually. We had one pretty good one when I was 16 years old or so. And there are a few fights in your life that you have it win at all costs. And when you’re the father and your son is a teenager and he’s trying to stand up to you, that’s one you just can’t afford to lose. And no, my dad did not lose. He certainly did not, and it never happened again. But the relationship that we had was interesting because generationally we were so close. The music I grew up listening to was the same music he grew up listening to. Seventies rock. Arena rock. Groups like Queen and Creedence [Clearwater Revival], Meryl Haggard and George Jones, Hank Williams … I loved the same things he loved. The stories he tells about being a young man are about going to Atlanta to see ZZ Top in concert and this kind of thing, so we always, always had things to talk about. Dad wasn’t a musician, he’s not a musician, he never played any instruments, but he always loved it and listened very closely and was always very proud of the fact that that is what I went on to do with my life.
How to write from a female perspective
It’s harder for me, because I’m not a woman. You know, that’s a difficult thing to do. Some men do it real well. I think John Prine did it really well with “Angel from Montgomery.” It’s the hardest perspective for me to inhabit. It’d be easier for me to write a song about crickets than to write a song from a woman’s point of view. (laughs) … There is a certain part of that you’re just not supposed to know. And as much as you attempt to empathize, I think it’s a big mistake to assume that you know all there is to know about any particular woman.
The new album (“Something More Than Free”)
It’s a lot of narrative-driven story-songs. I didn’t try to write an album with “Southeastern” in mind. I tried to get out from any kind of pressure I might have felt following that record up, that would have been boring. You know, I just try to tell people’s stories as good as I can. I try to pay attention to what’s going on with the people around me, what their concerns are, what their fears are. A lot of the songs were inspired by conversations I had with people like my dad or my wife or people who travel and make music for a living. I try to stay close to the source. I try to write songs for the same reasons that I’ve always written songs — to communicate with people and explain my own feelings to myself as much as is possible.
Letting go of control
It’s the idea that you have to let go of control. That’s something that I’ve struggled with since before I got sober, but especially after I quit drinking and got my life straightened out in that respect. It was really important to me to understand that I’m not capable of micromanaging my own life. The best you can do really is just to attempt to show up on time and make sure everything works, and react well. You know, that’s a hard thing to come to terms with, especially when you’re starting a family, you know, you don’t have control of what happens to your family. You do your best, try to keep them safe and provide for them, but at the end of the day anything can happen. And I think that is probably where my mind was when I was working on that song.
That’s a hard thing to do. When you have no control over the situation, and making that decision to free yourself from that burden when you don’t have any control, in my experience that’s the hardest decisions I ever make. That I can’t control this and I can’t fix it.
I try to take time to myself. The thing that helps me the most is in those situations when I realize that there’s something wrong that I don’t have any control over, I’ll start counting the things that aren’t wrong, and usually that opens my mind up to the fact that I’m still way better off than almost everybody else in the world. I know my mother-in-law always told my wife to do that when she was growing up, so I probably inherited that from them. You know, if you stop and think about what’s wrong, it’s not Cystic Fibrosis, it’s not cancer, and I start thinking about people I know who have kids who have death sentences at 18 or 21 or 27. You know, it helps. It helps. It certainly doesn’t change the measure or the weight that each individual problem has, but perspective is everything in that situation.
Is there anxiety waiting for the record to land?
I’ve done it a lot over the years. It can cause some anxiety. But not so much, because I’m confident the record’s good. I spent a lot of time working on the lyrics and the melodies and I worked with the right people. I think at this point, if it wasn’t good we’d still be working on it. (laughs) I may come to a point where my tastes change and I become completely out of touch with what quality is — I know that happens to a lot of songwriters, but I’m fighting it tooth and nail. So hopefully it won’t happen to me. For now, I know what makes my work good and what makes my work bad and I think this album has a whole lot of good on it, so it’s a matter of just chomping on the bit and wanting people to get a-hold of it. We’ve played the two songs [“24 Frames,” “Something More Than Free”] you’ve heard and there’s a third called “Speed Trap Town” we’ve been playing a little bit. It’s mostly acoustic guitar and a couple other instruments here and there. And we’re going in to rehearse next week for a day or two and work up the rest of the songs of the album and that’ll be a lot of fun.
Being a Better Man
The big shift for me happened when I realized how many people needed me to be in the world. I think it’s really important, and I figured this out just by observing some friends of mine over the past couple of years, but — it’s really important for people to feel that there’s at least one person in the world who just couldn’t carry on without you. When Amanda [Shires] and I first got together and I was drinking a whole lot, I thought she wasn’t going to put up with it, but more than that, and she wouldn’t let on to this at that time — the way she would put it was, “Well, I’m gonna leave if you’re gonna keep doing this. I’m gonna leave” — but I got the sense that she needed me to clean my act up and that I took on a little bit of that responsibility and that burden of her happiness and her well-being, and after that I looked at some other folks, like my mom and my little sister, and I started thinking, “Well, these people would really fall apart if I wasn’t here.” If I drank myself to death or if I had a car accident when I was drunk — which is usually what happens to people my age, you know, your liver doesn’t quit quite that early — I thought that might affect these people’s lives in a way that might not be fixable for them. And I thought that, Well, if they need me to be here then I’m going to be here and I’m gonna try to be present. And I think where a lot of people fall into trouble and wind up repeating the same harmful patterns over and over is when they really don’t feel like anybody needs them around. And that’s a kind of out-of-touch that I never had to feel.
I think a lot of people end up making these kind of checklists in their mind. You know, “These people are OK, these bills are OK, this part of my life is OK, so I can behave however I want and I can do whatever I want to do and it’s my own life.” I think that checklist can be a dangerous thing because it can make you feel like you’re only responsible for yourself as long as everything is looked after. And you’re never only responsible for yourself. There’s always somebody who’s affected by the way you’re behaving and the way you’re living, whether you’re somebody with influence over a lot of people or even somebody in a tiny town who might not know anybody outside of a quarter-mile radius. There’s always other people that are affected by your actions.
Expectations about the next year as a first-year father being exhausting?
No shit, I’m gonna be writing down everything she says so hopefully I’ll be writing down a few things I say, too.
A growing family can be a strain
My wife and I spent a lot of time in vans and shitty hotel rooms traveling around, so at least we know what it feels like to be completely exhausted.
Do you have a favorite father-son song?
You know, one thing I’ve been listening to a lot lately. I’m actually about to fly out tonight to Austin to help with this Austin City Limits Hall of Fame ceremony they’re doing this week for Guy Clark. Guy Clark has that song “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” It’s not really a father-son. It’s actually about his grandmother’s boyfriend, who he thought was his grandfather for a long time but he wasn’t — and if “Hey Jude” counts, then this one must count. It reminds me a whole lot of my relationship with my grandfather when I was a kid with Guy being the child in this story who grows up and is a little older in each verse and sees that the old man is turning into every other old man rather than the superhero that he was in the kid’s mind. I think that’s a beautiful, beautiful song. Because he able to see the reality of it without any of the beauty of it going away. It’s a song about time passing. You know, when the song starts Guy’s just a little kid and everyone refers to him as the old man’s sidekick and by the end of the song Guy is grown and the old man is about to die, and the whole time in Guy’s mind they’ve been living out this Western outlaw fantasy. It manages to keep that relationship very romantic without glossing over the realities of it.