Can We Give Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires Some Space? Or Vice Versa?

Jason Isbell remains my favorite musician these days, and there’s a lot of energy around him right now. There was a post on a Facebook fan group I enjoy for Isbell about how his wife Amanda Shires was not in the band photo that accompanied the release of the first single for his band’s upcoming album, Weathervanes. Amanda has, and hasn’t, been in those photos for years. With her decision to lean in on her solo career, with last year’s Take It Like a Man, she largely has been out of the orbit of the last tour. And that’s OK. I wrote:

Just my take, and your mileage may vary: Used to be they seemed a piece short when Amanda wasn’t there. On tour last year, that wasn’t the case. It felt like the fivesome was the default, because it was, and they cooked. Between what he releases as a solo or band project and accompanying photos of who “the band” is, Jason provides a lot of fodder for Isbell-ologists.

That said, and non-fans can stop here, if they wish, I’m going to delve into some serious Isbell-ology here.

Part of the story that served the two of them well initially was that Amanda staged an intervention (along with Ryan Adams, of all people) to get Jason professional help when he was at great risk due to his drinking and drugging. She is generally credited with saving his life. It had some very June and Johnny Cash, “Walk the Line” energy.

I spoke to Jason in 2015, for a piece in Men’s Health magazine, as Something More Than Free was landing, and he said this about that time. It’s stuck with me:

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.

One of the things I’ve always loved about Jason is how self-aware he has been, even if it sometimes has come with a hefty dose of self-loathing.

Because that story was so compelling, a lot of us connected with it. Over time, they’ve shared that they’ve had difficulties, like couples do. Last year, though, Amanda’s highly acclaimed album, Take It Like a Man, took it up a notch, or three. It was very much about the challenges of their relationship and her need to stake out her own artistic space. The album was great, it got a lot of attention, and she toured with it. But it was so raw and personal that it felt a little like watching a couple you like fight at a party. It’s a mixed experience.

Supporting the album took her away from Jason’s band, the 400 Unit, where her vocals, violin and presence were a big part of its unique flavor. Without her, they became a very tight rock band. For the first time, I thought their shows when Amanda wasn’t there were as compelling and focused as the ones when she was there.

It seemed they had inserted some space in their artistic lives, and I guess I hoped that would give them some maneuvering room to tighten up their relationship and grant them some cover artistically. I wished them well; also, I wanted their relationship not to impinge on my enjoyment of both of them artistically.

So, the first single from Jason’s new album, Weathervanes, lands, and I find myself re-conflicted. The first song released from it is called Death Wish, and it’s about a guy trying to salvage a relationship, and a person, battling mental health demons. This follows TILAM, where Amanda sang about being dismissed as crazy.

I realize that art is born of experience and it’s not a mirror, that creativity sometimes means making it up. However, songs like this feel like an invitation to fans to try to read the lyrical tea leaves for clues to the “State of Jason and Amanda.” It make me uncomfortable (not uncomfortable enough to stop writing a long blog post, however 😉 )

I guess what I’m thinking is, I want to step off that train. I want to judge the art as art, not as a relational report card. I liked a lot of TILAM, but my favorite song, Stupid Love, was not a dirge. And I hope there is a better song on Weathervanes than Death Wish. It has a beat and some truth to it, but it’s not essential Isbell, and that’s what I want from him. Something that rivals Elephant or Relatively Easy or Danko/Manuel or Vampires, something than exposes or clobbers me with or reminds me of an essential or half-veiled truth. The guy, and Amanda too, are such good artists, this are-they-in-or-out kabuki can be a distraction from the real question: Is there still a better song percolating inside you? Are you gonna share it with the world?

That said, I’m looking forward to Weathervanes and, especially, to seeing it toured this year. I’m penciled in to make it to the Ryman residency with friends. Looking forward to what comes next from Amanda. And the relationship is their business. By November, Amanda could be dating Pete Davidson. Heck, by November, Jason could be dating Pete Davidson. That’s on them. As artists, I hold them to what they create. I’m excited to hear more of it. And I want to stop holding them to a Johnny and June expectation that no longer serves them well. I don’t think it’s fair to them or their art.

Editor’s note: Of course I write this on their 10th anniversary. Good luck, you crazy kids! Now keep it to yourselves.

P.S. Oh, and if you want a transcript of the full interview for Men’s Health, it’s here. He gave me a lot of time while sitting in the parking lot of a supermarket, I think, while we talked.

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