Jason Isbell Is Finding His Purpose

8 minute read

Jason Isbell says that the desire to be honest and fair is his compass. “One day I decided: ‘This is what I’m going to claim as the purpose for why I’m here,’” he says. “I think it’s to leave the place a little bit better than I found it, and to experience all the things that I can experience.”

This year, Isbell is certainly experiencing plenty: he’s releasing two albums, has a role in Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, and is the subject of an HBO documentary.

Isbell, 44, broke onto the music scene with the rock band Drive-By Truckers in 2001 and went solo in 2007. But his 2013 album, Southeastern, changed his career not too long after he changed his life by becoming sober. Since then he has won four Grammys, become known as one of the country’s leading singer-songwriters (and guitarists) and gained a legion of devoted fans, including Bruce Springsteen and the late John Prine.

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Isbell is thoughtful and tenderhearted, but also decisive and tough. He listens closely and looks people in the eye when he speaks to them. Quick to laughter, he also displays a keen intelligence with an expansive vocabulary, whether he’s discussing the complexities of allegory in songwriting or the worries of the modern age.

Those concerns are at the heart of his latest album, Weathervanes, a collection of 13 original songs that will be released June 9, marking his sixth studio collaboration with the 400 Unit.

Weathervanes by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
Weathervanes by Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

“I think we’re all worried about the same things, we just have different ideas about how to resolve those concerns. When I’m trying to tackle a big issue…if I go into it like I’m trying to tell a story…then that’s hard to argue with. It’s hard to argue with one person saying: ‘I am scared.’”

The album includes songs like “Save the World,” about a father’s fears of his daughter going to school amid constant shootings. The rousing “Death Wish” features a narrator who, like many, loves someone suffering mental illness. There are lovely ballads, lyrics that complexify addiction, and three songs where men offer advice on ways to navigate life, which he calls a “Southern tradition.” One of them, “Cast Iron Skillet,” has already gained popularity as a single—and led to Lodge molding a custom Jason Isbell skillet.

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“Middle of the Morning” is a highlight, featuring perhaps Isbell’s most vulnerable vocals, wherein someone who “was raised to be a strong and silent southern man” is revealing their depression. Isbell has always been open about his battles with anxiety, a theme of the HBO documentary Jason Isbell: Running With Our Eyes Closed, released in April.

Weathervanes also takes on regret in songs about marriage, parenthood, and lack of opportunity, but the theme plays out most powerfully on “White Beretta.” Told from the point of view of a man who, 25 years later, regrets that he wasn’t more supportive of his girlfriend who was terminating a pregnancy, it offers a plaintive refrain: “It was so many years ago / Oh and I just didn’t know / but that ain’t no excuse.”

“This song did come from personal experience,” Isbell says. “I feel like that song, the melody, the chord structure, the arrangement of the song, it all lines up to the point where you don’t necessarily feel like you’re listening to a song, it feels more like you’re experiencing a story.”

Weathervanes operates as a collection of precise short stories, full of imagery and sensory details: a woman “in the moonlight, digging up the garden bed,” “a warm wind blowing in the laundromat” with “a young man crying in a cowboy hat,” a landscape where “the highway’s straight and night’s so still.” The songs are full of desperation, beauty and wit, populated with everyday Americans fighting tremendous battles but also living lives of complex joys and sorrows.

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Despite his success Isbell still feels close to his working class roots. He lives on a bucolic farm outside of Nashville with his wife, singer-songwriter Amanda Shires (who also plays fiddle and sings background vocals on Weathervanes), and their daughter. But he says he’s never far away from the trailers and backroads of Northern Alabama where he grew up.

“I consider myself extremely lucky…to have the tools that I have, growing up the way I did, without a lot of extra, being around working people most of my life.”

Isbell believes his rural upbringing helped him to be cast in the new Scorsese epic, too. “I do believe my accent got me a long way on that,” he laughs. He says working on the movie was “like a dream” but was also one of the most challenging things he’s ever done. “I don’t get scared going on stage anymore—I’ve done that thousands of times—but this was terrifying, and it turned out to be a really beautiful experience. Everybody involved was really, really good at what they did and they were all doing their best at all times. Just to be around that at that scale was unbelievable.” Still, he says that he believes that the most important part for everyone involved was the story they were helping to tell, centering on the serial murders of the Osage to steal their oil rights in the early 1920s. And he thinks the experience changed him as an artist, from how he interprets his own songs to the way he collaborates with others. “I came back with sort of a renewed vision of how to tell stories in general,” he says.

In a year full of work, Isbell is also marking the 10th anniversary of the widely acclaimed Southeastern in September by releasing a new edition that includes a live recording of the original album, demos, and new packaging.

Southeastern and Weathervanes bookend 10 years of remarkable growth for Isbell as an artist and as a person. He’s also become a progressive force not only by speaking out but also by taking action: during the pandemic he was one of the most vocal artists calling for safety measures at venues, he has insisted on featuring Black women as openers to many of his shows, and he’s been active in raising money for LGBTQ issues and reproductive rights.

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“I believe that people should be allowed to be who they want, to love who they want. I think there is a big systemic racial issue in our country. I think a lot of people are pushed to the margins intentionally. I think the system is set up that way,” he says. “And if those are the things I believe and I don’t say them out loud then I’m being dishonest with myself, and that’s the last thing I want to be.”

Isbell is quick to point out that he doesn’t think of these ways of thinking as political. Instead, he says this is about core beliefs. “Politics, to me, is the way we transfer power, it’s how we exchange power. When I think of politics I think of Robert’s Rules of Order. It’s easy for some people to say, well just because you disagree with my politics doesn’t mean we can’t sit down and have dinner together. But that’s not what I’m disagreeing with. I’m not disagreeing with your ideas about how power gets exchanged,” Isbell says, passionate now. “I’m disagreeing with who you believe should be allowed to be free. And that’s a big thing to disagree on. That’s fundamental.”

The value system of his maternal grandfather is especially on his mind these days. “[He] is in the last stage of his life. He’s always been very patient, very gentle, very kind, and he grew up around people who were very violent,” Isbell says. His mother has just told him that his grandfather had not been expressing any regrets, only calling out lovingly for family members. “Imagine getting through 83 years and the only thing that’s on your mind at the end is people you care about…You don’t have any apologies to make. I can’t think of a better way to end it than that.”

House, a novelist, is the poet laureate of Kentucky

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