Jason Isbell doesn’t want to stay silent on politics

Jason Isbell on politics, sobriety, and Southerners cheering for their own
Jason Isbell

Photograph by Danny Clinch

Alabama native and Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Jason Isbell returns to the Fox Theatre for back-to-back shows in February with his band, the 400 Unit. The group will be pushing its latest album, The Nashville Sound, which might pack a few surprises for longtime fans of this soft-spoken Southern balladeer and former Drive-By Truckers guitarist.

What can fans expect to see that’s different this time around?
There’s a good chance that people will hear songs they’ve never heard live. We’ve got six solo records to choose from, and we’ll be playing a lot of songs from the new album. Be prepared for a louder rock ’n’ roll show than you might expect from the other records.

The new record is also more political. You’ve said that Trump’s election made you lose faith in the South. Do you expect any backlash here?
Atlanta can sometimes be the exception to the rule in the same way that Nashville is. There are some urban pockets in the South that don’t really [accept] all the politics of the rural South. The current political climate, and the fact that I have a family, has motivated me to try to tell people what I believe. A lot of people can’t afford to stay silent. If they choose to, they’re ignoring a lot of Americans who don’t have a voice. I don’t really go into diatribes on stage. I normally let the songs do the talking.

Artists often seek conflict. You’ve been living straight for the past few years, though. You’re sober, married, and a father.
Before I got sober, before I got my act cleaned up, I was afraid of what happiness or satisfaction might do to the art that I’m trying to make. That was a trick. My mind wanted me to keep drinking. That’s been pretty clearly disproven. I’ve been a lot happier over the last three albums than ever. And my work has improved because of it. Once you get your own problems solved, you can start focusing on the things outside your own front door. You can find a higher calling.

See the show

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit play at the Fox Theatre, with special guest James McMurtry, on February 8 and 9. foxtheatre.org

Do you feel like, overall, your music is better received in the South?
We did better in the South early on. But I think that had more to do with Southern people supporting natives than the content and subject matter. That stuff tends to translate everywhere, all over the world. Southern people just like to see a member of their tribe do well.

Do you feel like you’re proselytizing at your shows or preaching to the choir?
When I put this record out, a lot of people would say, ‘Well, you’re going to alienate half your fan base.’ I don’t think it’s anywhere near half. If I alienate anybody, it’ll probably be a small portion of people who, for one thing, don’t agree with me and, for another thing, just aren’t willing to listen to people they don’t agree with. I think there’s a chance to give them some information they’ve not heard before. More than that, I don’t think it matters if you’re preaching to the choir—you just keep preaching.

Where do you go for inspiration?
I read a lot—a lot of fiction. That helps me figure out what works and what doesn’t. Much of it comes from day-to-day conversation. I’ll be talking to my wife, or my best friend, or my dad, and someone will say something, and I’ll write it down. And I’ll go from there.

This article originally appeared in our February 2018 issue.