In Friday’s American-Statesman, we take a long look at the music Jason Isbell has made over the past decade as he has risen to become one of American music’s most prominent artists. Isbell and his band the 400 Unit are setting up shop Friday at Bass Concert Hall to begin a three-night stand at the University of Texas venue.
Isbell was in the news earlier this week for reasons that went beyond music for his performance at a rally in Nashville for U.S. senate candidate Phil Bredesen (along with pop musician Ben Folds). The National Republican Senatorial Committee suggested in a tweet that Bredesen’s connection to the two musicians constituted a tie to the “unhinged, angry left.” Isbell responded at the show by joking, “I feel so hinged, for the first time in my life I’m hinged.”
On Twitter, in his songs and in interviews, Isbell has been an outspoken musician, though he doesn’t necessarily consider his statements to be political in nature or motivation. Speaking about his song “White Man’s World” with “Austin City Limits” executive producer Terry Lickona after taping the program recently, Isbell observed that “some people call them your politics. I think that’s a word that’s used to try to make them smaller and more manageable. I think the issue really is what do you believe? What do you think is right and wrong?”
Like most issues along these lines that all too often get boiled down to catch-phrases and buzz-quotes, a longer look reveals deeper meaning. In our interview with Isbell, we touched on the issue of how he incorporates his beliefs and values into his songwriting. Here’s an extended excerpt from that conversation.
American-Statesman: My sense is that with songs about values and principles, you try to go for empathy and not accusation. Is that reasonable?
Jason Isbell: Yeah, I think in general. Songwriting I consider to be really an extension of the way I look at the world. And yeah, I think that’s a pretty accurate statement on both of those counts. I don’t know if that’s the secret to fixing all of our problems, but it’s certainly the secret to me getting to sleep at night.
I feel a lot better when my general attitude toward the world AND my attitude toward my work is one that’s devoid of fear — really more accepting and more empathetic than it is afraid and worried and anxious. I think my life and my work both go a lot better when I look at it that way. But fear is addictive, and as a nation, I think we’re addicted to fear right now. It’s so easy to think that we’re losing the things that are very important to us.
But if you look at the history of our country, this is not as bad as it’s been. It’s not anywhere near as bad as it’s been. I think we still have the opportunity to make really good, close personal connections with each other, and have a lot of discussions that just weren’t possible 20, 30, 40 years ago. So I enjoy that, and I have the patience for it. I think that’s probably the biggest trick, and the hardest thing to do, is just keep your patience right now while you’re trying to spread whatever your message might be.
Statesman: Your song “I Hope the High Road” really captures a feeling I’ve witnessed directly over the past couple of years in terms of how people are dealing with the current situation in this country, especially the lines in the chorus: “I know you’re tired and you ain’t sleeping well/ Uninspired and likely mad as hell.”
Isbell: When I wrote that song, and even more so now, I feel like we’re at a point where the public is really affecting the personal. And a lot of people that I know that have been able to ignore the political climate or just the social and cultural climate in this country, a lot of those folks are really being affected on a very personal, very private level by it, at this point. It’s hard to see. A lot of people are losing their (expletive).
I guess that’s what has to happen for things to change. I think people have to realize that we are all connected to our representatives, and that they really do have influence over our day-to-day life.
Statesman: You’ve spoken before of an audience demographic that you share with artists such as Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson. What is that demographic exactly?
Isbell: I think all of us share the good fortune of seeing kids with their parents, and sometimes their grandparents, all enjoying the same kind of music. So that’s a really good thing. … But people ask me sometimes, “Do you think you’re going to alienate half of your audience by saying the things that you say?” And that sounds so ridiculous to me. Like, why would it be half? Where is the evidence that half of my audience feels one way and half feels the other way?
There might be 10 people out of a thousand who get up and go to the bathroom during “White Man’s World.” And usually I’ll follow that song with something I know they really like, like “Outfit” or “Decoration Day.” But I do feel like for the most part, we share an open-minded audience, and it’s a group of people who are looking for something honest. They’re looking for the people onstage to be essentially the same people that they were 10 minutes before they walked onstage. And that’s great for me, because I’m not really capable of doing anything else.