Jason Isbell Wasn't Always Ready for Success

Americana rocker Jason Isbell has released two of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last few years.
Americana rocker Jason Isbell has released two of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last few years.
David McClister

To hear him tell it, Jason Isbell’s recent musical success after years of relative obscurity is not the result of shifting industry trends or timing, but of his finally learning to be patient and content, and discovering how to treat himself and those around him.

“When I was younger, I just really didn’t know how to treat other people,” Isbell says while on the road in Denmark before his Tønder Festival appearance. “It took me a really long time to figure out how to always be honest and learn how to be considerate of others. My priorities had to change, and I had to experience things to see how much fun they were and weren’t.”

Isbell, who had his first band as an early teen, joined the notoriously booze-soaked Drive-By Truckers at the age of 22. His immersion at a young age into a world of traveling, excess and addiction could have been a contributing factor to the way he behaved around others. Isbell left the Truckers in 2007, and while his decision to go solo was not met with immediate success, it would ultimately allow him to find himself and write the sort of music he was destined to make.

Isbell’s years of coming to terms with himself, along with getting sober in 2012, have resulted in some of his best and most honest material to date. Southeastern, which dealt with Isbell’s newfound sobriety, was named the Americana Music Awards’ 2014 Album of the Year, earning high praise from critics and fellow musicians, including the Grammy Award-winning Sturgill Simpson, who has been cited as saying that the album is, essentially, too perfect and too “stylistically realized” to listen to.

“He’s said that to me before, as well,” Isbell says. “I wasn’t sure how to respond, but it’s a very nice thing for him to say.”

As a fellow songwriter, Simpson may have been hinting that the album’s strong themes were something that he himself had been searching for and couldn’t listen to for fear of total frustration — a roundabout way of saying that Isbell has come as close to perfecting his craft as a songwriter can. If this is what Simpson meant, he’s not alone.

There was a great deal of pressure to follow up Southeastern. Isbell’s next album, Something More Than Free, differs stylistically from its predecessor and does not follow the same themes, yet it’s a brilliantly crafted, honest and, at times, near-perfect album in its own way. The effort garnered Isbell two Grammys — one for Best Americana Album and one for Best American Roots Song (for “24 Frames”).

A Grammy is one of the highest honors a songwriter can achieve, and while Isbell is thankful for the honor, his humility, clarity and levelheadedness get in the way when assigning it a true value.

“We had a lot of fun at the ceremony. It was fun to get dressed up and pretend we were famous for a few hours,” he says. “I’m really thankful and appreciative of those awards, but I know a lot of people who are very deserving of awards like that who have never won them. I can’t really say that I got what was coming to me or anything like that, but it feels good to be recognized for positive reasons. I’m very happy to have them. My wife made me put them out so everyone can see them in the living room.”

Isbell’s wife, Amanda Shires, a talented musician and solo performer who sang and played violin on Isbell’s last two albums, gave birth to the couple’s first child, Mercy Rose, in September 2015.

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Much like his recent musical achievements, Isbell says that the decision to have a child was something that could not have happened before he settled in with the person he was. It was a luxury that he says his own parents didn’t have, and a subject he takes up on the song “Children of Children” on Something More Than Free.

“I don’t just have a little bit of guilt; I have a lot of guilt,” he says about his parents having him at a young age. “My parents were seventeen and nineteen when I was born. I’m 37 now, so my daughter will have a much different experience than I did. I hope I can do as good of a job as my parents did. They didn’t have the years or the means that Amanda and I have now, but there’s always a way to screw it up. If you’re not attentive enough and not present enough, you can make a pretty bitter kid, and it doesn’t matter how much money you have or how old you are.”

Isbell’s concerns about raising a child while being a full-time touring musician may not be universal, but it’s one tackled by the aforementioned Simpson on his latest record, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Both the album and the subject matter resonate with Isbell.

“I think it’s great, and he attacked it head-on, and it made a lot of sense to me,” he says. “He’s a family-oriented guy, and he was fully ready to have a kid when he did. I like the way he explains the world to his son on that album.”

Like Simpson, Isbell now derives inspiration from the world around him, his family and the sense of self and clarity that took years to obtain. And while the accolades continue to pour in, he insists that he doesn’t spend time worrying about where the next one will come from.

“I wish all of my friends had Grammys, and I wish the bands that I loved were the most popular bands in the world, but they’re not, so I move on,” he says. “I don’t have any control over who gets awards, so I don’t waste my time worrying about it. One thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that if you don’t have any control over something, you’d best not worry about it too much. It’s a waste of energy.”

Jason Isbell with Lucero
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 14, Red Rocks Amphitheatre, 18300 West Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720-865-2494.

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