Beyond politics

Jason Isbell would rather talk beliefs

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Jason Isbell
Danny Clinch

If you’ve ever heard any of Jason Isbell’s songs, chances are you know what he believes. The acclaimed singer-songwriter is known for being direct, for calling it like he sees it.

Take, for example, “White Man’s World” off of his latest album, The Nashville Sound. The title alone makes a statement.

“I do believe that being white and being male opens a lot of doors for me from the start that weren’t open for other people,” the Alabama native says. “And for me to be able to enjoy my life I have to feel like I’m trying to attempt to level the playing field for minorities and for women and for people of different genders.”

Backed by bluesy guitar riffs and a steady drum beat, Isbell, looking through the lens of his wife and young daughter, wrestles through gender inequality. He also acknowledges the privilege of being a white person in a country that perpetuated both Native American genocide and the cotton fields of slavery. It’s an apt message in the wake of the rising tide of white supremacy and neo-Nazism on display most recently in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“I think a lot of people confuse freedom of speech with the freedom to threaten and the freedom to be hateful, and those aren’t actual freedoms that we have. Hate is the one thing that crosses the line,” Isbell says. “I don’t think there’s two sides to that.”

Isbell stops short of offering solutions, however, cognizant of his role as “just a songwriter.”

Still, he explains, “the more we communicate with each other, the better off we’ll be.”

“I think we all have a long way to go, and the best that I can do is just to tell my own story and try and give people the view from my perspective,” Isbell says. “I don’t have any sort of illusions that I’m changing a lot of people’s minds, but I just want to be able to feel like I’ve done my part, which is just to tell people what I believe.”

Which, for Isbell, goes far beyond politics.

“They use the word politics to describe the things that you believe, but that’s to weaken them, to make them more manageable,” Isbell says. “I would rather discuss people’s beliefs, what they hold dear, and people’s actions and whether or not they are right or wrong.”

Isbell began his career with the rock band Drive-By Truckers, filling in for a missing guitar player one fateful night in 2001. Known for creating concept albums documenting different aspects of life in the American South, Isbell found a niche setting narrative to music in some of the band’s most popular songs, like 2003’s “Decoration Day.”

But in 2007, bogged down by alcohol and drug use, Isbell was kicked out of the band as his first marriage to bassist Shonna Tucker crumbled. It would be another five years before he went to rehab and sobered up with the help of fellow singer-songwriter, and now wife, Amanda Shires. The two tour with his band, the 400 Unit, and have a young daughter together.

“Being a father has certainly motivated me to work harder and to be more honest in the music,” he says. “It’s a good reminder of everything we had to go through to become fully formed adults. That’s a great thing for somebody whose job it is to notice all the details.”

It’s with this consciousness that Isbell’s heartbreakingly honest lyrics help explain the world, not only to fans, but to himself as well.

“You get to a point [as a songwriter] where it becomes necessary to look outside yourself and write about things that are going on around you,” he says. “And it’s a hard transition because you have to do it without being vague. And it’s really hard to say things like, ‘I wish the world were a better place’ without it sounding naïve.”

Isbell shies away from metaphors in his lyrics, choosing rather to employ a frankness that cuts deep. In “White Man’s World” his directness almost stings, bringing with it a call to action. “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war/ Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for/ If you’re still breathing, it’s not too late/ We’re all carrying one big burden, sharing one fate.”