Jason Isbell Has Conquered Fear, But He's Still Learning About Himself

Jul 30, 2015
Originally published on July 30, 2015 6:24 pm

Jason Isbell is riding high this week: His new album Something More Than Free is number one on Billboard's country, rock and folk charts. The musician from rural Alabama got his start with the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers, and then went solo. For the past few years, he's been sober, after drinking brought him "close to the point of no return."

That's what he told NPR's Melissa Block when she visited him at his Nashville home two years ago. Now, Isbell and his wife, the singer and violinist Amanda Shires, have a baby on the way — a girl, due in September.

The new album reflects how far he's come, and he recently spoke again with Block about its music, its characters and its relationship to his evolving role as a husband and soon-to-be father. Hear their conversation at the audio link, and read an edited version below.

Melissa Block: Are you still wrestling with that shadow self, your other self?

Jason Isbell: It's become more strategic for me, you know? I've had to figure out new ways to do things — new ways to access the emotional part of myself, the part of myself that I wasn't afraid to access when I was drinking. It's taken some time, and I'm still working on it. I'm still working on being open, especially with Amanda, with my family, with close friends.

Talk a bit about the song "24 Frames."

Well, when you're watching a movie, there's 24 frames that go by in one second. The verses of the song deal specifically with the relationship that I'm in with my wife and the fact that she's also a creative person. I spend a lot of time wondering how to best support the people that I love, because I think sometimes that means getting out of the way. When should I leave them alone to have their own life? Or, in Amanda's case, to create and tour and sing and play music.

Is there an element of fleeting time there, and just how much passes in a second?

Yeah, and how quickly things can change, too. The things that are happening with my career right now — I really wish I could slow down and make sure to pay attention to the details.

I'm really fond of the character in the song "Hudson Commodore" — I'm picturing a woman in the 1940s. It's very spare song, but in the few details that you give us about this woman, we learn so much about a solitary life and somebody who has really romantic dreams. She wants to ride in fancy cars.

One very fancy car and one not-so-fancy car — just one that she liked. The Delahaye was a very fancy car, but the Hudson wasn't as fancy. The fact that she didn't want to drive the car, I think, says that she's spent most of the time driving the car in her life, so she might just want to ride in the passenger seat for a while.

She wants to be driven.

Yes, exactly.

Tell me more about this woman and how you found her.

My wife is so very important to me that it's made my mom more important to me. It's made every woman I know more important to me. So, I try my best to empathize, and that's what she came from. She came from thinking about, "Okay, what was it like to be my grandmother in the '40s?" And be independent but not really be allowed much independence.

If I were to look at your notebooks, what would I see in your editing? What would you be taking out?

Anything that's not necessary, that's the first to go for me. Anything that is clichéd without coming at it from a different angle. I like a cliché if it's sort of turned on its head. My wife's good about spotting those, because that's a big pet peeve of hers.

And what would she tell you about that?

Oh, just, "Get rid of that. That's gross."

There's a song on this album called "Children of Children."

Part of the inspiration for this song was pictures, looking through pictures at my house. Amanda and I had this conversation a lot about how her mom and my mom were very close to the same age, and they were the same age when we were born — we were both their first kids. They were both teenagers.

Now that we're about to have a kid of our own, 36 years old, I couldn't imagine being sent home with a newborn when I was 17 or 19 like my parents and her parents were. I think, well, how would my mom's life be different? How would her mom's life be different? What phases and stages did they miss out on because we were around and demanding so much of their time?

What are you most excited about, maybe most afraid about, when you think about having a baby?

I'm excited just to have another person in the world who thinks I'm cool! Somebody here loves me right off the bat, no matter what, you know?

I really don't do fear that much anymore, though, to tell you the truth. I'm kind of over that. I've dealt with a lot of physical pain, with a lot of emotional pain; anybody's who's ever been an alcoholic has handled both of those in extreme. So, as long as my family, my wife, is taken care of and able to do what she wants to do and be happy, I'm not really afraid of much.

Well, let me know if you're still fearless once you have the child.

That's gonna be real different, yeah. After that, I'm going to have one big huge thing to be terrified of.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Jason Isbell is riding high this week. His new album is number one on Billboard's country, rock and folk charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF IT TAKES A LIFETIME")

JASON ISBELL: (Singing) I've been working here. Monday, it'll be a year, and I can't recall the day when I didn't want to disappear. But I keep on showing up, hell bent on growing up if it takes a lifetime.

BLOCK: Jason Isbell is from rural Alabama. He got his start with the southern rock band Drive-By Truckers. Then he went solo, and for the past few years, he's been sober after drinking brought him close to the point of no return. That's what he told me when I visited him at his Nashville home two years ago. Now, Jason Isbell and his wife, the singer and violinist Amanda Shires, have a baby on the way - a girl due in September. And the new album, titled "Something More Than Free," reflects how far he's come.

ISBELL: It's become more strategic for me, you know? I've had to figure out new ways to do things, new ways to access the emotional part of myself, the part of myself that I wasn't afraid to access when I was drinking. It's taken some time, and I'm still working on it. I'm still working on being open and - especially with Amanda, with my family, you know, with close friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "24 FRAMES")

ISBELL: (Singing) You thought God was an architect. Now you know he's something like a pipe bomb ready to blow. And everything you built that's all for show goes up in flames in 24 frames.

BLOCK: Talk a bit about the title of this song, "24 Frames."

ISBELL: Well, that's the - when you're watching a movie, you know, there's 24 frames that go by in one second. The verses of the song deal with, specifically, the relationship that I'm in with my wife and the fact that she's also a creative person. I spent a lot of time wondering how to best support the people that I love because I think sometimes that means getting out of the way, you know? When should I leave them alone to have their own life or, in Amanda's case, to create and tour and sing and play music?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "24 FRAMES")

ISBELL: (Singing) And this is how you talk to her when no one else is listening, and this is how you help her when the muse goes missing. You vanish so she can go drowning in her dream again.

BLOCK: Is there a theme of - you know, an element of fleeting time and just how much passes in a second?

ISBELL: That quickly - yeah, and how quickly things can change too. The things that are happening with my career right now I really wish I could slow down and make sure and pay attention to the details.

BLOCK: Be in the moment.

ISBELL: And be in the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUDSON COMMODORE")

ISBELL: (Singing) The time between the glory days and the golden years, she did the work of 20 able men, sent Tommy off to school to be an engineer, and Sarah went to try out all the sins.

BLOCK: I am really fond of the character in the song "Hudson Commodore." And I'm picturing a woman in the 1940s.

ISBELL: Yeah. That'd be about right - the '40s.

BLOCK: And it's a very spare song, but in those - in the few details that you give us about this woman, we learn so much about a solitary life and somebody who has really romantic dreams.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUDSON COMMODORE")

ISBELL: (Singing) She just wanted to ride in a Delahaye 135. She just wanted to ride in a Hudson Commodore.

BLOCK: She wants a ride in fancy cars.

ISBELL: Fancy cars, yeah - one very fancy car and one not-so-fancy car.

BLOCK: Oh.

ISBELL: Just one that she liked, you know? The Delahaye was a very fancy car. The Hudson wasn't as fancy, you know? The fact's that she didn't want to drive the car I think says a lot about - she spent most of her time driving the car in her own life, so she might just want to ride in the passenger's seat for a while.

BLOCK: She wants to be driven.

ISBELL: Yes, exactly, exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUDSON COMMODORE")

ISBELL: (Singing) A doctor, then a lawyer, then a Roosevelt tried to take her underneath the wing.

BLOCK: Tell me more about this woman and how you found her.

ISBELL: You know, my wife is so very important to me that it's made my mom more important to me. It's made every woman that I know more important to me, so I try my best to empathize. And that's what she came from, you know? She came from me thinking about, OK, what was it like to be my grandmother, you know, in the '40s and be independent but not really be allowed much independence?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HUDSON COMMODORE")

ISBELL: (Singing) She just wanted to ride in a Delahaye 135.

BLOCK: If I were to look at your notebooks, what would I see in your editing? What would you be taking out?

ISBELL: Well, anything that's not necessary, that's the first to go for me, anything that is cliched without coming at it from a different angle. I like a cliche if it's sort of turned on its head, you know? My wife's good about spotting those 'cause that's a big pet peeve of hers.

BLOCK: And what will she tell you about that?

ISBELL: Oh, she'll just - get rid of that; that's gross (laughter).

BLOCK: Just like that (laughter).

ISBELL: Yeah, yeah. That's gross. Get rid of that.

BLOCK: I'm talking with singer Jason Isbell. His new album is "Something More Than Free." There's a song on this album called "Children Of Children."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHILDREN OF CHILDREN")

ISBELL: (Singing) '81 a motorin', your mama's 17 again. She's squinting at dusty wind, the anger of the plain.

Part of the inspiration for this song was pictures - looking through pictures at my house. And Amanda and I had had this conversation a lot about how her mom and my mom were very close to the same age, and they were the same age when we were born. We were both their first kids. You know, they were both teenagers. And now that we're about to have a kid of our own - you know, I'm 36 years old. I couldn't image being sent home with a newborn when I was 17 or 19 like my parents and her parents were. I think, well, how would my mom's life had been different? How would her mom's life had been different? What phases and stages did they miss out on because we were around and demanding so much of their time and their energy?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHILDREN OF CHILDREN")

ISBELL: (Singing) When you were riding on your mother's hip, she was shorter than the corn, and all the years you took from her just by being born...

BLOCK: What are you most excited about, maybe most afraid about when you think about having a baby?

ISBELL: I'm really excited just to have another person in the world who thinks I'm cool...

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: ...Somebody who loves me, like, right off the bat no matter what, you know? I really don't do fear that much anymore, though, to tell you the truth.

BLOCK: Really?

ISBELL: Yeah. I'm kind of over that. I've dealt with a lot of physical pain. I've dealt with a lot of emotional pain. I think anybody who's ever been an alcoholic has handled both of those in extreme. So as long as my family, my wife is taken care of and able to do what she wants to do and be happy, yeah, I'm not really afraid of much.

BLOCK: Well, let me know if you're still fearless once you have the child (laughter).

ISBELL: That's going to - yeah, that's going to be real different, isn't it? Yeah, after that, I'm going to have one big, huge thing to be terrified of.

BLOCK: Jason Isbell, thanks so much.

ISBELL: Thank you very much for having me, Melissa. It was a pleasure.

BLOCK: Jason Isbell - his new album is "Something More Than Free." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.