Jason Isbell’s The Nashville Sound is the summer soundtrack for those of us who fled small towns because of the sexism or the racism or the lack of opportunities only to see all of those things amplified with the election of Donald Trump, rendering our hometowns almost hostile to our very existence.
“I used to think that this was my town/ what a stupid thing to think” Isbell sings on “High Road,” the first single off the album. “Hear you’re fighting off a breakdown/ I myself am on the brink.”
It is a white man’s record about the problems inherent in whiteness and masculinity, but, as always, Isbell doesn’t preach, he tells stories and he does it with as much literary ambition as any songwriter out there. “Elephant” off of 2013’s Southeastern is one of the most devastatingly sad songs you’ll ever hear, suffused with an aching gallows humor,
Isbell used to play with the Drive-By Truckers, whose Southern Rock Opera, though it was recorded before Isbell joined the band, in many ways prefigures Nashville Sound, with its three-guitar meditation on the “duality of the southern thing.”
After Isbell left the Truckers, he got sober, married Amanda Shires, who plays violin in the band as well as performing as a solo artist, and they had a daughter. Shires’ violin is especially powerful on “White Man’s World,” where it serves as a haunting reminder lingering beneath the words “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound but they ain’t gonna let her.”
I’d been struggling with these same issues. How to be a white man and not be a complete piece of shit. So I figured I’d talk to Isbell about it and about music and literature and other things.
Washington City Paper: Like you, I was born a southern dude who left there and I’ve identified some with the the ways you struggle with that. It seems to be up front on this album. When “High Road” first came out, my wife and I both really felt like it was the first art that spoke to how we felt about our families and stuff at this moment. Did you write that after the election? Did it inspire that?
Jason Isbell: I think that one was probably written before but not long before, you know, “White Man’s World” came after. But, you know, the climate was the same. The election was sort of a sneeze. I think the cold has been lingering for quite a while now. I don’t see the election as the culmination of the problem, I see that as a symptom of the problem. But if you’re going to make a good story you’re going to need a good setting and the only way for me to tell people what the world is like right now before I can move on to narrative considerations is by explaining the climate, you know, the cultural social climate, and that, to me, just can’t be discussed unless you bring up the divide in what people call politics.
I don’t really see it as politics, though. I hate that word for this purpose. I think politics is really more about how we exchange power and and it’s about a business transaction in which we all determine who gets to make decisions on our behalf. I don’t think that’s the question here. I don’t think that how people should be treated based on the color of their skin or their gender or their identity, I don’t think those are political questions, I think those are questions of, really, ethics and beliefs.
WCP: I feel like, in especially “White Man’s World” there’s the sense that being white men, especially southern, places us on the wrong side of history in a lot of ways. You end the song talking about the fire in your little girl’s eyes. Did having a daughter help you grapple with masculinity ad whiteness and all that stuff?
JI: I wouldn’t say it changed the way I looked at it but it certainly made me more inspired to speak out about what I believe, you know. I think I’ve felt the way that I feel for a long time but when she came along I thought I’m going to have to tell everybody how I feel now one way or another because that’s what I want her to see and if there’s any way I can make the world a better place for her then that’s what I’m going to have to try to do. But it didn’t change my beliefs and I think that’s how people are able to be white men with daughters and still be bigots, you know, still be misogynists.
And what you said about being a white man, in certain ways it puts us on the wrong side but I think more than that it gives us a responsibility. I’m not going to feel guilty or ashamed about being a white man. I think those are terms that people who are on the other side other argument use. The criticism I’ve received from “White Man’s World” comes in the form of proud white men saying I don’t have any shame or guilt for being a white man. But nobody should really have guilt or shame about something they can’t control. I’m born a white person. The guilt and shame would come in if I didn’t use my privilege to try to make the world a better place for other people. That’s where the guilt and the shame comes in, if you’ve spent your whole life just enjoying your privilege and never actually working for it by trying to level the playing field for other folks.
WCP: Yeah when you sing about wishing you’d never pretended not to hear another white man’s joke, like growing up or whatever, it…
JI: Yeah I didn’t do it every time. But I wish I’d spoken up every time, now. The older I get the more I think I should have said something every single time I heard the N-word in elementary school or every time I heard someone make a joke about women or Mexicans in a bar when I was growing up in Alabama. If there’s any regrets as I’m getting older it’s that I didn’t stand up for people as often as I could have and I think really that’s what I’m talking about in that song is, since all these doors are already open for me, being a white man, my job is to try to hold them for the person behind me or the person in front of me, to try to open them for someone they might be locked for.
WCP: Are there people you’re holding musical doors open for right now, or think should get more attention?
JI: There are people who write really wonderful songs and are really intelligent people who sometimes don’t get the audiences that they deserve. I feel like that’s the case with my wife, you know. I don’t think she gets the respect she deserves as a songwriter. It’s part because she’s a woman. I think it’s because she’s a woman who is unavailable in many circumstances.
WCP: The Nashville Sound seems sort of like an ironic title, given what that generally has meant in country music history where it meant a slick radio-friendly production and how different that is from your sound.
JI: No irony at all in that title. That title is way more boastful and more selfish, more self-centered, more delusional than it is ironic. I stay away from irony in my music as much as I can because I think that’s a thing people hide behind when they’re afraid of being honest, and it’s very frustrating to me because some of the most talented songwriters in the world hide behind irony, because they don’t know who they want to be just yet but they’ve already got the talent, so it drives me insane. But that being said, what I mean is: that’s what Nashville sounds like starting today.
WCP: Lyrically, you seem really interested in storytelling and in a few of the dates on the tour, you’re playing with The Mountain Goats and John Darnielle won the National Book Award a while back. Do you ever feel constrained by the limit of the 5-minute song? Or there other ways you want to engage in storytelling?
JI: Right now it’s enough for me. You know, I read novels that I can’t match. If it ever gets to the point where it feels like I can match my tastes that I have I might [inaudible] other types of writing than songs. But the only type of writing right now that I can make anything that I enjoy consuming is in songwriting. And I wouldn’t care if everybody on earth loved it, if I didn’t like it I would think it was a piece of shit and regret ever turning it loose on the world. If it’s a book, that’s gonna be tough for me. That’s a daunting thing. When I read Jennifer Egan or Adam Johnson or Dennis Johnson, who we lost a couple weeks ago, Peter Matthiessen who we lost last year, these writers make me think ‘this is not for dabblers.’ I can write songs. That’s enough.
WCP: So I also write about politics and I’m going to see Jeff Sessions testify tomorrow…
JI: Ole Beauregard!
WCP: What would you say to ole Beauregard if you could take him back behind the barn and give him some advice or something?
JI: He should have stayed in Alabama. It will be too much scrutiny for a boy like Beauregard. It’s heartbreaking for me to see all these real serious bigots coming up and getting good jobs and being in control of some shit. I don’t know where to start with Sessions. I mean his idea of marijuana, first of all. I think if maybe he would smoke some of the marijuana he would realize that people are all the same and that smoking a joint once is not going to kill you. There’s no crack rock in a joint.
WCP: I know you’ve got a lot of these to do. I’ll look forward to seeing you at Merriweather…
JI: That’s a beautiful venue. When I played there with Stapleton, about a year ago, it was Father’s Day and my wife had this really great tattoo artist, this guy named Dan at Grace tattoo, he came and gave me a tattoo with my daughter’s name on it and then Chris Stapleton’s wife Morgan got a tattoo. Everyone was just lined up backstage to get tattoos. And my friend Mike Casey, he’s a magician, he came backstage and did magic tricks and a bunch of the Ravens were back there. It was a crazy night. We had a blast, I love that town.