Kate Robertson talks to multi-Grammy Award-winning Americana singer-songwriter Jason Isbell about politics and gender in country music.
“If Taylor Swift’s ideas on politics are stupid I don’t wanna hear them,” Americana artist Jason Isbell says when I ask if music and politics can be separate from each other in 2018. It’s not the answer I expected from a man so open about his own politics, but one I sit with for a while, realising the man has a damn good point. That’s the thing about Isbell, whether it’s his music, the accolades he’s receiving, or his quirky jokes on Twitter, you can know he’ll keep you on your toes.
The owner of four Grammy Awards, six Americana Music Awards, and the youngest ever Artist-in-Residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Isbell writes music that will soothe you, sober you, and crush you up into emotional pulp all at once (see, for example, ‘Cover Me Up’ and ‘The Life You Chose’). Americana music, a coming together of blues, roots, folk and country, might not have the largest profile here in New Zealand, but Isbell’s back catalogue is extensive enough, at the youthful age of 39, to intrigue even the most sceptical of listeners.
I saw Isbell play on my 21st birthday. It was Easter Monday, on day five of the Byron Bay Bluesfest. Exhausted from five days of camping and feeling hyper-reflective over the milestone birthday, I wandered over to his set alone while my friends were having a pre-Tom Jones nap. Hot off the back of Something More Than Free, Isbell opened with deep cuts but dropped the achingly lonesome ‘Traveling Alone’ five songs in, and just like that I was standing by myself, surrounded by middle-aged people in velcro sandals, having a quiet sob into my t-shirt. It was equal parts one the most beautiful, painful and soothing thing I had ever seen, and probably ever will see.
It’s hard to say what part of Alabama-raised Isbell’s music turns heads first, the Pulitzer-worthy lyrics or the masterfully crafted melodies. There’s 2013’s Southeastern, a sombre album about sobriety and the tough realities that come with newfound clarity. There’s 2015’s Something More Than Free, a vivid journey through middle America that’s as well-suited to a rock bottom fragile Sunday as it is for reflecting on all that’s beautiful in the world. Then there’s 2017’s The Nashville Sound, an upbeat look at Trump, true love, and taking the high road. It’s impossible to decipher what came first, the music or the words, but Isbell says he was definitely “a musician first”.
“I started playing the guitar when I six or seven years old, but my mom also read a lot, so she would read to me,” he says. “It wasn’t until I was probably 12 or 13 years old that I realised I could mix the two things I like most, stories and music, and make my own songs up.” Raised on a record collection rich with “pretty song-oriented musicians”, he was also reading “Mark Twain, Faulkner, and things you read in school if you did your homework.”
“I spent a lot of time taking in different types of words and different kinds of stories, and I spent a whole lotta time playing the guitar. Maybe 10 hours a day for 15 years probably.”
The art of songwriting, really good songwriting, is something he took so seriously it led him all the way to the University of Memphis where he studied English and creative writing. In the years since he’s released hundreds of songs with the Drive-By Truckers, The 400 Unit (his current band) and under his own name. It feels like a natural progression to ask how someone with such impressive turnaround copes with writer’s block. Surely even Jason Isbell feels like a bit of a half-sucked lemon from time to time? Nope. Apparently not, and I suddenly realise why he has four Grammy Awards and I have little more than a Weet-Bix triathlon medal from 2005.
“It’s my job to write and perform, and it’s a really really good job to have,” he says. “If I’m at a place where I’m having any problems getting burned out it’s just because I’m not grateful enough. I don’t really deal with that, I just work through it. Sometimes I have periods where I find it really hard to enjoy anything I’m writing, that I think is an actual thing, whereas I don’t believe writer’s block is a real thing. I think that’s just laziness. You can go through periods where you don’t like what you’re working on, but if you just keep working that will change.”
Big trips down under aren’t unusual for Isbell. He and his equally-talented musician and poet wife Amanda Shires (who also plays fiddle in The 400 Unit) have spent most of their careers on the road. When they aren’t out in buses or vans, home is outside of Nashville, a city that from this part of the world either resembles the Connie Britton TV show of the same name or a place where every second resident is in the music industry in some capacity. Known predominantly for the mainstream country stars it’s churned out over the years – the Shanias, the Carries, the Tims and the Keiths – Nashville now has eyes on it for different reasons, for diversity reasons. The all-powerful country music radio charts are dominated by white guys in trucker caps singing about ‘girls’, there’s rarely more than one woman in the top 10, and good luck finding any people of colour. It’s an issue label execs and those in positions of power seem all too happy to play ignorant around, but one Isbell and Shires would much rather shout about.
“I don’t think they’re going to be able to ignore it much longer,” he says. “If independent artists and small labels and people who aren’t making the big bucks start making enough racket, they’re going to have to start acknowledging the fact it’s time for things to change.
“For a long long time, women have been treated like second-class citizens in the music business. I think we’ve all heard the stories, and especially over the last couple of years, it seems to have reached a bit of a boiling point. I’m happy to see it because I feel like, not only do people deserve to be treated equally, but also I think the finished product is gonna be a whole lot better when there’s an entire pool of ideas to draw from. If everybody’s giving more access to songwriting or if everyone has a chance to be heard their songs are gonna be a lot better. What makes it on the radio is going to be a lot stronger. I think it’s very obvious in Nashville now that if you want the best material you’re going to have to listen to everybody. I’m happy to see the tide turning. Not that it ever happens fast enough, but it’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
If you search for interviews with Isbell and Shires, their politics will likely be the first hit. You can read about them speaking representation with NPR, privilege with Esquire and Trump with Rolling Stone. With this in mind, we loop back to the relationship between music and politics, a relationship we media folk have assumed to be symbiotic, demanding whatever we can get from those in positions of influence. Isbell disagrees.
“I think if you have an informed opinion then you should share it, but part of the problem at home right now is too many loud voices without much to say. If you’re trying to make art then it is your responsibility to be open and honest about the things you believe, but I don’t necessarily think everybody’s trying to make art, some people are just trying to make entertainment. Some people are just trying to get rich and get famous. For me I think it’s important because of the job I have given myself, which is to try to make something that’s a little bit more art than it is entertainment, then I have a responsibility to be honest about the things that I believe.”
Isbell’s push/pull with Nashville’s mega country music scene considered, you can understand the confusion felt when he had one of country music’s highest honours bestowed upon him, an invitation to be the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum artist in residence, a role that’s been held by just 14 people, and of which he is the first modern Americana artist.
“I don’t necessarily think of myself as a country singer, but it’s a big deal. I think if you look at some of the people who have held that position in the past, it becomes a lot more explicable. A lot of those people are songwriters who wear their heart on their sleeve, so to speak. The title ‘artist in residence’ doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but once you see whose shoes you’re stepping into, the thing that surprised me the most is that I really haven’t done or accomplished a whole lot compared to these people, so that makes it a really big deal for me.”
It’s this continual return to songwriting, the people he admires, and his relationship with the written word that speaks volumes. He’s an incredible songwriter who can speak to the art of authenticity. And that’s why, regardless of whether music from the South has you lighting up or running for cover, Jason Isbell is deserving of your time.
I ask what he hopes for Nashville over the coming years. That he says, is simple. “When I hear things that are outside of the formula, that makes me happy. If you turn on the radio ten years from now to a mainstream media outlet, and hear things that are weird and not what you’re used to hearing, that’s a good sign because it means a lot of people who have been kept out of the circle for a long time are finding their way in. Anytime I hear something that surprises me or sounds like it’s outside of the formula of traditional radio-friendly country, then I think they’re moving in the right direction.”
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit at The Powerstation on 27 March with Nadia Reid. Tickets can be purchased here.
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