Alt-country singer/songwriter Jason Isbell's latest album, The Nashville Sound, begins with a story about a man from the countryside who feels lost and engulfed by the bustling city around him.
"Am I the last of my kind?" he wonders, listing his grievances. "Can't see the stars from the neon lights/Sidewalk's dirty and the river is worse," he laments, knowing the comforts of his humble upbringing are now merely memories ("Daddy said the river would always lead me home/But the river can't take me back in time, and Daddy's dead and gone"), and the home he once knew no longer exists ("The family farm's a parking lot for Walton's Five & Dime").
His tale of a Southern man lost in the big city is a fictional account, but like much of Isbell's music, some personal truths are baked into the mix. He based the song on the true story of his overwhelming first visit to New York City.
Isbell, who grew up just outside the storied music town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and began his career working at the city's legendary FAME Studios, has been writing for years about the struggles of working-class people from forgotten small towns, notably on his albums Southeastern and Something More Than Free. But after the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, his stories have taken on a new resonance.
"I think probably what's happened is that society has just sort of caught up to the things I've been complaining about for years," Isbell says. "Had my last record come out now, I think people would feel the same way. Those are the people I grew up around, those are the people that I'm concerned with first and foremost, and that's the part of America that I know the best, so that's what I write about."
Isbell is acutely aware of the megaphone he now possesses as one of today's most celebrated songwriters. The Nashville Sound, recorded with his band the 400 Unit, went straight to number one on the Billboard Country Albums chart and debuted at number four on the Billboard 200: a feat made all the more impressive by the album's limited support on pop country radio and its release on Isbell's independent label, Southeastern Records.
His penchant for telling vivid, heart-wrenching stories about the struggles of the rural working-class have drawn comparisons to Bruce Springsteen, who has also praised his work in the past.
Like Springsteen, Isbell speaks passionately about the community he writes about and grew up around, and he thinks it's gotten a bad rap as of late. "A lot of people feel like those sorts of rural, Rust Belt or Bible Belt, salt-of-the-earth Americans have thrown us into a bit of a political firestorm of sorts, but I don't believe that's true. I don't think that the people I'm singing about voted for Donald Trump. I don't think the people I'm singing about voted at all, for what it's worth," Isbell says. "Most of the folks that I know personally who feel like the system has given up on them don't participate in the system unless they're forced to at gunpoint: i.e., paying taxes or speeding tickets."
Still, Isbell grapples with his own position of privilege as a white man on The Nashville Sound, particularly on the track "White Man's World," where he sings, "I'm a white man looking in a black man's eyes/Wishing I'd never been one of the guys/Who pretended not to hear another white man's joke/Old times ain't forgotten." He goes on to confront people who deny existing structures of power and privilege and are therefore blind to the unique struggles of minority communities: "Your creature comforts aren't the only things worth fighting for," he challenges.
Unsurprisingly, Isbell faced some pushback after the track premiered online. But although some listeners misinterpreted the song as a lecture of sorts, Isbell was, once again, writing about himself on "White Man's World."
"I was trying to discuss, or at least begin a discussion, about my personal experience and what my responsibility would be, because I do have a certain amount of privilege, and I started off — even though my family didn't have a whole lot of money — I still started off as a white, male American, which is kind of the winning lottery ticket in this world these days. So I think it's important for people in my situation to realize that while you shouldn't feel guilt or shame for being born a certain way, you should still use that privilege to try to level the playing field for other people and try to make the world a little bit better rather than just take advantage of the luck that you've been given to be born this way."
"The people who are tired of talking about politics are the people whose problems have all been solved on their behalf," he continues. "A lot of people don't realize what a great privilege it is just to be tired of talking about politics, because that means that you've been given the long end of the stick. If you're the person that's walking eight miles a day to get water for your family, infrastructure’s pretty goddamn important to you. It just blows my mind how people still go through their lives, grow up into adulthood, and they're intelligent enough to drive a car and feed themselves and fill out a ballot, but they don't realize that they're privileged in everything they do every single day."
Isbell credits his wife, singer-songwriter and 400 Unit fiddle player Amanda Shires, for opening his eyes even more to some of the indignities women and people of color face in the entertainment industry, and in the country music world in particular. "A lot of times she goes into a venue to play, and people assume she's there to sell the merch. And her drummer is a black guy who plays country music, so a lot of people assume that he's wandered in off the street or that he's trying to steal the gear. They have these stories, and they compare on the road which one of them got shit on the most that day and they laugh about it, and they're good-natured about it like a lot of people are. But at the same time, for me to see that after touring in bands full of white dudes all my life, it's pretty incredible that that still goes on. People don't just give everybody the benefit of the doubt."
Of course, positions of privilege can give certain people a head start in life, but no person walks through the world without some history of personal struggle or trauma. Isbell writes candidly about his own battle with severe alcoholism, a disease that nearly ended his life and derailed his career after he was kicked out of his previous band, Drive-By Truckers.
Isbell wrote poignantly about his journey toward sobriety on his album Southeastern, and his raw testimony of friends who died of opioid overdoses around Christmastime and his fears of dying in a Super 8 Motel have yielded a passionate fan base that is intimately invested in his personal successes and failures. Audiences cheer the lines "I sobered up/I swore off that stuff/Forever this time" from the opening track, "Cover Me Up," every night at his concerts. He acknowledges the additional pressure that he faces from his fans to stay on the straight path, but finds it works in his favor.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to New Times Broward-Palm Beach's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling South Florida's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
"It can keep you on your toes, that's for sure," he says of the pressure he feels not to disappoint his most ardent fans. "And it has probably more than once kept me from having a drink, just because I think, Well, if I were to have one drink, I might not tell anybody, but tomorrow I'd be able to tell people the truth about it. I think that's important for me. I understand how some people don't want that. They like to keep their story private; it works better sometimes that way for some folks, but for me it's nice to be held accountable in that way."
One line on the new record, in the song "Tupelo," will probably raise some concerns among his most devoted listeners: "Haven't been wasted in a long time/But tonight it feels just fine/Riding home with the windows up/Alone with a plastic cup of real good wine."
"I thought about that," he says. "I thought people might see that that way, but also the beauty of writing songs is that they're not shelved by what's true and what's fiction, like books and movies. We can sort of play with that however we want and make up part of the story and tell part of the truth. As long as you're honest, you don't have to tell the truth all the time — with songs anyway."