During the Long, Hot Summer, Jason Isbell Warms Up to Become One Glad Dad

Most things are working out for Isbell since he gave up drinking in February 2012, then married Shires and recordedwith producer Dave Cobb two years ago. All those are "improvements on my life," said the recovering alcoholic who had a long-term relationship with Jack Daniel's.
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If an All-Americana team of today's musicians is ever selected, Jason Isbell would have to be its Most Valuable Player.

Others may have put Americana on the map, but this Thank God, I'm a Country Boy has extended those borders after the album arrivals of Southeastern in 2013 and Something More Than Free, a record rightfully receiving much acclaim since its July 17 release.

Dealing with all the fanfare might seem as overwhelming as facing your demons. But this factory worker's son, who was born and raised in Greenhill, Alabama, then became a singer-songwriter-guitarist with the Drive-By Truckers before blossoming as a solo artist, is taking it all in stride.

Besides, there are priorities that put it in perspective: He's about to become a Big Daddy himself.

So excuse Isbell if he high-tails it out of Lyons, Colorado, the minute he ends a Saturday night (August 15) headlining performance with the 400 Unit at the 25th annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival, the last date on his summer tour.

Asked how he's coping, Isbell said over the phone from a festival stop on the last day of July, "It's not really something you have to handle. It's all positive stuff. You know, we've got a baby coming, so that's really the most important thing right now. Everything else is pretty much secondary to that."

His 2013 marriage to the smart, lovely and talented singer-songwriter-fiddler Amanda Shires not only seemed like a match made in roots music heaven but also will bring a baby girl some time around the first week of September. Her name is picked out, but Isbell said, "It's not really an announcing kind of thing" for Nashville's unassuming power couple.

His wife and frequent touring partner, who adorably revealed her baby bump on Twitter on July 26, is understandably hot and uncomfortable in her eighth month "but everybody's healthy," Isbell reported, adding, "She said next time we're gonna have to plan this a little better so she's not pregnant right in the middle of the summertime."

Having already created the beautifully written and recorded "Children of Children," one of his best songs off Something More Than Free, Isbell obviously is excited to become a first-time father.

He said he's been involved in all the childbirth classes, attended child safety courses, breast-feeding courses and baby CPR training while making sure their entire house has been child-proofed, including covering up all the power outlets.

"I was a little nervous at first but that's abated a bit," Isbell said. "Now I'm just really trying to focus on the fact that we're about as prepared as we can be. You know, my parents (who will be visiting as first-time grandparents) were 17 and 19 when I was born and I'm 36 years old, so if they can handle it as teenagers, then surely I can figure out a way to make it work."

Most things are working out for Isbell since he gave up drinking in February 2012, then married Shires and recorded Southeastern with producer Dave Cobb two years ago. All those are "improvements on my life," said the recovering alcoholic who had a long-term relationship with Jack Daniel's.

"So when your home life is happy, you're able to focus more on your work," he continued. "And when you find a good producer, you don't have to bear the brunt of the production chores. ... With Dave, his instincts are so great that he can help make the songs feel a lot better than they would have been otherwise. So, you know, sobering up, obviously you can do better work when you're not drunk. ..."

"It gave me a lot more time during the day. When I'm writing records, I have a lot of time to focus on actually doing the work rather than starting to think I need to drink as soon as the sun goes down."

Hesitating to rank those life-altering events in terms of importance, Isbell did offer, "None of the other good things that happened would have happened had I not been clean and prepared for them."

As good as 2013 was, 2015 might be even better, personally and professionally. While Southeastern was at or near No. 1 on various top 10 album lists for 2013 (including mine), Something More Than Free is putting Isbell in a league of his own.

Besides reaching No. 6 on the Billboard Top 200 list at the end of July, the record was No. 1 on the charts in three classifications -- rock, country and folk.

"I always thought it was a bad thing that folks didn't know what category to put me in until this happened," Isbell said just a couple of days after the announcement. "And I thought, 'Well, yeah, actually it's a pretty good thing.' "

He was also deemed, either with tongue in cheek or as serious as a heart attack, the savior of country music by Todd Snider, the acerbic and prolific singer-songwriter whose often subversive but perceptive ramblings are sometimes shared on Facebook. A brief excerpt about Isbell's No. 1 accomplishment:


"Todd and I have been friends for a while," Isbell said. "And one thing I like about Todd is that he has more balls than about anyone else I know of. He's that way. Todd will say things sometimes that even he knows aren't true. (laughs) But I was very flattered by it. I love Todd. I learned how to write songs in part by listening to Todd's music. So it means the world to me that Todd even knows who I am much less my friend who would do something like that."

All of the Hard Working American's work is subject to interpretation, of course, but calling Snider's post a poem, Isbell cautioned not to take everything literally by referencing a U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner: "Nobody asked Mark Strand if he's really, honestly the absence of a field."

Isbell gave his final take on Snider: "He's trying to express an emotion. I think the point that he was making was, 'Can we all get back to making music and stop complaining about how much country music has shifted from being honest?' "

While many artists might steer clear of being labeled with a group that's swerved off the road of authenticity, Isbell keeps driving.

"I'm a country person, so it doesn't bother me," he said. "I grew up in the country in about as rural part of the South (northern Alabama) as you can get. I don't mind. I have my own definitions of success. And I have my own definitions of country music that, luckily, I share with more people than I realized before. It's nice to be recognized. Whatever they want to call that, I just write the songs, make the records. If I spent my time wondering about what genre I wanted to be in or where I was on the charts, I wouldn't be able to write these kinds of song. I'd be too busy doing other things."

Whether he's saving country or becoming Americana's most influential voice, a modest Isbell is grateful that young artists such as fellow Muscle Shoals-area native Dillon Hodges (aka firekid) or Colin Louis Dieden of the peppy pop outfit known as the Mowgli's clearly look up to him.

Interviewed for this May's Hangout festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, where Isbell, Shires and his 400 Unit played in front of only a few hundred listeners on the small BMI stage two years ago, Dieden said, "I have not met Jason" but called him "my favorite artist probably on planet Earth right now." (Isbell and Shires perform at the 2013 Hangout.)

Isbell, who named Neil Young and considerable younger guys like Ben Howard ("a great songwriter") and Blake Mills ("one of the best guitar players I've ever seen") as some of the musicians he admires today, appreciates the reverence thrown his way.

"I think probably songwriters are gonna be the toughest critics. ... I think of it as a community. And we all sort of feed off of each other," he said. "When I hear somebody like Hayes Carll write a song that's touching and poignant and sad and funny all at the same time, it motivates me to step my game up and try to figure out a way to get more different emotions into one line or one song. ... I think we all sort of learn from each other.

"Right now, I've been on a streak of making records that are really good as far as my catalog is concerned. I've been doing the best that I can do for the last few years, so it's flattering. But it's more than that. I feel like a part of a group, a community of songwriters that aren't very different from what was going on in Laurel Canyon in the '70s or in New York in the '60s."

The only place Isbell wants to be starting next week is Nashville. "I'm going home for the rest of August and for all of September," he said. "And then the rest of the year, I've just got three or four shows at a time until the end of the year."

Touring the festival circuit this summer, the highlight was at the Newport Folk Festival, where he played Bob Dylan's 1964 Fender Stratocaster that the folk hero used when he was booed off the stage after "going electric" there in 1965.

"That was unbelievable. And it's basically brand new," Isbell said, delving into the history of the guitar's return since Dylan left it on a plane, then remained in the pilot's possession until he died. Purchased at an auction reportedly for $965,000, Indianapolis Colts owner let guitarists including Isbell, David Rawlings and Courtney Barnett play it in honor of the 50th anniversary of that historic event.

"It's a great instrument," Isbell said. "Obviously there's a line of demarcation there when Dylan went electric that really sort of invented the kind of music that I make now, that mix between songwriter folk and rock 'n' roll music. I don't think it would have happened in the same way if it hadn't been for Dylan."

During a performance at the 2013 Hangout festival, Jason Isbell displays the tattoo on his left arm, a quotation from "Boots of Spanish Leather," the Bob Dylan song: "Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled from across that lonesome ocean."

Isbell, who on this night was headlining the Peacemaker Music & Arts Festival in Fort Smith, Arkansas, has recalled other favorite festival experiences, including Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco in 2011 and the Shaky Knees Festival in Atlanta in 2014, especially when Alabama-born and Grammy-nominated soul singer Candi Staton jumped onstage to perform with him.

During his solo career, he also played the heralded Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2014, eight years after he was there with the Truckers in 2006.

In our 2013 interview, Isbell admitted "a lot of really good things happened" during his days with Patterson Hood's Southern rock outfit but because of his hard-drinking ways, "I noticed that a lot of those things I didn't remember."

He does have a clear memory of that Father's Day weekend in Telluride, though. "Yeah, I wasn't completely blacked out," he clarified in July. "I remember not knowing what to expect because we were so much louder than everybody else that was playing at the festival. But it turned out really good. We had a good crowd and they stuck around for us (as the final act on a Friday night) and I remember seeing Jerry Douglas' band when he had Guthrie Trapp playing guitar, and Guthrie's amazing. That's the first time I've ever seen Guthrie play an acoustic flat-top and he played it just like it was an electric guitar."

Still, as far as life experiences go, it will be hard to top one particular month in the Music City for what has happened -- and what will soon happen.

On a night when he played onstage with Shires at the Ryman Auditorium during the Americana Music Awards just over a year ago, Isbell felt like he was right at home as he won in all his nominated categories (Artist of the Year, Album of the Year and Song of the Year).

"Yeah, that's a roomful of people who are really, really good at what they do," said Isbell, who already has sold out shows for four consecutive nights at the Mother Church of Country Music in October. "To go up and receive an award from Lucinda Williams means a whole lot more to me than getting an award from Katy Perry, you know. (laughs) I like the Americana Awards for that reason."

Barring a delayed visit to the delivery room or domestic duties at home, Isbell even plans to be back at the Ryman next month when a second Americana Artist of the Year award might be waiting in the wings.

Either way, it should be another September to remember for a true team player.

Second in a series previewing artists scheduled to perform at the 25th annual Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado, from Aug. 14-16. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit -- Derry deBorja (keyboards), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass) and Sadler Vaden (guitar) -- will play from 9-10:30 p.m. Aug. 15. Concert photos by Michael Bialas. Publicity photo by David McClister.

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