Jason Isbell Gets Ready To Serve Up That 'Nashville Sound'

With two Grammys under his belt, the singer-songwriter preps for a new album release.

Jason Isbell is the kind of guy who would rather put his awards in an inconspicuous place than out in the open. But the singer-songwriter, who took home two Grammys in 2016, actually has his gramophone trophies prominently displayed in the parlor of his Nashville home.

“My wife made me put them on the mantle. I probably would have put them somewhere where they weren’t so obvious but my wife says you gotta put them out where everybody can see them,” Isbell told HuffPost.

Isbell’s wife, singer-songwriter and violinist Amanda Shires, is clearly proud of her husband of four years. She’s also one of his frequent musical collaborators, even lending a hand on his new album with the 400 Unit, called “The Nashville Sound,” due out Friday.

“She’s a big help. Most songwriters don’t have any type of editor. You’re pretty much on your own. You either co-write with people or you live and die by your own tastes,” he said. “And I’ve been lucky enough to have her around. She’s very educated in how words work. She just finished her master’s in poetry from the University of the South.”

Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell on Sept. 22, 2016, in Nashville. 
Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell on Sept. 22, 2016, in Nashville. 

With his wife’s help, Isbell says that he’s able to get outside of his own head. When he does get inside his own head, though, Isbell is focused. After all, he’s been writing music for years ― both with Drive-By Truckers and on his solo records, the first of which came out in 2007.

For Isbell, most of the songwriting happens at home. But with “The Nashville Sound,” he also spent time writing music “in some version of traveling, whether on the road or driving around in the car or on an airplane.” He said, “I try to take it any way I can get it. Whenever I’m able to work and get a few minutes to myself, I try to work.”

Sometimes the lyrics are directly autobiographical, while other times he writes about observations or stories from friends. No matter what, he’s part of each track in some way. 

“It’s a record of events. I try to use albums as a documentation. It’s a chronicle in some ways. It’s always going to have me in there,” he said. “That doesn’t mean I’m always the first-person narrator.”

Isbell is no stranger to spending a lot of time honing his craft, with his interest in music starting at a young age.

“I was fortunate enough to be born into a family that was very musical and very close in lieu of childcare. I spent my days with my grandparents,” he said. “My grandfather taught me how to play instruments and that’s really the thing that started me on this particular path.”

The 38-year-old singer-songwriter will start road-testing the new songs on tour this summer, with dates lined up from June through November. These days, with his recent success, life on the road is a bit more comfortable.

“We’re traveling in a way that affords us a lot of rest, comparatively, compared to when we were in a van, driving seven or eight hours a day,” he said. “That’s hard to play a good show every night when you’re exhausted like that.”

The concert set list will feature a mix of new songs and old. When asked if he has a favorite track to play live, Isbell was hard-pressed to pick one.

“I like them all honestly. It’s hard to say. If I start getting anywhere near getting tired of a song I’ll drop it out of the list for a few months … ‘Cover Me Up’ really works live and it’s kind of the ace in the hole of me. It’s a slow song. It’s long. It’s a ballad. It’s one of those that if comes off correctly, which it almost always does, it stops the room. It’s nice to have a song like that. Like you know if everything’s going to shit I’m going to play this song.”

Going on the road will be a bit different this time as Isbell ― a recent first-time dad ― will likely bring his 1-year-old daughter, Mercy Rose, on tour. 

“She’s easy …. Its nice to have an end game, to have this final purpose and it really kind of makes you feel like, ‘If I can serve this purpose, it will guide me to everything else.’”

His daughter, meanwhile, is also intrigued by those two Grammys on the mantle.

“The baby really likes to play with them, so they’re kind of smudged,” Isbell said.

Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit debut “The Nashville Sound” on June 16. 

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