Jason Isbell Chats Solo Career and Song Craft at the New Yorker Festival

Grammy-winner Isbell sat down with John Seabrook for a humorous, "college-y song-writing seminar" followed by a short acoustic set.

Jason Isbell

Jason Isbell

City: New York
Venue: Gramercy Theater
Date: 2016-10-07

Former Drive-By Trucker, Jason Isbell learned guitar (along with some other instruments) through assistance from his family as early as age 7, particularly as support for his grandad who needed a rhythm player to play with. In order to play the blues/Americana style he wanted to together, Isbell had to play through all the gospel music his grandad wanted to first. Then his grandad would put the guitar on his lap, get out his pocket knife and play slide guitar.

Isbell earned laughs as he shared the fact that his very religious grandad allowed him to watch the Grammys one year -- unfortunately it was the year Bono said "fuck". His humor shone throughout the night as he bantered with John Seabrook and, later on, took questions from the audience.

After being asked if he was writing songs at that, Isbell responded that he started writing when he was about 12 and his parents once caught him fiddling with a page upon which he had written a some lyrics. They thought it was "the coolest thing in the world" but shortly after, once he had been dropped off at baseball practice, one of his teammates found it when he was changing clothes. "It was a completely different reaction. [laughs] And they don't make fun of me now. But they did then."

From a publishing career in Nashville to joining a Southern-rock band full of well read punks, Isbell has recently crafted an award-winning solo career with two strong albums Southeastern and Something More than Free. Discussing the song "Different Days", Isbell noted the runaways reference is about a wall with photos of missing children on it. Seabrook then asked Isbell "how do you know that is a song?" "I thought it was insightful. I stood there and I thought. It seems like you couldn't even run away at all. Then I thought well that rhymes with 'wall'. Isbell's thoughtful lyrics aren't often so easily come by though. He later emphasized how he had to come up with the right phrasing to get the meter correct in the the rhyme with "benzodiazepine".

Isbell discussed a couple of other songs, including "How to Forget" and "Live Oak", the best allegorical story Isbell thinks he's told, song-writing with his wife Amanda Shires, the genius of James McMurtry and the impact sobriety has had on his songwriting.

In the final portion of the event, Isbell closed the circle by singing "Different Days", "How to Forget", "Speed Trap Town", "Cover Me Up", McMurtry's "Rachel's Song" and "Elephant". The New Yorker Festival organized a perfect, insightful evening with a very talented artist. Though I saw him at the Beacon Theater earlier in the year, I still felt regret at having to miss Isbell's show (with Josh Ritter!) the next night as it was 2+ hours away.


Love Songs: The Hidden History (Excerpt)

What do evolutionary biology and its founding father, Charles Darwin, have to do with love songs? As it turns out, quite a lot. Enjoy this excerpt of Ted Gioia's Love Songs: The Hidden History, courtesy of Oxford University Press.

Ted Gioia
PM Picks
Pop Ten

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.