Four-time Grammy-winning roots singer-songwriter and true-blue Southern troubadour Jason Isbell has experienced a lot of hardship and accomplishment since leaving those Northern Alabama pines for seemingly greener pastures to become a professional musician.
Reckless in his youth, he gained notoriety as a devoted disciple among the quick-draw guitar gunners guiding the Drive-By Truckers. Still looking too young to drink when he joined in 2001, the 22-year-old Isbell worked hard, played hard, and partied even harder en route to becoming an alcoholic.
Now 44, with those wasted days, lonely nights, and empty bottles long strewn behind him, Isbell has reached some remarkable milestones in 2023. As a husband, father, and respected and consummate pro, his numerous awards and critically acclaimed albums take a backseat to one life-saving achievement — sobriety — now in its 11th year. Isbell and his loved ones certainly have many reasons to celebrate as he and his longtime bandmates comprising the Grammy-winning 400 Unit have hit the road again ahead of Weathervanes. Isbell wrote and produced the ninth studio album of his career, which will be released on 9 June via Southeastern Records/Thirty Tigers.
Who knows if the Nashville transplant will ever attain movie stardom, but Isbell earned a role in Martin Scorsese’s upcoming saga Killers of the Flower Moon. He also made quite an impression as himself in the compelling HBO Max documentary Running With Our Eyes Closed, which shed light on some dark moments in his life. While focusing on the recording of his 2020 album Reunions, it also takes a close look inside the challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic while maintaining a personal/professional relationship with his gifted wife, singer-songwriter-fiddler extraordinaire Amanda Shires. One keyword might not apply to everything he’s experienced along the way, but “breakthrough” has taken on new meaning at critical junctures.
Many of those moments will be covered here while going back in time, starting with his explosive return last week to Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre, where he and the 400 Unit satisfied sellout crowds (9,525-seat capacity) on successive nights, to our first phone interview in 2013, the breakthrough year of his career.
3 May 2023: Opening Night at Red Rocks
Strolling onto the outdoors stage west of Denver for his ninth headlining appearance at the picturesque setting in Morrison while he and Shires held hands, Isbell looked cool and comfortable from the outset, saying, “So happy to be back at Red Rocks. I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.”
With other projects and parenthood duties filling her calendar, Shires still manages to squeeze in time with the 400 Unit and couldn’t resist playing alongside her hubby for two nights at Red Rocks after a 2 May stop in Omaha, Nebraska. Following an 11 June date in Quincy, Washington, with the Highwomen, the supergroup side project she formed in 2019 that includes Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby, the Texas native will begin a solo tour in Europe and the United Kingdom.
Isbell led his longtime band — Derry deBorja (keyboards), Chad Gamble (drums), Jimbo Hart (bass), and Sadler Vaden (guitars) — through almost two hours of career-spanning selections, taking turns throughout the night introducing each member. He also gave a shout-out to Matt Pence, credited with additional production on five Weathervanes tracks, for “playing all kinds of crazy shit, drums, keys, and all kinds of percussion.”
They all closed the show, though, with one of the night’s highlights, a rousing 10-minute cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” that included six minutes of electric guitar riff revelry shared between Vaden and Isbell.
The 19-song set list went back as far as Isbell’s days with the Drive-By Truckers (“Outfit” from 2003’s Decoration Day) up to the present, with Weathervanes numbers like the soulful “Middle of the Morning” and “Cast Iron Skillet”, the encore-opening ballad that featured deBorja on accordion. Some of his past records featured tracks during the set that were Americana Music Association Song of the Year winners: “Alabama Pines” from 2011’s Here We Rest; “Cover Me Up” on 2013’s groundbreaking Southeastern; “24 Frames”, a Grammy winner for Best American Roots Song along with 2015 solo LP Something More Than Free (Best Americana Album); and, heard over the doc’s closing credits, “If We Were Vampires” from 2017’s The Nashville Sound, both of which earned Grammy repeats.
Songs from Reunions, the May 2020 release featured in the documentary, included: “Dreamsicle” (Shires’ fiddle brought tenderness to melancholic memories of Isbell’s childhood); “Overseas” (with Isbell’s taut electric guitar run); and “Only Children” (a ballad including nice harmonies and Isbell’s Mark Knopfler-like solo).
Though Isbell and Co. only played three of Weathervanes’ 13 tracks as a sneak preview (add the seven-minute epic-worthy “Miles” to the set list, pronto!), “Death Wish”, the album’s brawny opening cut and lead single, stood out as Isbell’s forceful voice ripped through lyrics that included that notable keyword: “Who’s gonna save you, who’s left to pray to? / What’s the difference in a breakdown and a breakthrough?”
Two tunes later, he gave a grand introduction to his wife — who was scheduled to provide lead vocals and fiddle ferociously on the Cat Power song “Cross Bones Style” Shires contributed to Isbell’s 2021 covers album Georgia Blue. “Speaking of things that make me excited, we have a very special guest tonight,” the hospitable host announced. “Playing the fiddle and singing, she’s from Lubbock, Texas, originally. Amanda Shires, everyone!
“Well, she was,” he added, looking for his wife, who had suddenly disappeared. Seconds later, she rushed back, informing him that their daughter Mercy was getting ready for bed, and she had to say goodnight. Shires’ return — and bits of screeching psychedelia performed with the band — got quite the reaction from a revved-up audience.
While sad songs and powerful anthems got equal time, Isbell brought the funny, too. His lips weren’t sealed when a gust of wind during an otherwise pleasant night forced him to apply Chapstick during the first half of the show. Apologizing to a giggling crowd, he said, “That seems extremely unprofessional. Dolly Parton would whup my ass. It’s windy, I can’t help it. I don’t have the kind of lip protection that Dolly has. (big laughs) Wanda [Jackson, we presume] would put Chapstick on onstage, so I’m fine with it.”
In thanking supporting act Angel Olsen later on, he made fun of the Nashville way, sharing, “It’s nice when you get to have some say in who you play with and who comes out and opens for you. Some people back home where I live … they just have to do what they’re told. I don’t have to go out and do the goddamn boot-scoot bucket-fest with all the Lukes and all the Bryans. Too many Lukes. Everywhere you look, there’s another one. (more laughs, hysterical screams)
“Not enough Sadlers in the world, I’ll tell you that right now,” he concluded, segueing into the introduction of Vaden’s spotlight number minutes before the encores. Providing swampy lead vocals and scorching guitar licks, he performed “Honeysuckle Blue”, which the South Carolinian recorded as a member of the rock band Drivin’ N’ Cryin’.
On slide guitar, only Sadler initially stayed onstage with Isbell and Shires for the regular set closer “Cover Me Up”, perhaps the night’s most emotional number. Pouring out his soul, Isbell might have changed his world in the time it took to write this one line from Southeastern‘s personal redemption song that, on this enchanted evening, elicited the crowd’s loudest roars of approval: “I sobered up, I swore off that stuff forever this time and the old lovers sing.”
7 April 2023: Running With Our Eyes Closed
The 97-minute documentary directed by Sam Jones, which premiered on HBO Max on 7 April, is part of a Music Box series created by Bill Simmons, with previous profiles including Alanis Morissette, DMX, and Kenny G. Its title is taken from one of Isbell’s Reunions songs, the film is a no-holds-barred portrayal of the evolution of a chubby kid who turned up his amp to 11 while playing Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” so he didn’t have to hear his parents argue. He even threw a baseball through one of the house windows “to get them to shut the hell up for three seconds”.
Much of the time on camera is spent at RCA Victor Recording Studios in Nashville, where work on Reunions began around December 2019. While the primary interview subjects are Isbell and Shires (talking together and separately), all the 400 Unit members and Reunions producer Dave Cobb are straightforward while speaking individually on camera. Isbell’s now-divorced parents (Mike Isbell and Angelia Barnett), manager Traci Thomas, and Drive-By Truckers frontman and co-founder Patterson Hood also provide some keen insights.
Seeing Isbell at his best and worst with the Truckers, a wild group of Southern rock ’n’ rollers who enjoyed boozing and partying as much as playing marathon shows, Hood proclaimed, “I knew the first moment I ever met him, he was destined for greatness.” But there were numerous incidents that contributed to his protégé’s downfall, such as episodes of drunkenness (including downing an “entire handle” of Jack Daniel’s) and drug use leading to an overdose, followed by a marriage, then divorce from Shonna Tucker, the band’s bassist. Isbell was kicked out of the Truckers in 2007 as Hood witnessed him “spiraling out of control”.
“It was shocking to me when I was fired,” Isbell confessed. Later in the HBO doc, which includes clips from 2009’s The Secret to a Happy Ending, the Truckers’ own incisive account of their early years, he added, “Honestly, I didn’t consider getting sober until I met Amanda.” Finally acknowledging he needed help in 2012, the admitted alcoholic still got wasted on “a ton” of moonshine and displayed boorish behavior onstage that February during a private show in Virginia. Apparently, he needed one “last hurrah” right before going to a Nashville rehabilitation treatment facility.
His efforts have been commended, but even Isbell was concerned about how he handled himself while working on Reunions. There was initial excitement as he compared starting to make a new album to “the first day of Little League”. But Shires quickly pumped the breaks, remarking, “From this point forward till when the record comes out, he’s gonna be a ball of anxiousness.”
That statement proved to be true. After telling himself, “This is good. This is fine. This is easy. You have this under control,” Isbell revealed what he discovered. “That was not true. What was true was I was really pressured and very stressed and sort of having a come-apart in there.”
Some awkward moments in the studio between the power couple can’t quite compare with the Beatles feuding during their final days of making music together. But there were a few real-life husband-wife dramatic moments every bit as tense as those shown in the recent Amazon Prime limited series Daisy Jones & the Six, about a fictional 1970s rock band torn apart by friction, power struggles, and love gone wrong.
Captured on camera were tiffs — some playful — about whether Shires was playing her fiddle too loud, which preposition was correct to use in a song lyric (with a master’s degree in poetry, she wins), and the blessing (or curse) of a 12-string electric guitar in the studio. Though spats happen in most marriages, the home/work relationship that often required a 24/7 existence tested the patience of two very strong personalities.
“My wife and I got in a spot that was probably pretty close to just calling the whole thing off,” Isbell divulged midway through the film. “… She was offended by my behavior, and I was offended by hers. We just kept our distance for a week or more.”
Absent from the studio during that time after feeling embarrassed and treated like “the whipping girl”, Shires eventually returned and shared on camera an emotional email she had written to Isbell that lucidly summed up her thoughts, including, “I was considering marriage counseling with you this last week because I thought it might help.”
Making his point, Isbell maintained, “My family is incredibly important to me, but my job is very important to me, too, because I know that I could not be of any use to anybody else if I had to do something different with my life.” Yet, while playing acoustic guitar and singing the poignant “Letting You Go” about watching his daughter grow up and imagining how difficult it will be when she leaves the nest, the words choked up the wordsmith. He needed a minute to pause, undoubtedly showing where his sincere feelings lie.
Of course, the forever love he and Shires display for that angel of Mercy in their own family — daughter Mercy Rose is now seven years old — works to keep them together, too. Several scenes of their little girl brought infinite amounts of cuteness. From hugs and kisses for her parents to playtime with the chickens at their Leipers Fork home southwest of Nashville to her adorable quote about quarantine during “pandemic filmmaking” in March 2020 — “Sometimes … just sometimes … I have the best days ever!” — can erase an endless number of hurt feelings.
Near the end of the film, Isbell puts his relationship with his wife in perspective, saying, “In quarantine times, there are breakthrough couples and break up couples, I’ve decided. A lot of people we know are getting divorced. And I understand that totally. But I think for me and Amanda, I think we’re having breakthroughs.”
July 2015 to July 2022: Man, Woman, and Child
My second phone interview with Isbell took place while he was on tour in late July 2015, just after the release of Something More Than Free and just before his August 15 headlining performance at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons, Colorado. It was his final show of the summer — for good reason.
Isbell was awaiting the birth of his child with Shires, who was 33 years old, and eight months pregnant at the time, showing off her baby bump on Twitter. Excited about delivering a new album and knowing a baby girl would be on the way, the first-time father said his No. 1 priority was clear after attending the proper childbirth classes and training.
“I was a little nervous at first, but that’s abated a bit,” Isbell offered then. “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 would 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.”
With the moving song “Children of Children” (performed in Lyons and heard on the doc) helping to propel Something More Than Free to a Grammy, he received praise far and wide. The LP, my Favorite Americana Record of the Year, hit number one on the charts in three classifications — rock, country, and folk. Reaching number two on my top 15 artists of 2015 list for the Huffington Post, Isbell earned a far greater mention when he was called “the savior of country music” by fellow roots rocker Todd Snider.
While the birth of Mercy Rose Isbell on 1 September 2015 was the household’s most fulfilling blessing of the year, there sadly haven’t been any family additions since then. In October 2020, Shires wrote an op-ed for Rolling Stone, disclosing that years earlier, it took 10 minutes for her to get an abortion (having “cells removed from my body by a doctor”). She added: “The reasons that I chose to have an abortion are personal, and they are mine. They aren’t for strangers or trolls to dissect. They aren’t for anyone on this earthly plane to judge. God alone will judge.”
An outspoken proponent of abortion rights and women’s health, Shires had spent a long time working on “The Problem”, a single addressing such issues that she sang as a duet with Isbell. Released in September 2020, a subsequent music video showed the supportive Southern man standing by his woman.
Then, on 2 May 2022, as news of the Roe v. Wade ruling being overturned was leaking, she posted on Twitter: “Recently, I had an ectopic pregnancy (or as grandma would call it, a tubal). On 9 August 2021, my fallopian tube ruptured. On 10 August, my life was saved … these are some dark days.”
Writing again in a Rolling Stone article that was published on 3 June 2022, she explained, “I have had reproductive healthcare — that some might call an abortion — when I was hospitalized in Texas. For those who are unfamiliar, it is impossible for an ectopic pregnancy to go to term. I would have died; my daughter, Mercy, would have lost her mother; my husband, Jason, would be a widower. I was lucky. This happened to me two and a half weeks before Texas’ abortion ban went into effect.”
Also returning to the studio that year, Shires released her seventh (and most recent) full-length solo album on 29 July. Considered a fearless look at women’s struggles even during what’s supposedly a progressive age, the record earned rave reviews from multiple outlets. PopMatters offered this take: “Shires’ passion and voice subvert the role of a passive object in another’s narrative as she declares her full subjectivity, cognizant of how it’s perceived as subversive.”
The LP’s title: Take It Like a Man.
2013: A Year of Redemption, Recovery, and Love
Heading to the Hangout Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, in May 2013, one of my objectives was to interview four “promising artists” ahead of the event to preview their upcoming appearances. Though each of them is still making music with varying levels of success, there’s only one who’s stood out from the rest — and became a Red Rocks headliner — Michael Jason Isbell.
Our phone interview for the Huffington Post that April came not only at a pivotal time in his career but also his life. He was eager to promote the upcoming release of the Dave Cobb-produced Southeastern, his first solo project since 2007’s Sirens of the Ditch, but also seemed willing to discuss other hot topics, especially opening up about his sobriety after years of heavy drinking.
Surpassing a year of staying sober, which Shires required of him after she said yes to his marriage proposal, they tied the knot in Nashville on 23 February 2013, the day after he basically completed the album at Falling Rock Studio in the Music City.
Remembering a quote from the late Roger Ebert about the days when the esteemed film critic was bonding with his future wife Chaz to become a contributing citizen finally, Isbell reflected on his own situation during our first interview.
“I think a lot of these events for me have culminated in the same thing. I’ve spent a lot of time in a rock ‘n’ roll band trying to fight off the fact that I was old enough to rent a car. And it’s all sort of rushed in at once now. And I like it. I don’t mind it a bit. I definitely don’t feel like 34 is middle age quite yet. I think I still qualify as young, especially these days. But, you know, I feel more like a contributing member of society rather than a hooligan.” (laughs)
Looking back on the baby steps he took during his recovery, Isbell added, “The first three or four months, I think, is the hardest. When you don’t have a pattern of behavior, you don’t really know what to do with yourself. But after that, it got a whole lot easier. You know, you get a lot more hours out of the day. [While drinking], I was operating on probably 12 hours at the most. The rest of the time was spent either sleeping it off or trying to work off hangovers. I’ve never been someone who’s very prone to boredom. I don’t know, boredom seems like something you should grow out of at about 15 or 16. There’s so much that needs to be done.”
In my first interview with Shires a couple of months later, before the release of her fourth solo album Down Fell the Doves, the then-31-year-old graduate student/professional musician talked eloquently and candidly about a variety of subjects, among them: why she and Isbell were taking songwriting exercises as newlyweds; how an attraction to birds worked its way into songs for this album; and whether she liked being described as a violinist or fiddler.
“I consider myself more of a rock ‘n’ roll fiddler,” Shires said en route to setting up a punch line she’s undoubtedly repeated many times during her career. “But I don’t get offended if I’m called either one. I’ll take either one. ’Cause they’re both great, and I can do both. But it’s more of a blend. And I also think it’s a violin when you’re selling it and a fiddle when you’re buying it.”
By then, I had for the first time enjoyed seeing Isbell, Shires, and the 400 Unit — deBorja, Gamble, and Hart — perform a late afternoon set outdoors at the Hangout. On the compact BMI stage before a decent-sized crowd hanging around the restaurant that bears the festival’s name, they were impressive.
Despite playing second fiddle (pun intended) to some powerhouse artists in the lineup, Isbell, Shires and Co. were one of my top five favorite acts of the festival. In my review, I wrote, “Isbell and his fiddle-playing partner looked and sounded like a loving couple still on their honeymoon, harmonizing on songs such as ‘Stockholm’ and Candi Staton’s ‘Heart on a String’.”
Though the huge stages along the beach that weekend were reserved for headliners like Kings of Leon, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and, on this closing night, Stevie Wonder, that didn’t seem to matter to Isbell. With a few Southeastern selections on the set list ahead of the 11 June release, he performed like his songs were playing to a full house.
Those hopes and dreams in 2013 have been realized in 2023, as the two Red Rocks appearances — and other sold-out stops on this year’s tour — have confirmed. And Isbell continues to honor Southeastern, remembering what it means to his career, which got a major boost with a clean sweep of three major awards (artist of the year, album of the year, and song of the year) at the 2014 Americana Music Association event at Ryman Auditorium.
“This year, we’re doing a few things to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of that record. One of the things that we’re doing is we’ve been adding some of the songs back into the setlist,” he told the cheering Red Rocks crowd last week before performing “Stockholm”.
Who knew a decade ago Isbell would still be playing tunes — some popular, some obscure — from what he now believes is the “album that changed my life.”
Let’s not forget the wife who helped save his life, too. Shires and Isbell left the Red Rocks stage the same way they entered it — holding hands the way longtime loyal lovers do.
SETLIST: Red Rocks Amphitheatre (Night 1), 3 May 2023
1. “24 Frames” (2015 solo LP Something More Than Free)
2. “Hope the High Road” (2017’s The Nashville Sound with the 400 Unit)
3. “Outfit” (Drive-By Truckers cover from 2003’s Decoration Day)
4. “Dreamsicle” (2020’s Reunions with the 400 Unit)
5. “Overseas” (2020’s Reunions with the 400 Unit)
6. “If We Were Vampires” (2017’s The Nashville Sound with the 400 Unit)
7. “Death Wish” (2023’s Weathervanes with the 400 Unit)
8. “Middle of the Morning” (Weathervanes with the 400 Unit)
9. “Cross Bones Style” (Cat Power cover on Georgia Blue sung by Amanda Shires)
10. “Only Children” (2020’s Reunions with the 400 Unit)
11. “Stockholm” (2013 solo LP Southeastern)
12. “Cumberland Gap” (2017’s The Nashville Sound with the 400 Unit)
13. “Last of My Kind” (2017’s The Nashville Sound with the 400 Unit)
14. “Alabama Pines” (2011’s Here We Rest with the 400 Unit)
15. “Elephant” (2013 solo LP Southeastern)
16. “Honeysuckle Blue” (Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ cover on Georgia Blue sung by Sadler Vaden)
17. “Cover Me Up” (2013 solo LP Southeastern)
1. “Cast Iron Skillet” (2023’s Weathervanes with the 400 Unit)
2. “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” (Rolling Stones cover)