On the Heels of Big Hits, Jason Isbell Keeps Up the Momentum on 'Nashville Sound'

Randy Lewis
Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Jason Isbell: “I’m not trying to sell X amount of records... I’m trying to write a certain amount of really, really strong songs every time."

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Two songwriters get on a plane, and no, this isn’t a setup for a punch line.

The songwriters in question are widely respected American musicians: Alabama-bred singer-songwriter and former Drive-By Truckers vocalist Jason Isbell and Louisiana-reared singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier. Their in-flight small-talk? Only how artists survive in a shifting digital-first landscape.

“We were talking on a plane — we just wound up next to each other recently — about the changes in the way people buy music and listen to music,” Isbell said while sitting backstage on a recent spring day at the fabled Ryman Auditorium, the so-called Mother Church of Country Music and winter home of the Grand Ole Opry.

“She said, ‘What if this is all just a blip, and humanity looks back one day and says, “Remember when people used to record music and then you’d pay to listen to it — wasn’t that weird?”‘

“And when you say it that way it does sound like kind of a strange thing to pay for,” said Isbell, whose lanky frame, square jaw, unblinking gaze and carefully combed blond hair combine for the look of a ‘50s TV western hero. “But I’m not going to give it away for free until I absolutely have to.”

Lately he hasn’t had to, thanks to the runaway success of his two most recent solo albums, his 2013 commercial breakthrough, “Southeastern,” and its 2015 successor, “Something More Than Free,” both of which earned him album of the year honors from the Americana Music Association.

The Recording Academy also bestowed two Grammy Awards on him last year: Americana album (for “Something More Than Free”) and Americana roots song (for “24 Frames”).

Now the musician reared in Muscle Shoals, Ala., is hoping to make it a solo hat trick with his latest, “The Nashville Sound,” recorded with his band, the 400 Unit, and released this month.

It’s another impressively literate collection stoked with the kind of insightful songs that have made him one of the bright lights of roots music over the last decade.

With the band’s backing, “The Nashville Sound” rocks harder than its predecessor with songs that explore themes of alienation, isolation, mortality, the joys and burdens of parenthood, family, home and hearth, drawing on Isbell’s arsenal of wit, compassion and his keen understanding of human experience.

His songs often touch on aspects of life in rural America but never settle for superficial nostalgia. That perspective sets him above the crowd, but also apart, something he ruminates on in the album’s opening track, “The Last of My Kind.”

“Nobody here can dance like me,” he sings, “everybody clapping on the one and three,” a line that’s sure to draw smiles from musically savvy listeners.

“A lot of people have mentioned that line,” Isbell said. “My drummer laughed out loud the first time I played him that song. But of course, he would.”

That’s one of the lighter manifestations of the ways Isbell ponders where he fits in, and by extension, how — or whether — the disparate strands of American life can still fit together.

In “White Man’s World,” he questions his cultural legacy: “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.”

The final line quotes the Confederate anthem “Dixie” and, like many of Isbell’s new songs, resonates at a moment in which a country and its people are wrestling with issues of race relations, political polarization and basic human kindness.

That song, Isbell said, “was inspired by the presidential election. I feel like a lot of people are confusing falling a couple of rungs with falling off the ladder. I think as a society we’re still making a lot of progress. I think just as many people or more people were getting treated unfairly by law enforcement 20, 30 or 40 years ago. We just find out more about it now.

“The government was lying to us an equal or greater amount in those days. Now we have more access to information,” he said. “When something like this happens, when somebody is put on this particular pedestal that (President) Trump has been put upon — partially by Americans, partially by the process — it’s easy to look at it and say we’re failing, and that this movement of compassion is losing to people who are so afraid it makes them selfish.”

The album also contains intensely personal songs, including a reflection on mortality titled “If We Were Vampires,” in which he observes, “If we were vampires and death was a joke/ We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke/ And laugh at all the lovers and their plans/ I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand.”

As Isbell sees it, “The Nashville Sound” emerged to be more directly autobiographical than “Something More Than Free,” which “had some character sketches (and) a lot of untrustworthy narrators.”

“There are a lot of things that were sometimes difficult to write about and reveal and let out of the cage,” he said, “but I went ahead and did that on this album out of a sense of responsibility. So in a lot of ways that points back to ‘Southeastern,’ because that’s really the first time that I had done that in such and open and elaborate way.”

Although he’d been praised for his songwriting in three solo albums that preceded “Southeastern,” as well as for songs he contributed to the Truckers, which he left in 2007, the biggest change in his life and career, he says, was getting sober in 2012.

“It made all the difference,” he said. “I had so much time and so much focus that I didn’t have before. That was really the story. It gave me a story to tell, and it gave people a reason to root for me.

“And it gave me time, which is really the most valuable thing in the world to a writer of any type — to have the time and the focus without being pulled away by darkness or addiction or anything else,” he said. “I could sit in one spot for eight or 10 hours and work on writing. I was very fortunate.”

In fact, he said the pressure he feels now doesn’t revolve around the critical or commercial success he found with “Southeastern” and “Something More Than Free,” but around “the creative breakthrough I feel like I’ve made.”

“I’m not trying to sell X amount of records,” said Isbell, who launched a tour this week in conjunction with the release of “The Nashville Sound.”

“I’m trying to write a certain amount of really, really strong songs every time,” he said.

“I feel like a lot of people made one great record, and very few people did it twice. Hardly anybody, as far as percentages go, has made three really great albums. That was a big deal for me, and I really wanted to do it again, just to challenge myself.”

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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