Jason Isbell on equality in music industry.
Jason Isbell found himself asking that question when he was driving around one day. He was singing it, actually.
Quite a few of his songs have started life this way. He could be in the shower, or waiting on a plane, or on the road somewhere between Nashville and his home outside of Franklin, Tennessee, when a single line hits him. One that seems destined to shape a song. This time, he was behind the wheel with that question, and a pleading melody.
“It seemed like the only logical place for that song to go was where it went,” he tells The Tennessean.
It became “What’ve I Done to Help,” the urgent opening track on “Reunions,” Isbell’s new album with his longtime band, the 400 Unit.
“The world’s on fire, and we just climb higher till we’re no longer bothered by the smoke and sound,” he sings. “What’ve I done to help, but not myself?”
It’s a good question for anyone to ask themselves. And in Isbell’s case, his admirers would have plenty of answers for him.
For one thing, he just lent a hand to independent record stores (which are struggling to stay in business during the coronavirus pandemic) by letting them sell “Reunions” a week ahead of Friday’s official release.
Before the concert industry shut down, his last public performance was at a Nashville benefit for victims of the Tennessee tornadoes. That came one week after he returned to his native Alabama to headline a campaign fundraiser for U.S. Sen. Doug Jones.
There’s also the answer he’s heard consistently for the last eight years. He’s been an inspiration to others who, like him, have fought to get sober.
Isbell had his last drink in 2012, after which his art and career truly took flight. Since then, he’s released four acclaimed albums, carved out a good living on the road (including 27 sold-out shows at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium) and penned a song for the blockbuster “A Star Is Born.”
In the last couple of years, as he’s started seeing a therapist weekly, he’s made another stride. He’s able to think about the man he was before all that – and let his guard down.
“I have at least started the process of digging through all those old piles of clothes, going back and pulling something out that I wore 20 years ago and saying, ‘Well, maybe this would look good on me again,’ ” he says. “But for a while there, I couldn’t do it. Because I didn’t feel safe doing it. I felt like, ‘If I’m too kind to the person that I used to be, and show him too much mercy, then he might find a way to sneak back in.’ ”
On “Reunions,” Isbell is free to take a long, tough look back: at an old friend who died (“Only Children”), growing up with divorced parents (“Dreamsicle”), his past relationships and “mistakes that I can’t erase” (“What’ve I Done to Help”).
He’s also finally connected with the guy he hears singing on his albums.
“When I was in a recording, I would think, ‘That just doesn’t sound right to me.’ With the last couple albums, and especially this one, it finally sounded right. I think a lot of it on this record had to do with the production, because we were able to get sounds that were really transportative. I wanted to do that from the start. I wanted to be able to take a listener from wherever they were and put them somewhere else.”
Isbell has worked with Nashville producer Dave Cobb since 2013’s “Southeastern.” Now four albums in – in the esteemed RCA Studio A – they’re playing with sonic space as creatively as any other instrument.
Before “Reunions,” if you were in the mood to oversimplify, you could divide many of Isbell’s best songs into two camps: the intimate, acoustic-driven close-ups (“Cover Me Up,” “If We Were Vampires”) and the electrifying anthems that showcase the power of the 400 Unit (which just might be worthy of lofty comparisons to the E Street Band).
But on this album, Isbell is crafting songs that are suddenly both – and neither. He’s rarely sounded closer to your eardrums than on “Be Afraid,” even as what must be a half-dozen electric guitars are taking off into the ether.
The song is also as blunt a call to action as he’s ever delivered. With a refrain of “Be very afraid, but do it anyway,” the song eventually puts the focus on an unnamed entertainer.
“I don’t think you even recognize the sound of your voice/ When it’s blasting through the speakers in the sky/ And if your words add up to nothing, then you’re making a choice/ to sing a cover when you need a battle cry.”
“There are a lot of people that are concerned about their level of success in a way that prevents them from saying what’s really on their mind,” Isbell says.
He also has a hunch that many of them are closer to his side than not.
“To get to a certain level as a creative person, you have to have an open mind. And that doesn’t usually allow you to point the finger and blame large groups of people. And if you can’t blame large groups of people, then you’re not gonna make a very good conservative. I know they’re out there, and you see a lot of people who do speak their mind, but I wish everybody would because I feel like we all need the weight behind the push right now.”
He has a similar reason for being relatively quiet on another topic: the Democratic primaries. Isbell posts on Twitter almost every day, but he didn’t participate in that frequently heated conversation over the past year.
“I might have done it 20 years ago, but right now, I think I would rather have my 4-year-old as president than the guy that we’ve got at this point,” he says.
“I understand that democracy should work in a way that we all have our voices heard and that we all can advocate for any candidate we feel like would be best for the job, and be as loud about that as we want, but that’s just not politically sound. And the version of democracy that we’re operating under right now is not in the best health. It’s not the best version of itself. It’s not the kind where everybody can get their voices heard and still meet the bottom line of integrity for the process. So I feel like there’s a point of diminishing returns there that you have to stay aware of. You just have to be really, really careful. … If you want to at least feel like your voice has some type of influence over other people, then sometimes you need to hold your tongue.”
Isbell revealed plans for “Reunions” in early February, about one month before the pandemic pierced through the U.S. and the entire concert industry. He had a huge tour lined up, including a run of theaters and amphitheaters, a return to Bonnaroo, a gig with Chris Stapleton at Wrigley Field and another trek through Europe.
Even if he could have seen that coming, Isbell says “Reunions” would have still been released right now.
“I feel like that’s how it’s supposed to happen, no matter what else is going on in the world. When I was in the studio recording that (album), I knew it was it was gonna come out in three and a half months. … I don’t want to just sit on it for months and years and know that it’s there and it’s finished. I feel like it would be hard for me to get closure on that chapter of my work and move into the next one.”
Also, if you have David Crosby singing background vocals on your album, how long could you possibly keep that to yourself?
Isbell recalls the day the legendary member of Crosby, Stills & Nash walked into Studio A.
“Crosby just rolled up like it was 1969 and started rolling up a joint right there in the middle of the studio. And then Amanda (Shires, Isbell’s bandmate and wife) took him to a restaurant the next night to get dinner, and he just started smoking a joint right in the middle of the restaurant in East Nashville, and nobody made him stop, because he’s David Crosby.
“He loves music and making music now, I think, more than he ever has. His voice is still really powerful, and just to be able to sing harmony on my own song with David Crosby, it’s like playing guitar with Jimmy Page or something. It’s like a dream come true.”
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