From the David Letterman interview I walked across 23rd Street to the east side and the Gramercy Theater to see Jason Isbell interviewed by John Seabrook for the New Yorker Festival. This time I had MasterCard preferred seating and got a seat in the fourth row. Since it’s a club, a lot of people were taking advantage of the bar.
I wasn’t sure what to expect but Isbell was very funny and very thoughtful when talking about the songwriting process. Seabrook asked where the baby was and he said she’s at the hotel. Not by herself. Isbell and wife Amanda Shires had a baby recently and when they’re on the road together (she plays in his band) they take the baby with them. When one of them is home, that person has the baby. And when they’re on the road separately, as they are now because Shires is touring in support of her new album, he gets the baby because he has a bus and the nanny. She travels in a van with a bunch of dudes.
Isbell was in the Drive-By Truckers (they are all still friends), where he contributed many songs. He now enjoys a popular solo career. He has written about his alcoholism and his sobriety and his fans will (maybe ironically) hold their beers up when he sings a lyric about being sober. “Spilling their beer in the name of sobriety.”
Isbell and Shires don’t usually write songs together (they have written three songs together) but instead go to different parts of the house, write, and then share their work and listen to the criticisms. The terms were laid out before their marriage – “If I come up with a phrase you use then I get a credit.” “Yes, ma’am.” Making small suggestions don’t receive a credit. Isbell does not only pick up a guitar to write or to perform. He picks up his guitar at least ten times a day because he enjoys making music as a pastime. On show day he only gets to play for about two hours because the day is taken up with the soundcheck and then the performance. Being home makes him happy because he can play all day.
Isbell’s grandfather was a Pentecostal minister and after church his aunts, uncles, and grandfather and his family would all play instruments and sing a lot of gospel and old country. His grandfather played banjo or violin and he’d have a 7-year-old Isbell play rhythm guitar for him. And Isbell would have to play the Jesus stuff before his grandfather would give him lessons on things like open tuning. His grandfather did buy him the Robert Johnson boxed set.
When Seabrook mentioned that Isbell had won a Grammy, Isbell looked at the audience and put his index and middle fingers up and said, “Two Grammys.” He was a daytime winner, which meant his category did not appear on the live evening broadcast. Later he would see all the evening Grammy people (the first tier) getting fed real food while the daytime Grammy people were standing on the chili dog line in their tuxes and gowns.
Isbell grew up near Muscle Shoals, where the clubs were called 51/49 clubs – the percentage of food you sold had to be more than the percentage of alcohol. He started hanging out in those clubs when he was 15. He was seeing and playing with the musicians who played on all those great albums. He had started writing lyrics to blues songs when he was 12 and he had a folded piece of paper in his wallet with the lyrics, which he read to his parents, who thought it was great. Unfortunately, his fellow baseball players found the paper and they made fun of him. “They don’t make fun of me now.”
At his first opportunity to perform on his own at 19, Isbell was told to come up with 45 minutes of original songs. He stayed up all night drinking Everclear and Gatorade and wrote the songs. Eventually he got a publishing deal, which was great. They left him alone to work in his own way and they liked what he did. But what he wanted was to be in a rock band and he finally ended up in a Southern rock band of well-read punks. Isbell had studied English and creative writing in order to write better. He felt that reading great fiction would make you a better writer. He did not study poetry because that is a very different dynamic and would not help his songwriting.
Seabrook asked about “Different Days” from Southeastern (when Seabrook misspoke the wrong direction name the audience shouted out the correct name) and said he was going to recite some of the lyrics. Isbell said it was strange having his lyrics read to him. When he was on NPR, Terry Gross read his lyrics and, since the show was done remotely, he was wearing headphones and thinking, “Terry Gross is whispering my lyrics to me.” The song starts “Staring at the pictures of the runaways on the wall.” Isbell said it wasn’t about Cherie Currie, although now sometimes when he sings the song he does think about The Runaways. The line comes from when he was grocery shopping at Walmart and before you enter there is a bulletin board full of flyers of runaway teenagers. He joked that no teenager could run away now. Within three days they’d be dropping a pin. The next line also comes about because all rhymes with wall. (“Seems like, these days, you couldn’t run away at all.”) The drug name benzodiazepine was used in the lyric because that drug rhymes with sixteen. And it’s not benzodiazepine that she’s selling. Most people misinterpret that lyric. The narrator of the song becomes more unreliable as the song goes from what he sees to what he remembers.
When asked what he thinks about people thinking all his songs are about him, he said there’s no non-fiction section in record stores that could make it clear. No one thinks that Arnold Schwarzenegger is really the Terminator. Writing “Live Oak” does not mean he’s a killer but he does want people to love him but he will see how much he can hurt him (he’s talking about his drinking days here). But many times, Isbell starts a song as fiction and then it becomes about him. The first reason to write songs is to open that closet and see the monster or look under the bed to find them.
About his alcoholism, Isbell quoted James McMurtry, “I don’t want another drink. I just want the last one again.” He also did a very funny imitation of McMurtry, who talks without opening his mouth or separating his teeth. McMurtry sounds like he’s always angry.
After his sobriety, his songwriting became much better. He used to live above a bar and his day was getting up late, dealing with his hangover, trying to write, realizing everyone was getting home from work, and going down to the bar to see his buddies. Right out of rehab he went to Australia and toured with Ryan Adams. It actually was good for him since Adams had been sober for a bit and liked to keep busy. Adams was like a 15-year-old. He rented out a laser tag studio and things like that. I’ve always said that the people I’ve known who are addicts stop their social/emotional growth when they become addicts. When they become sober they go back to the beginning and have to start that part of their growing up. Isbell’s stories about Adams confirmed that.
“Chuck Close said that inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us get down and get to work.” Isbell said to just write; then there’s editing.
When Seabrook brought up the second song for explanation, I realized that both songs were ones that had stood out for me the one time I saw Isbell perform. This time it was “How to Forget.” This was a true situation – seeing a woman he used to be with while he’s with his current girlfriend, a woman he truly loves; realizing that the old girlfriend still hurts because she had loved him more than he loved her; and letting it all play out in front his friends while he wonders if he really was that bad to her. “Now that I found someone who makes me wanna live/Does that make my leaving harder to forgive?” It’s a song about regret without shame.
Currently, Isbell is halfway through a new album. When he goes into the studio none of the musicians have heard the songs beforehand. He plays the songs for them in the studio and then they each go and figure out their parts and record. When Seabrook said that Isbell had a good band, Isbell replied that he had a very good band. “I like my band a lot.”
When Seabrook announced that it was time for audience questions and they should go to the mic, Isbell said, “It’s like a town hall.”
A woman said that “Alabama Pines” is one of her favorites (mine too – it’s the song that introduced me Isbell) and said she was surprised when she really listened to the words. The song has a happy melody but lyrics sound so hopeless. Isbell said he wanted to write a Paul Simon type song – there is no snare drum. He likes deceptive things and said he was not in a good place when he wrote that song.
There had been an article in (I think) that day’s New York Times about political progressiveness in today’s Southern rock bands. (It compares today’s bands like Drive-By Truckers and Shovels and Rope with older Southern rock bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Charlie Daniels Band, whose politics are more conservative.) Isbell said it’s case-by-case as to how he uses politics in his songs. People know his politics because he is constantly on Twitter and he’s not shy about sharing his opinion. Regarding the Confederate flag – it only hurts. Most of those people died of dysentery. If whether or not you can display the Confederate flag bothers you that much, you need to pay more attention to your kids. Isbell said the problem the Dixie Chicks had was that they were selling records to people who had a different ideology than the band.
Writer’s block is a myth. The problem isn’t writing; it’s not enjoying what you’re writing. Rules you can’t break when writing: (1) Don’t use clichés or metaphors. If you do, it had better be witty; (2) Don’t lie; (3) Don’t write a song just to get on the radio.
Isbell used to write about other people in his songs but he’s stopped doing that. His experience is fair game. In “Relatively Easy” the last verse it true – he was drunk and shot at a neighbor’s truck from his open window. He waited and waited but no one ever knocked on his door.
Isbell enjoys singing Drive-By Trucker songs. He can appreciate them and he gets to rock out. If he goes back there to sing then he doesn’t have to really go back there.
A gearhead asked about how he chooses which guitar for which song. He said the audience would be bored by that conversation, but Shires says that fiddle players are monogamous and guitar players are whores. Isbell said it depends on the night and what guitar he’s handed. He has a guy tune for him backstage because he has an aversion to standing on stage tuning and not playing.
Finally, Isbell performed for us. It was just him and his acoustic guitar. When he had to tune he brought our attention to how boring it was to watch him tune. First he played the songs that were deconstructed during the interview. “’Speed Trap Town’ is not a bullshit song about trucks,” he explained. “It’s not about drinking in, driving in, or wearing shorts in a truck.” Plus he’s very proud that he used the right word for a football play in the song. Only Patti and Chris Christie love Springsteen more than Isbell but he can’t forgive the misuse of the word ‘speedball’ in “Glory Days” instead of ‘fastball.’ Besides speedball is something else. When “shallow cross” came up in the song, the audience applauded. “Cover Me Up” was written for his wife before they married. He was nervous when he played it for her because he knew if it wasn’t good enough she would never marry him. As always, the “sobered up” line got applause. He played James McMurtry’s “Rachel’s Song.” It’s heartbreaking – McMurtry was left to raise his son after his wife left. He did an okay job. The verse about leaving his wrecked El Camino on its side because he was afraid he’d get a DWI is true. The troopers said it was a miracle McMurtry wasn’t killed. Isbell assured us that he’s met the son – now grown – and he’s a fine young man. And he ended with what he called “the best song I’ve ever written” – “Elephant.”
How to Forget
Speed Trap Town
Cover Me Up
By Carene Lydia Lopez