Significant chart success is a very new experience for Jason Isbell. Before the Alabama-born singer, songwriter, guitarist and ex-Drive-By Trucker released his Dave Cobb-produced fifth studio album, Something More Than Free, on his own indie label Southeastern, the fruits of his musical labors were a bit more esoteric: glowing press from virtually all the highbrow outlets and a raft of industry awards in the closest thing he has to a native genre — Americana. Isbell is the sort of underdog that people like to root for: a working-class, small-town kid made good; a formerly mercurial booze abuser who dried out and owned up to his failures in song, on air and in print (and patiently fields just about as many questions about his past as he does his songwriting); a diligent touring act who also happens to be an exactingly intelligent and empathetic storyteller.
If the 36-year-old doesn’t sound overly impressed by how well his new album’s doing sales-wise (it currently occupies the No. 6 spot on the Billboard 200), it could be because this particular promotion cycle will take him right up to an even bigger event — the birth of his first child with songwriter-wife Amanda Shires. Isbell considers his baby’s imminent arrival good for his outlook, and great for his songs, to keep in mind that where he comes from, there are things more important than stardom.
What do you make of the fact that your independently released singer-songwriter album is competing with major hip-hop, R&B, country and pop releases on the charts?
It’s really re-affirming for me, definitely. It lets me believe that I have some longevity, takes away some of the anxiety. It makes me feel like people are more similar to me than I thought they were before; people have tastes similar to mine. It’s nice to feel like you have more in common with people rather than more differences.
Since this is a first for you, have there been other meaningful gauges of career achievement?
Oh yeah. If that was the be-all and end-all for me, I would’ve given up a long time ago. Early on I had to structure my ideas of success around things like, “Can I go back and listen to the record months or years after I made it and still get some enjoyment out of it?” Or “Have I said what I wanted to say on this album? Did it connect with people on a personal level, even if it’s a small number of people?” That’s usually what’s most important to me, but I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t always a dream of mine to be successful, even on a commercial level. I just never really believed it was possible.
People often ask you where you feel you belong genre-wise, and you like to say that you belong in the storytelling tradition. Are there contemporary storytellers in any genre that you feel a kinship with at the moment?
I think I affiliate with somebody like Ben Howard. He’s quite a bit younger than I am, but I think what he’s doing is in a very similar tradition. Last night we played with My Morning Jacket and they get a little bit more ethereal than I do; there’s a lot more space in what they do. But I also sense that [storytelling] there in a lot of music they make. I feel like they’re trying to get a message across in the same way. There’s still people in the country world that are telling those kind of stories; most of them are women at this point, like Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves and Miranda Lambert. I can see that happening on that side of the wall. Ryan Adams is still doing it. He’s still writing those kind of songs, and having success with it.
One narrative that’s developed around this album is “He’s so much happier and more content now.” But there are songs on here, like “Children of Children,” “Speed Trap Town,” “The Life You’ve Chose,” even “Flagship,” that would qualify as pretty pensive stuff for any other artist.
[Chuckles] Yeah, it’s relative, isn’t it? It’s certainly a subjective thing. I’m in a really good place and I’m very happy, but I still have a very busy mind. What could go wrong is always just around the corner. I feel like for me to write songs that I would be interested in as a listener, there has to be tension and there has to be some kind of push and pull between reality and the potential of disaster. I think about those things when I’m writing songs; that’s the kind of song I like to hear, the kind of books I like to read, so that’s what I try to recreate. I’m very happy and very satisfied. I’ve never been one of those people that woke up every morning overjoyed. I don’t know if that’s in the cards for me or not, but as far as my life goes I’m doing pretty good at it.
There’s an American songwriting tradition of defining freedom as something youthful and romantic, as the ability to ramble on the open road without feeling encumbered. How’d you want to reshape that concept with this album?
There’s a big difference in choosing the freedom, the open road, and being forced onto the open road by circumstances. A lot of the times when I get in the bus it’s because I want to, and there are times when it’s because I have to. The freedom aspect of it, it’s always appealed to me in a certain way. I feel, first of all, very fortunate and privileged to be able to make most of my own decisions on a day-to-day basis. I know that’s not the case for everybody. That ability, that particular freedom, can be enough rope by which to hang yourself. It’s a means to an end for me. The way I see it, once you’re able to make your own decisions, then you have to make them correctly in order to be a happy and balanced person. Freedom can be the worst thing for you. Really it has been for me at certain points in the past.
You and Amanda Shires will have your first child in September, and everybody’s asking you what it’s like anticipating parenthood. Here’s a different question: What’s it like to be the songwriter with a dark streak who’s now writing about the un-rock ‘n’ roll subject matter of stability, commitment and family?
People have always been writing about that — in the songwriter tradition, maybe not necessarily in the rock and roll tradition. They would have called Jim Croce “dad rock” if he came around nowadays. It’s more challenging to look at those things from a realistic point of view, but still try to romanticize about choosing the right details. You can use those details to tell any kind of story and make anything adventurous, really. You figure out how to mature and how to take pleasure in smaller things, things that when you’re 21 years old aren’t very important to you. You see that it’s all pretty goddamn romantic.
Was the baby’s due date on the calendar before your album release date?
Yeah. That’s been occupying a large part of my brain, which I think is a good thing. I think it’s probably healthier for me to spend most of my time thinking about the baby, and what’s left thinking about my career right now. There are a lot of pitfalls that come with having commercial success. I think some of those are most easily avoided by not thinking too much about it. It’s nice right now to have my baby on the brain.
Very few Americana singer-songwriters have followings as devoted as yours, fans who are intensely interested in your sobriety, your family, how you’re doing and how all that’s reflected in your songs. Why do you think that is?
Because the songs are really honest, people think they know you — and they’re supposed to. If you’re writing these particular kinds of songs, and you’re doing it because you need to get something out, and your primary reasons for making music or making art is to explain the world to yourself, listeners are gonna think, “Alright, there’s always some of the creator of this music in the stories that it’s telling.” They feel like they know you. I like that about it, I really do, I think it’s a huge part of making a connection with people. That’s what I needed when I started making music in the first place.
Listen to music from Jason Isbell, as well as other artists featured in this issue, in the Spotify playlist below:
This story originally appeared in the Aug. 8 issue of Billboard.