Music Interviews
4:02 pm
Mon June 10, 2013

Jason Isbell: A 'Southeastern' Songwriter's Path To Sobriety

Originally published on Mon December 9, 2013 11:07 am

There are a few things worth knowing about singer-songwriter Jason Isbell: The round softness of his speech comes from his roots in rural Alabama. He has lyrics from a Bob Dylan song inked on his forearm. He got his musical start with the hard-charging alt-country and Southern-rock band Drive-By Truckers, and during those years, Isbell was drunk on stage — pretty much every time.

"I had it timed where, by the very end of the show, I'd done just about all I could do standing up," he says. "I knew I needed two or three before I went on, and then during the show, we'd just pass a bottle around between the band."

By the end of a show, Isbell figures he'd have drunk a fifth of Jack Daniels.

He says his drinking brought him "close to the point of no return." But now, at 34, Isbell says he's sober and newly, giddily married to singer-songwriter and fiddler Amanda Shires. On his new solo album, Southeastern, Isbell digs deep, drawing on his personal relationships and experiences with sobriety.

Open Yourself

All Things Considered host Melissa Block visited with Jason Isbell at his home on the fringe of Nashville, with Shires sitting close by on the couch. They often finish each other's thoughts.

According to the couple, when they're each writing songs, they have a deal: They'll separate — go into different rooms of the house — and force themselves to complete a song apiece. When they emerge, they'll play what they've come up with for each other. A few of the songs have even ended up on their respective albums. "Cover Me Up," the opening track on Southeastern, was one of those songs.

"That was a hard one for me to even get through without breaking down the first time, because that one is really personal," Isbell says. "It's not easy to sit down and open yourself up and say, 'This is how much I love you,' you know? It's scary to do that."

Isbell says Shires was integral to his recovery process.

"I would usually drunkenly tell her that I needed to go to rehab," he says. "I only got to do that twice, I think. The second time she said ..."

" 'You're telling the wrong person,' " Shires finishes.

"Yeah, that was it," Isbell says. "'You're telling the wrong person. If you say this again, then you're gonna be held to it.' And, sure enough, the plans were made. She called a few people that I respect."

Shires says it was no easy feat. The two had not been dating for long, and she had to call his family members and close friends — most of whom she didn't know.

"I didn't care if he was mad at me," she says. "I didn't care if that meant that it was the end of our relationship. To me, it was, 'This person needs help.' "

The Impact Of Sobriety

Along with sobriety came a whole new set of concerns, which Isbell channeled into Southeastern. "Live Oak" begins with the lines, "There's a man who walks beside me / He is who I used to be / And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me."

"I worried about what parts of me would go along with the bad parts, because it's not cut and dried," Isbell says. "It's not like you make the right decision, and everything's great, and you're a better person for it. You are, you know, at least 51 percent better. But there are some things that are lost forever, and that's just a fact of it."

He says he was concerned about the impact his sobriety would have on all of his personal relationships.

"I was thinking, 'Well, what do they like?' " Isbell says. " 'Do they like that guy? What combination of those two guys are gonna make those folks stay in my life?' Luckily, most of the people that I really cared about were there for me. And I think at the core, I still have the same values. I just actually behave according to those values now a lot more."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELING ALONE")

JASON ISBELL: (Singing) Mountains rough this time of year. Close the highway down. They don't warn the town.

BLOCK: A few things to know about singer and songwriter Jason Isbell: The round softness of his speech comes from his roots in rural Alabama. He has lyrics from a Bob Dylan song inked on his forearm. He had his musical start with Drive-By Truckers, the hard-charging alt-country Southern-rock band, and during those years, Jason Isbell was drunk on stage - pretty much every time.

ISBELL: I had it timed where, by the very end of the show, I'd done just about all I could do standing up, you know? I knew I needed two or three before I went on, and then during the show, we'd just pass a bottle around between the band.

BLOCK: How much do you think you'd drink during a show?

ISBELL: Close to a fifth probably.

BLOCK: Of? What were you drinking?

ISBELL: Jack Daniels, yup.

BLOCK: Jason Isbell says his drinking brought him close to the point of no return, but he's sober now at age 34 and newly, giddily married to singer-songwriter and fiddler Amanda Shires. We hear them together on this song from Jason's new solo album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAVELING ALONE")

ISBELL: (Singing) And I've grown tired of traveling alone. Tired of traveling alone. I've grown tired of traveling alone. Won't you ride with me?

BLOCK: I visited with Jason Isbell at his home on the fringe of Nashville, he and Amanda sitting close on the couch, finishing each other's thoughts. When they're each writing songs, they have a deal: They'll separate - go into different rooms of the house - and force themselves to complete a song apiece.

ISBELL: For me, the important part was we can't do anything together until we finish this because...

AMANDA SHIRES: And there's no cheating. You have to write a whole song.

ISBELL: Now, we can go back and edit later for as long as we need to.

SHIRES: Yeah.

ISBELL: But if you don't come down with a whole song, something with verses and choruses, then you have to finish it.

BLOCK: So when you would come out at the end of day and show each other what you had and play it and sing it, what did you end up with? Was there anything that you kept that you think is...

ISBELL: I think there's a lot of them.

BLOCK: Yeah?

SHIRES: Yeah. I think three made it on my record, I guess.

ISBELL: Probably four or five on mine. "Cover Me Up" was interesting.

SHIRES: Mm-hmm.

ISBELL: That was a hard one for me to even get through without breaking down the first time, because that one is really personal, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COVER ME UP")

ISBELL: (Singing) So, girl, leave your boots by the bed. We ain't leaving this room till someone needs medical help or the magnolias bloom. It's cold in this house, and I ain't going out to chop wood. So cover me up, and know you're enough to use me for good.

It's not easy to sit down and open yourself up and say: This is how much I love you, you know? It's scary to do that.

SHIRES: And after having to draw that out of yourself, you know?

ISBELL: Yeah. It's visceral. I kind of have to reach and then pull stuff out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COVER ME UP")

ISBELL: (Singing) Put your faith to the test when I tore off your dress in Richmond all night. I sobered up, I swore off that stuff, forever this time. And the old lovers see, I'd thought it'd be me who helped him get home. But home was a dream one I'd never seen till you came along.

BLOCK: You've been really public in talking about being sober. How long has it been?

ISBELL: Been a year and five months and about three days.

BLOCK: And what led up to that decision to get sober?

ISBELL: A lot of hard nights, you know? A lot of exhaustion, a lot of on my mind sort of turning in on itself, telling me that I needed to, that it was time. And I would usually drunkenly tell her that I needed to go to rehab, and I only got to do that twice, I think. The second time, she said...

SHIRES: You're telling the wrong person.

ISBELL: Yeah, that was it. You're telling the wrong person. If you say this again, then you're going to be held to it. And, sure enough, I said it again, and then, you know, the plans were made. She called a few people that I respect and...

SHIRES: And that wasn't easy to do, either, to call people that I don't know, you know, and say something, like...

ISBELL: That seems like a hard thing, it really does, because we weren't - we haven't been together very long, you know? She's like calling my mom and my manager and my friends.

SHIRES: I didn't care if he was mad at me. I didn't care if that meant that it was the end of our relationship. To me, it was this person needs help.

ISBELL: Yeah. Then I went away to class for a couple of weeks. And then as soon as I got out, we flew to New Zealand. First, to Australia and then on to New Zealand. So then my first show sober was in Perth in this big concert hall, beautiful place with a couple of thousand people. And I'm out there with a guitar by myself. It just overwhelmed me to play a show sober. I've done one other show sober that I could recall in 10 years. It was terrifying to go up there with the whole bright world staring you in the face.

BLOCK: I want to ask you about the first lines of the song "Live Oak." What are the lines, first of all?

ISBELL: It's there's a man who walks beside me. He's who I used to be, and I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE OAK")

ISBELL: (Singing) And I wonder who she's pining for on nights I'm not around. Could it be the man who did the things I'm living down?

That one started as a worry that I had when I cleaned my life up, decide to be a grown-up, you know? I worried about what parts of me would go along with the bad parts, because it's not cut and dried. It's not like you make the right decision, and everything's great, and you're a better person for it. You are, you know, at least 51 percent better, but there are some things that are lost forever, and that's just a fact of it. You know, everything is not better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE OAK")

ISBELL: (Singing) All the things that she'd suspected, I'd expected her to fear. It was the truth that drew her to me when I landed here. There's a man who walks beside me. He is who I used to be. I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me. And I wonder who she's pining for on nights I'm not around. Could it be the man who did the things I'm living down?

I was concerned with that, and I was concerned with my relationship not only with my wife but with a lot of people who, in some way, had been attracted to me or, you know, charmed by me or just liked me in general. I was thinking, well, what do they like? You know, do they like that guy? Do they like - what combination of those two guys are going to make those folks stay in my life? Luckily, most of the people that I really cared about were there for me. And I think at the core, I still have the same values. I just actually behave according to those values now a lot more.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIFFERENT DAYS")

ISBELL: (Singing) Ten years ago, I might thought I didn't have the right to say the things an outlaw wouldn't say, but those were different days.

BLOCK: Well, Jason Isbell, thank you so much.

ISBELL: Thank you so much for having me. It's been a pleasure.

BLOCK: Jason Isbell with his wife, Amanda Shires. His new album is titled "Southeastern."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIFFERENT DAYS")

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.