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The Fresh Air Interview
12:46 pm
Wed July 17, 2013

Jason Isbell Locates His Musical Compass On 'Southeastern'

Originally published on Wed October 30, 2013 8:38 am

When singer-songwriter Jason Isbell used to get drunk, he'd sometimes tell his then-girlfriend, the musician Amanda Shires, that he needed to quit the bottle — and that if it was going to take, he'd have to go to rehab. Eventually, she said the next time he told her that, she'd hold him to it. And she did. And he went. And, he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "The jury is still out on whether or not it worked, but it worked today and all the days leading up to this."

Initially, he says he was scared about what sobriety would do to his personality and his creativity.

"The changes can't all be good changes," he says. "There's got to be something that you're losing there, some kind of potency, or humor even, or some sort of attractiveness — not only to the person you're with romantically, but to your family, to your friends."

But his fears have thus far proven unfounded. Shires has since become his wife, and his new solo album, Southeastern — some songs from which he plays for Gross — has been turning heads. In these songs, Isbell, a former member of Drive-By Truckers and current frontman for The 400 Unit, lays himself eloquently and emotionally bare.

While long-recognized as a brilliant songwriter, Isbell credits sobriety with his newfound openness on Southeastern.

"I think there's an openness you really have to accept if you're going to make a change like that," Isbell says. "You have to be all right with saying, 'I have weaknesses.'

"[W]hen I've got a piece of paper in front of me, I feel like that's therapy for me in a whole lot of ways," he adds. "So I feel like I should go ahead and get it out and tell it all like it happened."


Interview Highlights

On whether he felt pressured to find a 'higher power' while going through rehab

"For a lot of folks who get sober, the process of getting and staying sober becomes their higher power, and it becomes a religion that sort of consumes a whole lot of them. I just don't think that that's necessary. I think that that can be a side note rather than the story of your life. I think a lot of people are scared, and I know I was scared to get sober, at least using this as an excuse; 'I don't want to be one of those sober people.' And I don't think you have to be. I think you can be one of those people who happens to be sober. For me, no, I'm not a particularly religious person. I was determined not to convert during that process."

On the characters in his song 'Elephant,' which deals with cancer

"I like to mix people together and make characters, especially with a song that's this heavy, with a subject matter that's this heavy. I like to build characters and allow them to behave as naturally as possible, and I think the two people that wound up existing in this song, I think they really did behave the way those folks would.

"I think the original inspiration for this [was] I used to spend a lot of time in this bar downstairs from the apartment that I lived in, in Alabama, before I moved up here to Nashville. Gradually, the regulars would start to disappear. Almost always, it was cancer-related. Over time, there were probably eight or nine people who just would sort of vanish almost right before your very eyes. These were people who weren't having the best life. They were spending a whole lot of hours sitting at a bar, but I think I got that idea. I imagined a couple of folks who were drinking buddies, nothing more than that, and how their relationship changed when one of them got sick. I've known a lot of people who have gotten cancer and died. I think everybody has at this point in time, but those two folks aren't necessarily people who exist in reality."

On his parents' views on him being a musician

"My dad, he worries a bit, usually with good reason. There were quite a few years there where he was probably trying to resign himself to fact that I wouldn't live too much longer, just because of the way I was living. ... There was a moment for Dad where he realized it was going to work out as a career and he called me, he pulled over on the side of the road in his truck, this is probably 8 or 9 years ago. He was listening to demos from my first solo record; he pulled over on the side of the road on his way to work and called me and said, 'Well, son, I don't think you're going to need a backup plan. I think you can go ahead and do this. I just wanted to tell you that.' Which is a big deal for my father. It was always, 'Have something to fall back on.'"

On the name of his band, The 400 Unit, being inspired by the unit of a mental hospital

"It sounds a little insensitive now, I guess. I think [the hospital] changed the name of the place. I don't think that's our fault. I think they changed it anyway, [but] they would take folks out, their day patients. They would take them out once or twice a week, and they would give them all 10 or 15 bucks and put a name tag on them; they would get out of a big white Ford van downtown in Florence, Alabama. They'd walk around and try to get lunch. It just scared the locals. The locals saw the van and knew what it was, and they got out looking real disheveled and disoriented, and they would try to exist in reality as a normal person for an hour or however long it took to get a Subway sandwich or something.

"We had been on the road for about a month. We stopped somewhere and we all got out of the van and we were drinking pretty heavily and not getting a whole lot of sleep, and it was the middle of the day and we were all hungover and smelled pretty bad, and I handed everybody 10 bucks because it was their per diem for the day, and we all went to get a sandwich, and I thought, 'Man, that reminds me so much of something I've seen somewhere before.'"

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

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. After our rock critic Ken Tucker gave an enthusiastic review of Jason Isbell's new album "Southeastern," several of us in the FRESH AIR office started listening to it. We like the album, too, so we invited Isbell to come on our show and perform a few songs from it. I'm happy to say he agreed and is our guest today.

Many of his fans first heard his work with the Southern rock band The Drive-By Truckers. Isbell was a guitarist, singer and songwriter with the band. A few of their best known songs are his, including the title of the Truckers album "Decoration Day" and another song from that album, "Outfit."

Isbell's new solo album is his first since getting sober. Writing about Isbell in the New York Times magazine, Dwight Garner said Isbell's redemption on "Southeastern" is one of the best stories American music has to tell in 2013. Garner described the album as a breakthrough for Isbell, prickly with loss, forgiveness, newfound sobriety and second chances.

I asked Jason Isbell to get us started by playing the song that opens his new album. Here he is performing "Cover Me Up."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COVER ME UP")

JASON ISBELL: (Singing) A heart on the run keeps a hand on the gun. You can't trust anyone. I was so sure what I needed was more, tried to shoot out the sun. In days when we raged, we flew off the page. Such damage was done. But I made it through 'cause somebody knew I was meant for someone.

(Singing) So girl leave your boots by the bed we ain't leavin' this room 'til 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.

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

(Singing) So girl hang your dress up to dry, we ain't leavin' this room 'til Percy Priest breaks open wide and the river runs through, carries this house on the stones like a piece of drift wood. Cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good.

(Singing) So girl leave your boots by the bed we ain't leavin' this room 'til 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. Cover me up and know you're enough to use me for good.

GROSS: Oh, that's beautiful. That's Jason Isbell performing a song that's the lead song on his new album, and that song was called "Cover Me Up." Jason Isbell, thank you so much for coming to FRESH AIR. So you wrote that song for your wife, Amanda Shires, who is also a musician and songwriter and singer. So I hope she liked it.

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: She did. She liked it a lot. She did. She wasn't my wife, and she is my wife now, so apparently she didn't hate it.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. So part of the song is about getting sober and about how she helped you do that. Is it easier to write a really emotional personal song like this that you said was difficult for you to write before, is it easier to write it now being sober? Is that making a difference in the emotional quality of either your writing or your singing?

ISBELL: I think so. I think there's an openness that you really have to accept if you're going to make a change like that. You have to be all right with saying I have weaknesses, and I think that was a big problem for me. You know, when I was still drinking, I thought I was kind of in control of everything in my life, and other people's lives, and realized at some point that that just wasn't the case at all.

And I had to turn over some of that control, and I think it did make it easier for me to open up. It doesn't make me a - there's something that I kind of miss about, you know, those days. It was easier for me to be emotional than it is now. That's not quite as easy. I'm still learning. You know, it's only been about a year and a half. So I'm getting better at it.

GROSS: Wait, that sounds like a contradiction, that it was easier for you to be emotional then, when you were drinking, but you're singing and writing more emotionally now that you're sober.

ISBELL: Right, yeah, yeah, my conversations, you know, could probably take a turn for the emotional, even probably to the point of being maudlin when I was drunk, you know, with her especially. And now if it's the end of the night, and we're on the phone, I really don't feel like opening up as much as I used to. But when I'm writing, I feel like it's necessary. I feel like that's the time for it.

And I'm working on it at other times, too, and trying to get better at that. But, you know, when I've got a piece of paper in front of me, that's kind of therapy for me in a whole lot of ways, so I feel like I should probably go ahead and get it out, you know, and tell it all like it happened.

GROSS: There's a song that's on your new album "Southeastern" that seems to me to be about, in part about giving up alcohol and about making the journey back to being sober. It's called "New South Wales." I'm going to ask you to perform that song for us, but first tell us the story behind the song.

ISBELL: This one, I'd gone over to Australia a few years back with Justin Townes Earle. This is one of the older songs for the record, and actually he was the person going through that kind of struggle at that point. He and I went over just the two of us and did a whole bunch of shows and raised a whole lot of hell and had a really great time.

But, you know, when we got home, it sort of spiraled out of control for both of us, I think, after that, but that trip was just, I don't know, debaucherous in a whole lot of ways. And yeah, I wrote the song about that.

GROSS: The song has a line God bless the busted boat that brings us back. Listening to the song, I was thinking that that was whatever it is that gets you back to sobriety or whether that brings you salvation or whatever, but am I misinterpreting that?

ISBELL: No, no, that's there, too. Yeah, that's also there. It's a concrete thing. But my wife hates it when I talk about allegory, but I guess that's what that is. She's in the middle of a bunch of James Joyce right now in graduate school, so the word allegory really...

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: The word allegory is not allowed in the house at this point.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Yeah, would you do "New South Wales" for us?

ISBELL: Sure, yeah, yeah, I'll do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEW SOUTH WALES")

ISBELL: (Singing) Here we sit cross the table from each other, a thousand miles from both our mothers, barely old enough to rust. And here we sit tending both our hearts' rancor, taking candy from these strangers amidst the diesel and the dust. And here we sit, singing words nobody taught us, drinking fire and spitting sawdust, trying to teach ourselves to breathe. We haven't yet, but every chorus brings us closer. Every flyer and every poster gives a piece of what we need.

(Singing) And the sand that they call cocaine costs you twice as much as gold. You'd be better off to drink your coffee black. But I swear the land, it'll listen to the stories that we told. God bless the busted boat that brings us back.

(Singing) Morning's rough, don't give a damn about the mission, has no aesthetic or tradition, only lessons never learned. I'd had enough about a month ago tomorrow. (Unintelligible) holds no trace of sorrow for the bitter and the burned. And the piss they call tequila even Waylon wouldn't drink. I'd rather sip this Listerine I packed. But I swear we've never seen a better place to sit and think. God bless the busted boat that brings us back.

(Singing) And the sand that they call cocaine costs you twice as much as gold. Be better off to drink your coffee black. But I swear the land, it'll listen to the stories that we told. God bless the busted boat that brings us back. God bless the busted boat that brings us back.

GROSS: That's Jason Isbell, performing a song that's also on his new album. The new album is called "Southeastern." You know, I've been reading some interviews with you, and you said to somebody that you've listened to songs and wondered why do people want to sing songs with such bad lyrics.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I know what you mean, and I really admire the lyrics that you write. They're so well-written, and they're such good images with - you know, in them. And it made me wonder what other kind of writing you've done, if any, outside of lyrics.

ISBELL: Well thank you, first of all, but I have done a lot for practice, really. I went to school for creative writing in college, and I wound up about six hours short of my degree. There was a - in my defense, there was a human fitness and wellness course that was all book study, it wasn't like activity, it was just reading about how many calories were in things, and I just got up and walked out. So I missed that class and didn't graduate.

But I did study that stuff in college, and I read a whole lot, you know, throughout those years and even more so recently. I've been reading and practicing different styles of writing, you know, short fiction and screenwriting and a lot of poems. I've written a lot of poems over the years.

But, you know, you like to be able to pay the rent, so being a poet sometimes is not the best option.

GROSS: My guest is Jason Isbell. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is singer, songwriter and guitarist Jason Isbell. His new album is called "Southeastern." Your family lived in a trailer when you were born. Was there enough room for everybody in the trailer?

ISBELL: Yeah, it was just the three of us, and my parents were teenagers. It really - yeah, there was plenty of room. We were in my grandmother's front yard, too. We were right next to the driveway in my grandmother's yard. My first memory of my grandmother, worked in the cafeteria at the high school where I wound up going from kindergarten through twelfth grade, but my first memory is of her coming home after her shift there with those little drop cookies, boiled peanut butter cookies.

And yeah, we lived right there in her driveway in a little trailer. It was fine. I thought it was great.

GROSS: And were you playing music when you were very young?

ISBELL: Yeah, I started that from probably seven, six or seven years old. All the people in the family, my granddad would get us a mandolin when we were really little because he felt like our hands were too small to play guitar yet. So if you made it through the mandolin, you could get a guitar when you were eight or nine years old or maybe 10 years old.

So I played mandolin for a couple years and then got a guitar.

GROSS: What was the first song you learned how to play?

ISBELL: "Simple Man," Lynyrd Skynyrd "Simple Man." My Uncle Phil taught it to me. Yeah, I still remember that song. I love that song.

GROSS: As you say, you grew up in the Bible Belt. You grew up in Alabama. So religion was a big part of your house. What about the church and church singing?

ISBELL: Yeah, I went to church. My mom's family, they were Church of Christ Southern, Church of Christ, and my dad's family were Pentecostal. My grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher. And so there were two very, very different styles of church music coming at me. The Pentecostal church had a full band, and they were really loud. And, you know, they had like a bass player and a drummer and stuff.

And then my mom's church, you know, you're forbidden to have musical instruments in the Church of Christ. So it was all voices. You know, I would get those two mixed up in my head every once in a while. And, you know, the Pentecostal church, like when you're supposed to pray, everybody prayed out loud at once. Everybody just said what they had to say.

And then at the Church of Christ, it was very quiet, you know, and that wasn't the thing. I remember one time I got them mixed up in my head, and when I was at the Church of Christ with my mom, and it was time to pray, I just started yelling. I was probably five or six years old.

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: I started yelling out all my - my mom grabbed me by the hair, don't do that, don't - that's not here, that's the other place. But yeah, both of those I think musical traditions found their way into what I do now. My grandfather was a musician, and my parents really couldn't afford any kind of daycare, and when they would work, during the summers especially, when I wasn't in school, I would wind up with my grandparents.

And my grandfather played music and did that, I think now in some ways to keep me occupied, to keep me from getting into trouble or getting restless but also, you know, just to hang out with me, spend time with me. He was that kind of guy.

GROSS: So growing up in Alabama, you were near the Mussel Shoals Sound Studio, which was a pretty famous sound studio created by the rhythm section of the famed studio...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR FALLING)

GROSS: Whoops.

ISBELL: Sorry, I just dropped my guitar.

GROSS: Did you just ruin your guitar?

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: No, it - neither one of them are mine. I don't...

GROSS: Oh, the heck with it then.

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: I think we're stable now. Sorry, that - you were talking about Mussel Shoals.

GROSS: Yeah, so did you go down there when you were young? Did you meet the musicians?

ISBELL: Well, there were two studios. You know, originally there was the Fame Studio, and then like you were saying the rhythm section from Fame split off when Rick Hall tried to sign them to a salary deal. They split off and started their own studio down the street, the Mussel Shoals Sound Studio.

And when I was 15, I started going out and playing in public. My mom would take me to restaurants because there were blue laws in those days. You had to sell - I think they still have them there, actually. You had to sell 51 percent in food sales. You know, so everything was a restaurant. There weren't any bars or clubs or anything like that in Florence, Alabama, or in Mussel Shoals, which was a neighboring town.

You know, in some ways that was good for me at 15 or 16 because I could get into a restaurant. I might not have been able to get into a bar at that age. But my mom would take me out, and these guys were still working. You know, they played on a lot of hit records, but they were still out actively playing, you know, playing the songs that they had recorded for the most part, for people dancing on a Friday or Saturday night and eating Mexican food or whatever.

And I would go out and eventually worked up the courage to get up and sit in and play, and once I did that I became friends with them, and they would have me get up and sit with them, sit in with them a lot. And I didn't understand at that point in time really the scope of the work that they had done.

A few years later, when I was say 19, 20, 21 years old, I really got into R&B music, and a lot of people call it soul music, but it was rhythm and blues. I got into that pretty heavily at that age. And of course it was, you know, a revelation to think, wow, David(ph) played on, you know, "I'll Take You There," which is one of the coolest bass lines in the whole world.

And it was really nice to know that, I think after meeting those folks because I would have been a little more nervous around them and probably a little bit star-struck.

GROSS: Jason Isbell will be back in the second half of the show. His new album is called "Southeastern." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with songwriter, singer and guitarist, Jason Isbell. He's brought his guitar and is performing some songs for us from his new album "Southeastern." It's his first album since getting sober. Isbell got his start performing with the Southern rock band The Drive-By Truckers. He grew up in a small town in Alabama.

I want you to do another song from your new album. This is a song about cancer. Not that many people write songs about cancer and I'd love for you to tell the story behind this song before you sing it and if it's about somebody who you know.

ISBELL: I think the original inspiration for this, I used to spend a lot of time in this bar downstairs from the apartment I lived in Alabama before I moved up here in Nashville. And gradually the regulars would start to disappear and, you know, almost always it was cancer related. But, you know, over time they were probably eight or nine people who, you know, just would sort of vanish almost before your very eyes. And, you know, these were people who weren't having the best life. They were spending a whole lot of hours sitting in a bar. But I think I got that idea, you know, I imagined a couple of folks who were drinking buddies really, nothing more than that and, you know, how their relationship changed when one of them got sick. I have known a lot of people who, you know, have gotten cancer and died, I think everybody has at this point in time, but this one, you know, those two folks aren't necessarily people that exist out in reality.

GROSS: So the song is called "Elephant." Would you sing it for us?

ISBELL: Yes. I will.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEPHANT")

ISBELL: (Singing) She said Andy you're better than your past, winked at me and drained her glass, cross-legged on the barstool, like nobody sits anymore. She said Andy, you're taking me home, but I knew she planned to sleep alone. I'd carry her to bed and sweep up the hair from the floor.

(Singing) If I had (bleep) her before she got sick. I'd never hear the end of it. She don't have the spirit for that now. We drink these drinks and laugh out loud, bitch about the weekend crowd, and try to ignore the elephant somehow. Somehow.

(Singing) She said Andy; you crack me up, Seagrams in a coffee cup, sharecropper eyes and her hair almost all gone. When she got drunk she made cancer jokes, she made up her own doctor's notes, surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone.

(Singing) I'd sing her classic country songs and she'd get high and sing along. But she don't have much voice to sing with now. We'd burn these joints in effigy, cry about what we used to be, and try to ignore the elephant somehow. Somehow. Somehow.

(Singing) I buried her a thousand times, giving up my place in line, but I don't give a damn about that now. There's one thing that's real clear to me, no one dies with dignity. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow. We just try to ignore the elephant somehow. Somehow. Somehow.

GROSS: That's Jason Isbell performing his song "Elephant," a song that also featured on his new album "Southeastern."

Do you have to be in a certain mood to sing that song? It gets me in a certain mood listening to it.

ISBELL: Yeah. You have to - I think to do it right you have to find that place and it's hard to find when you're, for example, on a stage with a bunch of lights and fog and you're in front of a bunch of people who are having a good time, it's hard to find. But I've got practice with that because I've written maybe not songs quite this sad in the past, but I've written some sad songs and had to perform them for people who are having a good time without, you know, somehow without bringing those people down, you know. And it's a difficult thing, it's a fine line, I think. You have to watch about the pacing of your set. You know, I don't play that song every night and I had one on a few records back called "Dress Blues" that I won't do every night because they are just very dark and very personal to a lot of people. So I don't want...

GROSS: But at this point it's like who doesn't know somebody who has died of cancer now.

ISBELL: It's true. Yeah, it's true.

GROSS: My guest is Jason Isbell. His new album is called "Southeastern." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is songwriter, guitarist and singer Jason Isbell. His new album is called "Southeastern."

How did your parents feel about you becoming a professional musician?

ISBELL: They were very accepting. I think they pretty much knew that that was the deal, that was what was going to happen either way. My dad, he worries a bit and, you know, usually with good reason. I think there were quite a few years there where he was probably trying to resign himself to the fact that I wouldn't live too much longer, just because of the way I was living. But, you know, he...

GROSS: Drinking and what else? Was it just the drinking or were you...

ISBELL: There were some drugs too, you know...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

ISBELL: ...we were doing some drugs too. I don't think I ever really got addicted to any of that other stuff and I was able to quit doing that long before I was able to quit drinking. But...

GROSS: Were you doing risky things while you were drinking and doing other drugs?

ISBELL: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I had a motorcycle for a while. That's the one that really scared my dad. He thought that was going to kill me for sure and it probably, you know, it's strange that it didn't now looking back on it. But it, you know, my mom has always been very supportive, both of them have, you know, but there was a moment for Dad I think where he realized that it was going to work out as a career and he called me, he pulled over on the side of the road in his truck and called me. This had been probably eight or nine years ago. And he was listening to like demos from my first solo record, I think and he pulled over on the side of the road on his way to work and called me and said, well, son, you know, I don't think you're going to need a backup plan. I think this - I think you can go ahead and do this. I just wanted to tell you that. Which is a big deal for my father because it was always, have something to fall back on, always.

GROSS: So you have a song called "Outfit" that was first recorded by the Drive-By Truckers when you were with them. And the bridge is a device that your father used to give you. Would you just sing the bridge for us with the advice?

ISBELL: OK. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "OUTFIT")

ISBELL: (Singing) Don't call what you're wearing an outfit. Don't ever say your car is broke. Don't worry about losing your accent, 'cause a southern man tells better jokes.

(Singing) Have fun but stay clear of the needle. Call home on your sister's birthday. Don't tell them you're bigger than Jesus. And don't give it away. Don't give it away.

GROSS: So that's great. So why was he worried that you'd call what you were wearing an outfit?

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: Oh, yeah. That's, I'm - I don't know. There were certain things that were pet peeves for my father. I think he did want me to be a certain level of masculine and that's probably where that came from, but I know that wouldn't cut a whole lot of weight nowadays. You can't really tell your kids stuff like that anymore - with good reason. But, yeah, in those days you could have probably gotten a black eye for saying, you know, something about your outfit in school.

GROSS: And don't ever say your car is broke?

ISBELL: Right. You should know what's wrong with it.

GROSS: I suppose that's as opposed to broken? Oh. Oh. Oh.

ISBELL: No. No. No.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Oh. Oh. Oh. I thought it was correcting your grammar.

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: No. Not gram - you should know what's wrong with it - alternator or something.

GROSS: Oh, you should say or it's the alternator, it's the carburetor.

ISBELL: Yeah. Exactly.

GROSS: Use your spark plugs, that kind of thing?

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: Yeah. If you can at least know that much when you take it into the shop you're not going to get run over as easily.

GROSS: That is good advice.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So when you started your own band you named it the 400 Unit and that was named after the psychiatric ward at a local hospital. Why did you name it after that?

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: I know it sounds a little insensitive now, I guess. But they've changed the name of the place. I don't think that's our fault. I think they changed it anyway, but they would take folks out, like their day patients. They would take them out once or twice a week, and give them all 10 or 15 bucks and put a name tag on them; they would get out of a big white Ford van downtown in Florence, Alabama, and they would walk around and try to get lunch. And, you know, it just scared the locals. The locals saw that van coming, everybody knew what it was, and they got out and they were looking really disheveled and disoriented and, you know, they would try to exist in reality as a normal person for an hour or however long it took to get a Subway sandwich or something.

And we had been on the road for about a month and we stopped somewhere and we all got out of the van and we were drinking pretty heavily and not getting a whole lot of sleep, and it was the middle of the day and we were all hung-over and, you know, smelled pretty bad, and tried to - I handed everybody 10 bucks because it was their per diem for the day, and we all went to get a sandwich, and I thought, man, that reminds me so much of...

(LAUGHTER)

ISBELL: (Singing) ...something I've seen somewhere before.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: People didn't confuse you with that though, did they?

ISBELL: No. No. No. They didn't. They knew we were a rock band. They always know when you're a rock band.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So I want to ask you to do something that I sometimes ask performers to do when they're on the show, and that is to redeem a song - to take a song that most people you know don't really like - that they think of as corny or overly sentimental or badly written that you actually really love. And so we asked you in advance if you were willing to do that and you said you were. So you've already chosen a song. I don't know what it is yet so...

ISBELL: OK.

GROSS: ...I'm dying to know what you've chosen and why you've chosen it.

ISBELL: All right. Well, this one probably isn't as well known. It was a, I think the number one country hit back in the '80s...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

ISBELL: But around here in Nashville everybody knows it. The band called Sawyer Brown did this song but...

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

ISBELL: ...a friend of mine actually wrote it - Mac McAnally, who wrote a lot of really great hit songs, some for the band Alabama, a lot of other country artists. He's in Jimmy Buffett's band now.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR STRUMMING)

ISBELL: Incredible musician, really. He's won the Country Music Association's Musician of the Year five or six times in a row, I think or close to it. But his songs are absolutely brilliant and he's one of the best lyricists on earth. And this song, because it wound up being I think a top 10 country hit in the '80s, it gets ignored by people now. I never hear anybody else bring it up. But I think it's as good a cheating song as Willie or Merle or George Jones ever sang. I really do. It's called "All These Years."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL THESE YEARS")

ISBELL: (Singing) She likes adventure with security and more than one man can provide. She planned adventure feeling sure that he would not be home 'till after five. He turned on the lights and turned them off again and said the one thing he could say. All these years where have I been? Well, I've been down the road to work and home again. And still I'm here until I'm gone so don't you rub it in too hard that I've been wrong for all these years. She said you're not the man you used to be. And he said neither is this guy. She said there's some things you refuse to see. But I guess sometimes so do I.

(Singing) And she made no excuse why she was lying there. She said the one thing she could say. All these years what have I done? I made your supper and your daughter and your son. And still I'm here and so confused but I can finally see how much I stand to lose. After all these years. Still, I'm here and so confused. But I can finally see how much I stand to lose after all these years.

GROSS: Well, thank you. I never heard that song. It's a new song to me.

ISBELL: How about that song?

GROSS: Yeah. That's really good.

ISBELL: It's incredible. I think the line she said you're not the man you used to be and he said neither is this guy is one of the coolest things I've ever heard anybody say in a song in my whole life. You know, you walk in on your wife in bed with somebody and say - and have the wit to say that even in the face of how terrible, terrible that situation would be.

That one and then when she says all these years what have I done? I've made your supper and your daughter and your son. I think that is brilliant, brilliant songwriting.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah, that's really good. Well, thanks for introducing me to that.

ISBELL: Thank you.

GROSS: So I just want to get back to this thing we were talking about earlier which is, you know, sobriety. And I've gotten the impression through your songs and interviews that it's your wife who helped get you into rehab. And, you know, there's that point for everybody who finally has that turning point but many people don't ever get there. And for many people it takes years and years of false starts before they do. Why was - why did this time work? Why did it actually happen?

ISBELL: Well, I guess the jury is still out on whether or not it worked but it worked today, you know, and all the days leading up to this. So that's good. I just really didn't want to be that way anymore. And I had told her a couple of times I need to quit drinking. I'm going to have to go to rehab to do it because I can't just do it on my own.

And, you know, when I told her this I was drunk and I was upset. And she said the next time you tell me that I'm going to hold you to it. You're going to have to go. There's going to be no other option. And sure enough, I brought it back up and she got on the phone and she called my manager Tracy Thomas and she called Ryan Adams and she called my mom and my dad and, you know, people that I respected and told them that I planned on doing this and that they were going to have to hold me to it. And, you know, just by them knowing that I had said that she knew that my pride wouldn't let me back out on it at that point. Which was really smart and it was not easy for her to do, to call those people and admit, you know, that there was trouble. So I'm very, very grateful for that, you know.

GROSS: So it wasn't an actual intervention. It was more like they knew that you'd said this and you had your pride and therefore had to follow through.

ISBELL: Right. Yeah, there was no intervention where they all came together. I couldn't imagine all those people in the same room together anyway, even to try to save my life.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: My guest is Jason Isbell. His new album is called "Southeastern." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: My guest is songwriter, guitarist, and singer Jason Isbell. There's a song I want to close with from your new album "Southeastern" and the song is called "Live Oak." And before we hear it, I just want to quote a few lines from it. This is kind of a - in some ways it's like an old murder ballad or a crime ballad because it's about somebody who held up a train and killed a couple of people onboard. But he's not that person anymore. And so the chorus goes: There's a man who walks besides me. He is who I used to be. And 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?

And so, like, he's changed but she seems to really want to like the criminal...

ISBELL: Right. Yeah.

GROSS: ...as opposed to the reformed guy. And there is kind of an analogy there, you know, with you. And I was wondering, I mean, this is a crime ballad. It's not an autobiographical song. Yet I'm wondering if women who you've been with have kind of liked the drunken you and...

ISBELL: Yeah, I think so. And it came directly from that. That was - I was inspired to write the song by this worry that I had that what parts of me will I lose after I go through this process? And when I wrote the song I had just recently gotten sober probably, you know, weeks or a month at most before I wrote this song. And I was scared, you know, what else am I going to lose, because it can't all be better?

Everything, you know, the changes can't all be good changes. There's got to be something that you're losing there, some kind of potency or, you know, humor even or some sort of attractiveness not only to the person you're with romantically but to your family, to your friends. Now, had I known then what I know now I probably wouldn't have been able to write that song because I see that I still have all those parts of me that I want, you know.

And Amanda seems to be way more into hanging out with me now that I'm sober than even she was then. But, yeah, I've been with women like that before, you know, and I've had friends like that who were men. And sometimes when you get your life straightened out, you know, it can put too much of a weight on them to do the same. And if they're not ready to do that yet they'll turn their back on you.

GROSS: Well, Jason Isbell, I want to congratulate you on the new recording and I want to thank you so much for your generosity today in speaking with us and performing for us. And I wish you all best.

ISBELL: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be on the show. Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: Oh, my pleasure. And so let's end with that song. This is Jason Isbell from his new album "Southeastern" and the song is called "Live Oak." Thank you again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE OAK")

ISBELL: (Singing) 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. 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 rougher than the timber shipping out upon the lathe when I headed south at 17, the sheriff on my back.

(Singing) I'd never held a lover in my arms or in my gaze, so I found another victim every couple days. But the night I fell in love with her I made my weakness known to the fighters and the farmers digging dusty fields alone. The jealous innuendos of the lonely hearted men let me know what kind of country I was sleeping in.

(Singing) Well, you couldn't stay a loner on the plains before the war and my neighbors took to slighting me and I had to ask what for. Rumors of my wickedness had reached our little town so she'd heard about the boys I used to hang around. We'd robbed a Great Lakes freighter, killed a couple men aboard. When I told her, her eyes flickered like the sharp steel of the sword.

(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. And 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?

(Singing) Well, I carved a cross from live oak and a box from short leaf pine and buried her so deep she'd touch the water table line. I picked up what I needed and I headed south again. To myself I wondered would I ever find another friend? There's a man who walks beside her. He is who I used to be. And I wonder if she sees him and confuses him with me.

GROSS: Music from Jason Isbell's new album "Southeastern." Isbell performed a song we didn't have time for in the broadcast, a song, Isbell told me, had a big influence on him - Neil Young's "Don't Let It Bring You Down." But you can hear that on our website freshair.npr.org. Our thanks to engineer Joe Hemphill at Audio Productions in Nashville where Jason Isbell was recorded. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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