‘There’s no way you can love Otis Redding the way I do and still be afraid of black people’

Growing up in Alabama gave Jason Isbell a deeper insight into race relations in the US

 

“I just write the songs; it’s up to you guys to figure out all that stuff. I don’t critique my own work – that would take too much time.”

The line from Pioria, Illinois, is getting a little hot. We’ve been speaking for just minutes but Jason Isbell sounds a little edgy as we discuss his new album, The Nashville Sound.

After college in Memphis, the guitarist spent almost a decade in the seminal southern band Drive-by Truckers, during which time he got married, divorced and built up a sizeable reputation as a guitarist, songwriter and serial substance abuser.

Then, five years ago, he sobered up after meeting Texan singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, whom he married in 2013. He celebrated his new life on Southeastern, his breakthrough solo album. Isbell bristles a little when asked how his new album fits with his solo work.

“My wife thinks it fits very nicely with Southeastern because there are a lot of character studies, that though I’m talking a lot about people who aren’t me, there’s still a lot of honesty on this record.

“There are things which were difficult for me to open up and say. White Man’s World was a hard song to write because it’s scary because if I don’t get this thing just right then I’m in big trouble . . . And I think that’s right, that’s my job.

“If you are a songwriter who wants to be an artist, and not just a recording artist, which is what they call everybody who gets a record deal, but a real artist, then you have to do those things that are hard.”

Growing up in Alabama gave him a deeper insight into race relations in the US. “When I was in college in Memphis in the 1990s I saw sit-ins, actually in 1997, when I thought those things were done, that those days were gone.

“Growing up in Alabama, I definitely heard racial slurs on a daily basis; I was around people who didn’t understand anything different and so they feared it. There was a cross burned in a kid’s yard in our neighbourhood. These things happened when I was growing up and it was the 1980s and 1990s. It wasn’t Jim Crow days but I don’t think anybody told the locals that.”

He believes his family and his deep affection for black music precluded him from following the mob. “I got really lucky when I was born into a family that didn’t have lot of hate for anybody. And as I grew up and started consuming the culture that people would know as black music, I started to convince members of my family that there was no reason to fear those folks at all.

“I saw a lot of people change. I saw a lot of old people, grand-aunts and uncles who grew up during the Depression, I saw a lot of their opinions change before they passed away. . . . There’s no way you can love Otis Redding the way I love Otis Redding and still be afraid of black people. It’s not possible.”

In White Man’s World, he refers to how people laugh along with racist jokes. Does he have a sense of guilt about it? “Yes, I think so. At the very least at what we were ignoring. And we should feel that. I think guilt can be a healthy thing if you act on it, if it causes you to change your ways.

“I’m not going to feel guilty or ashamed of anything I can’t control and I think that’s where a lot of far-right Americans misunderstand something. They think that white people who are liberal feel guilt for being white. It’s not being white that we feel guilty about; it’s not doing enough to even the playing field, ignoring things when we should have spoken up.”

On If We Were Vampires, he imagines what life would be like without his wife and daughter. It’s tense and anxious but he bats away the notion that this comes from his earlier life. “If I had to blame it on something, I’d blame it on my childhood and growing up in the culture of poverty. I don’t think you would consider my family poor, not working poor, but we certainly were not middle class. That permeated into my brain. I still feel that if anything good happens, that will soon be taken away.

“But then there is the reality that you’re going to die, my wife is going to die, my kid’s going to die, that’s hard for me to even say but it is so true, the most true thing in the world. And If We Were Vampires is my way of explaining to myself that without that threat, without that promise, we would not be motivated to do anything.”

He says he sobered up “to keep [Amanda] around and after a while to stay sober you have to do it for yourself but that’s another conversation altogether . . . It gave me a lot of focus and a lot of freedom. Every time you get rid of the shackles of addiction you get so much more freedom than you expected.”

Isbell might be in a good place but he sees no room for complacency. “I haven’t had a drink for a little longer than five years, things are going very well in my life, career’s been great, marriage’s been great. But things are never perfect, it’s never all okay.

“I read somewhere that everybody has this box of problems and the box has to stay full. You take something out, well, something has to replace it.

“Just by getting sober doesn’t mean that you’ve conquered the world. I think the more information you have about that before going into that process, before getting clean, turning your life around and making the changes you need, the better you’re going to be at it.”

He may have called his album The Nashville Sound, but the title is a pushback against the notion of it as the capital of country. “There are a lot of elements that go into the way Nashville makes music these days and those elements are not so dominated by big budget popular country any more.”

He cites the number of diverse musicians living in the city from Jack White to Paramore. “There is so much good stuff happening in Nashville right now that has nothing to do with top-40 country radio.”

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s “The Nashville Sound” is out now on Southeastern/Thirty Tigers

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