Jason Isbell On 'Reunions,' Staying Sober, And The Challenge Of Good Songwriting Singer-songwriter Jason Isbell talks about releasing his new album early to independent record stores and reconnecting with a younger version of himself after being sober for almost a decade.
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Jason Isbell On The Past Lives That Inspired His New Album, 'Reunions'

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Jason Isbell On The Past Lives That Inspired His New Album, 'Reunions'

Jason Isbell On The Past Lives That Inspired His New Album, 'Reunions'

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Jason Isbell grew up in a musical family in northern Alabama. His grandma, he says, looked like Loretta Lynn and sang kind of like her, too. Isbell grew up to play guitar with the Drive-By Truckers. He's now a successful solo artist, four Grammies to his name. Isbell says his new album, "Reunions," was born from giving himself permission to reflect on simpler days on who he was a decade or two ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY CHILDREN")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Cold coffee on the fire escape, we bet it all on a demo tape, but we still had something left to steal remember when we took too much to get a little of the human touch, hand to mouth and reel to reel.

JASON ISBELL: There was a period in time when everybody around me was desperate in a different way. And you could hear it in what they were doing and even the people who didn't have the gift, they still had that sort of hunger.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY CHILDREN")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Will you read me what you wrote? The one I said you stole from Dylan, over encouraged, only children.

KELLY: For years, Isbell struggled with alcohol. When he and I spoke the other day, he brought it up and told me it's taken him a while not to look back at himself with disdain.

ISBELL: I got sober eight and a half years ago. And for a long spell between the time when I got sober and just the last couple years, it was really difficult for me to revisit those times in a way that was anything less than judgmental.

KELLY: I mean, you're so open about being an alcoholic. I will confess that I was wrestling with whether to actually ask you about it because I figured you must get asked about this just all the time and be sick of talking about it. But I've been thinking about it in this moment, you know, as somebody who has been to rock bottom and knows what it's like to suffer, what it's like to look out on this moment we're all living through when so many people are suffering. Do you feel that? Do you feel like empathy for - or more empathy than you might have a decade ago?

ISBELL: I think maybe so. I'm glad it didn't happen a decade ago because I would have been a disaster. The pandemic's probably taking its toll on addicts all over the place right now. For me, I feel fortunate that I've been developing tools over the last decade that have really come in handy since the pandemic started. You know, I'm somebody who tries to stay in the moment and focus on the process of living and working and being a person. And I try to live one day at a time, as the old AA adage says.

KELLY: There's another song on this album that you're making me think of, "It Gets Easier."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT GETS EASIER")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) It gets easier, but it never gets easy. I could say it's all worth it, but you won't believe me.

KELLY: I mean, if I may ask, are you finding this particular moment particularly challenging to stay sober? I talk to so many people who say, you know, a drink at the end of the night is one of the few things getting them through right now.

ISBELL: Oh, yeah. Well, I'm sure that's the case for a lot of people, but, you know, the more time I spend with my family, the less I think about drinking just because it's very obvious to me what the rewards are for me to stay the course.

KELLY: You mentioned your family, and I know you have a daughter, 4 years old - is that right? - named Mercy Rose, which I thought was the prettiest name when I read it.

ISBELL: Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah. I did wonder if the last song on the album, "Letting You Go," if that's about her. It's a love letter - right? - from a father to his daughter.

ISBELL: It is, yes. And that one's very personal and straightforward. You know, I wasn't really hiding behind a character or anything in that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTING YOU GO")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Being your daddy comes natural. The roses just know how to grow. It's easy to see that you'll get where you're going, but the hard part is letting you go.

ISBELL: I wanted to write a song about my daughter. And, you know, there's so many different ways to approach that. And it's also kind of a - it's like a big looming mountain when you decide to do something like this. This person that's so incredibly important to me, you know, how do I take that and put it into the context of my work and make it something that's not maudlin or sentimental? And the way that I chose to do that for the song was I tried to, you know, play the tape out and say, well, a part of what I'm afraid of is the inevitable here. So what is the inevitable? And the last verse deals with what will likely happen at some point in her life and, you know, the emotions that I'm probably going to have regarding her, you know, getting married or finding a partner and moving out of our house.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTING YOU GO")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) Now you've decided to be someone's wife and we'll walk down the aisle and I'll give you away. I wish I could walk with him back through your life to see every last minute of every last day. down here here shack and. Walk. Back to see last minute.

KELLY: Is she - is Mercy Rose old enough to know this song's for her?

ISBELL: She is, yes, but I think she thinks all of them are for her...

KELLY: (Laughter).

ISBELL: ...Which in a small way is probably true. But she does recognize this one.

KELLY: I've read that she plays the tuba.

ISBELL: Oh, no, it's the mellophone. It's the mellophone that she plays.

KELLY: The mellophone - I don't even know what a mellophone is.

ISBELL: Yeah, which is like a - it's a marching version of a French horn. But she does not play it well. It's a stretch to even say - it's a stretch to even say that she plays it. But she can make a sound with it, and she does that a lot. So I'm thinking at some point she will probably start to improve.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: I should mention your wife is also in the business. People may know Amanda Shires. She's, of course, part of the supergroup The Highwomen. She plays in your band; you play in her band. I'm imagining the three of you at home with - all jamming together.

ISBELL: (Laughter) Yeah. The mellophone would make - would take any kind of, like, relaxation out of a family jam. But I'll tell you what - my wife has been spending time with Pro Tools, so she's learning how to record, and that's something that I don't know how to do. And she also paints, so she's got an art studio set up in her barn. And she's been spending a lot of time recording and making beats. I got her a drum machine for Mother's Day.

KELLY: You got her a drum machine for Mother's Day. Wow. That's great.

ISBELL: Yes (laughter) yes, I did, and she was very happy about that. So she's been recording a lot of music and learning how to record herself. She's infinitely busy. Even in quarantine, she's staying really, really busy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT GETS EASIER")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400 UNIT: (Singing) It gets easier, but it never gets easy.

KELLY: Well, Jason Isbell, this has been a pleasure. Thank you.

ISBELL: Thank you so much. It was a pleasure to talk with you.

KELLY: The album is where "Reunions." It is out everywhere this Friday. It's been in indie record stores since last week.

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