Jason Isbell plays Bomb Factory on Saturday, Sept. 23Jason Isbell has lived in the blood-red South for all of his 38 years and has no plans to leave, even though he's a Democrat and the father of a 2-year-old daughter in a "white man’s world," to borrow the title from the most powerful track off his latest album, The Nashville Sound.
“The South has positives and negatives just like anywhere else,” says Isbell, a native Alabaman who now makes his home in Nashville. “I like being close to a family; that’s why I live where I live. We live in a bubble. Everybody does. Our home is a bubble.
"There’s just as many assholes everywhere. Cities are just bigger —you’ve got more good people and more bad people. Our mayor [Megan Berry] is one of the most progressive in the country. I’m proud to live in this town.”
Isbell and his band, The 400 Unit, opened a recent show in Seattle with “Hope the High Road.” Although it contains the galvanizing liberal lyric, “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know,” it’s a song about civility in the face of opposing beliefs — a seemingly forgotten mode of decorum in an age of tweet-storms.
“If you try to yell at people, they pretty much stop listening automatically,” Isbell explains. “There’s a reason why civil conversation works better than fighting. I’m sort of trying to tell people that as long as you keep some of your dignity and speak your mind in a way that’s not shutting down who you’re talking to, you might get someplace.”
But a kumbaya spirit hardly pervades The Nashville Sound, especially on “White Man’s World,” where Isbell struggles to find hope amid racial and cultural barriers. “Mama wants to change that Nashville sound,” he sings as the fiddle of his wife and bandmate Amanda Shires comes to the fore. “But they’re never gonna let her.”
The song is as baldly autobiographical as Isbell, a master inhabitant of other people’s dress blues, is going to get. For a tune bearing such a blunt message, he saw this approach as his only valid avenue.
“If you’re saying something in regards to race or gender, people really need to be able to believe you, and the only way for that to happen is to give them pieces of yourself,” he says. “Sometimes I find it harder to write from a perspective other than my own because I really try to empathize. And if you’re not living that experience, it’s really hard to draw on.”
During a sold-out show in Austin in July, Isbell received a certificate signed by Gov. Greg Abbott that declared him an honorary Texan. His wife requires no such validation; she was born and bred in the Lone Star State, splitting time between Lubbock and Mineral Wells.
“The thing that strikes me most about Texas and its music scene is that it’s self-sustaining — there are a lot of artists who tour Texas and maybe Oklahoma and that’s it,” Isbell observes, singling out James McMurtry as a songwriter he’s particularly fond of. “I think it’s great that you can just drive a few hours from your home and there are that many venues and that many music listeners. It’s an honor to be popular in Texas for that reason: They have so many people to choose from, and a lot of them are really, really good.”
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit, Bomb Factory, 2713 Canton St., all ages, 7 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23. Tickets $45 to $65. Follow the author on Twitter @mdseely.