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(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

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Jason Isbell Is Not the Terminator

The wry, literate Southern rocker is redefining ‘The Nashville Sound.’ Just don’t confuse him with his characters.

"I’m wide awake, and I’m in pain," howls Jason Isbell, and the crowd erupts in a spontaneous roar that’s both thrilling and disconcerting.

It’s a sleepy Sunday night in early July, and the thinking person’s Southern-rock star (or the fighting person’s country star) is holding court with his backing band, the 400 Unit, in a lovely outdoor amphitheater just outside Dayton, Ohio. The modest Jumbotrons on either side of the stage are branded as providing "Chili Vision," in honor of the infamous regional cuisine, though actual Chili Vision would be much foggier. That’s a corny joke Isbell might appreciate, were he not currently singing a song called "Anxiety."

"Anxiety" — a surly highlight of Isbell’s sixth solo album, last month’s The Nashville Sound — is about having it all and lying awake at night terrified that you’re about to lose it. "I’m out here living in a fantasy," he sings. "I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing."

You’d figure this song would make everyone flee the venue in despair; it’s definitely not a partier. But the Ohio crowd receives it as such, and Isbell delivers it as such. He even opens shows with "Anxiety" sometimes. Delivered live, it’s a reverse-psychology benediction for an embattled and only slightly graying eminence who survived considerable personal tumult, got sober, and emerged as one of the best songwriters in America.

"I wrote that song with my wife, Amanda Shires," Isbell informs the audience, indicating the violinist and accomplished solo artist immediately to his left. He tells a corny joke about her hometown of Lubbock, Texas. Somebody in the crowd yells words to the effect of, "Your wife is too attractive for you."

Isbell stops short.

"I’m gonna have to respond to that."

Everyone prepares to flee the venue in terror.

He ruminates for a few seconds, troubled but dignified.

"Some people judge people by the content of their character," he finally says.

The crowd returns, and cheers uneasily.

"Sometimes, when you tell jokes that are funny, you find yourself around attractive women," he continues, addressing the heckler directly. "You should try it sometime, sir."

The crowd cheers louder, breathes easier.

"But what do I know?" Isbell concludes. "You bought the ticket!"

And soon he is playing another rousing new song called "Hope the High Road."

Chatting on the phone a week later, Isbell can still cheerfully recall this encounter. "That guy really completely missed the point," he observes. "Of course she’s too good-looking for me. All of us men are horribly unattractive."

It is evident that he thinks about this a lot.

"You know, why would any woman ever have sex with any man?" Isbell continues. "All of our stuff is on the outside, and it’s ugly — it looks like a fuckin’ undersea monster, you know? Yes, she’s too good-looking for any of us. I don’t understand how the species has made it this far, because as men, we’re all terribly, terribly hideous. But, you know, whatcha gonna do?"

The full line from "Anxiety," by the way, is "Even with my lover sleeping close to me / I’m wide awake and I’m in pain." Isbell and Shires live in a fancy part of Nashville and have a young daughter now, and he’s enjoying even more of the critical acclaim that has always followed him, along with the personal stability that has sometimes eluded him. I tell him that I love the song, but it makes me very concerned for him personally. Which, it turns out, completely misses the point. Jason Isbell is gonna have to respond to that, too.

The first song on The Nashville Sound is called "Last of My Kind." It’s a gentle, folksy, John Prine sort of thing, narrated by a small-town Southern guy wildly uncomfortable in the big city, or in college, or anywhere, really. "Nobody here can dance like me," Isbell sings. "Everybody’s clapping on the one and the three / Am I the last of my kind?"

The problem is that everyone mistakenly assumes Isbell’s talking about himself. "People have a hard time understanding that," he says. "They don’t always think Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Terminator, but if somebody writes a song with me or I, then it’s gotta be about them all the time. I think everybody knows that John Prine’s not an old woman, even though in ‘Angel From Montgomery,’ he says he is."

It turns out that "Anxiety" is a similar deal. "I’m glad I did my job," he tells me, gently rebuffing my misguided sympathy. "But yet again, I’m not the same person who is speaking to you in that song. But I guess it is a testament to the song itself. Yeah, even my manager sent me tips for getting over anxiety. And you know, I don’t have the heart to be like, ‘Thank you, but, you know, I’m not the Terminator. Still not the Terminator, everybody.’"

From the start, Isbell’s songs were vivid enough to cause confusion. A 38-year-old native of Green Hill, Alabama, he got his start roughly 15 years ago when he joined the Drive-By Truckers, who’d already established themselves as the 21st century’s greatest Southern-rock band. He debuted with two songs on 2003’s Decoration Day: the brooding title track and the gently shattering, fatherly-advice lament "Outfit." That song alone stood out as career-making, the tough but tender blueprint for an illustrious career. And Isbell has followed that blueprint, including the parts that were potentially ruinous.

He spent roughly four years with the Truckers, much of that time alongside his first wife, the band’s then-bassist Shonna Tucker. But both partnerships collapsed around 2007, and Isbell’s solo career began the same year with Sirens of the Ditch. It might’ve been a little too aptly titled. (One of the oldest songs Isbell plays in Dayton is "Codeine," off 2011’s Here We Rest, a down-and-out waltz that sounds significantly more triumphant in 2017 than it did back then. "It’s funnier now," Isbell allows. "It’s not a sad song now as much as it is a funny song.")

He made good decisions (falling in with Shires was the best); he made poor decisions (accusing far glossier country-radio star Dierks Bentley of plagiarism was not among the best). After living with alcoholism for a long time, he went to rehab in early 2012 at Shires’s insistence; the following year, the couple got married, and Isbell released Southeastern, a monster of a breakthrough album, with alt-country anthems both devastatingly romantic (onstage, he now sings "Cover Me Up" while staring directly at Shires) and simply devastating. "Elephant," which concerns a woman dying of cancer, is the sort of song where nobody listening makes eye contact with anyone.

The Nashville Sound, which follows 2015’s likewise excellent Something More Than Free, cements Isbell’s rep as a high priest of Real Country Music, alongside fellow prestige drawlers like Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson. It’s undoubtedly his boldest record, if only for the song called "White Man’s World," a bluesy and craggy check-your-privilege broadside that’s as politically strident as Isbell has gotten in song. But challenging his fan base has only caused it to expand.

Our current national climate has only complicated those "I’m not the Terminator" issues, however. Another thing people wonder about some of the characters in Isbell’s newer material is whether or not they’re Trump supporters. He has spent his career, after all, writing about the sorts of people (rural, Southern, proudly defiant) that the media often stereotypes in a well-meaning attempt to understand them. "It’s sort of a pop-culture phenomenon now, isn’t it?" Isbell says. "You’ve got Hillbilly Elegy, and everybody thinks it’s a really spot-on summation of what’s wrong with America. Most of that stuff is bullshit."

Isbell’s aim is to conduct a more thoughtful examination of those stereotypes, just like the best Southern writers before him. "William Faulkner wasn’t a redneck, right? Ricky Bragg wasn’t a redneck. Barry Hannah wasn’t a redneck. Eudora Welty wasn’t a redneck. Margaret Mitchell wasn’t a debutante. We’ve all been addressing these things for a long, long, long time. Now it’s just a bit more popular than it used to be."

As for the characters who make up The Nashville Sound, "I think it’s pretty presumptuous to try to assume who a character that I completely fucking made up would vote for," he says. "That’s my guy, there. It’s not your guy — that’s my guy. I made him up out of my brain. You know? You can make up your own people. If you can learn how to write a song, they can vote for whoever they want."

At the Dayton show, among the angrier highlights is "Never Gonna Change," a hard-charging holdover from his Drive-By Truckers days. Lyrically, the level of detail is incredible: "Daddy used to empty out his shotgun shells / And fill ’em full of black-eyed peas." It climaxes with a lighter-waving, a capella burst of pure stubbornness more enlightening than thousands of words of Trump-voter tourism:

The way the band comes crashing back in on the word am is the only explainer you’ll ever need.

Isbell is just now wrapping up an extended series of tour dates with the Mountain Goats, the deified alt-rockers led by singer-songwriter John Darnielle. It’s an inspired pairing, even if the two bands don’t quite match up genre-wise — it’s more a matter of sensibility, a level of lyrical detail and empathy that critics sometimes describe as novelistic or literary.

"I’m fairly new to his stuff, but he’s got a strong narrative bent," Darnielle writes me in an email. "When I was a kid, I listened to songs to hear the stories the singers were telling. As I grew, I learned that the music also tells a story, which can comment on or enrich or even refute the story the singer’s telling, and I try to work with that dynamic more and more as I grow. But I think both Jason and I are telling stories to start with, like that’s the diving board."

(Darnielle’s favorite Isbell track, by the way, is "24 Frames": "That song right there is the business.")

The Nashville Sound’s "If We Were Vampires" is also the business. It’s a love song, of sorts — a duet with Shires that describes the intensity of their love as a byproduct of the artificial time limit imposed on it:

To a non-musician, it’s almost offensive how mundane the song’s origins are: Isbell was sitting around watching Hoarders, and Shires politely suggested he get back to work, so he turned off the TV and wrote it. End of anecdote. Even the most sublime songwriting is still a workmanlike task, and getting too precious about it will only throw you off.

"The words of the song and the melody of the song are gonna be the same, whether I’m sitting on top of a mountain with those Buddhist monks who are translating it into Chinese, or while I’m sitting on the toilet," Isbell explains. "It’s gonna be the same song. And I think the point is, if the ball goes in the hole, you win the game of pool. And it doesn’t matter how you get there."

He doesn’t always get there the easy way, but that’s for the best. "I think all those trappings and all those romanticized ideas of writing are things that you learn very, very quickly belong in the world of the amateur," he continues. "Things like inspiration, you know. All that is nonsense. If your job is to write, you write. And if you’re not too good at it, you either quit or you keep doing it till you get good at it."

Jason Isbell was a fantastic songwriter from the start, and he’s perfectly suited to this absurd and combative American moment. What’s heartening about The Nashville Sound is that he also sounds more at peace than he’s ever been.

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