Wright Thompson, the Emmy Award–winning senior sportswriter at ESPN, was on the other end of the phone trying to remember one of the last times he saw Jason Isbell live. As memory served, it was at one of the Alabama songwriter’s headlining gigs a few years back at the Beacon Theatre in New York City. “There was a group of us,” he said. “Actually, everyone was a sportswriter.”
That night, Thompson was flanked by some of the premier athletic chroniclers in the country, all crammed together hoping to enjoy Isbell’s blend of literary lyricism and kick-ass guitar wizardry. “It was me, Seth Wickersham, Kevin Van Valkenburg, Tom Junod …”
But then Thompson’s voice trailed off. The line went silent.
“Actually, no, that was a different group of sportswriters,” he suddenly realized. The gig he was actually trying to recall went down at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado a few years later. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “Your theory is very good, I’m now noticing.”
The theory is this: Sportswriters as a collective really, really love Jason Isbell.
The former Drive-By Trucker—and subject of the new HBO documentary Running With Our Eyes Closed, out Friday and produced by Ringer Films—might have the highest Q rating in the entire sports media landscape. While the debate rages eternal about Jordan vs. LeBron, Red Sox vs. Yankees, and what the hell is a catch in the NFL, when the topic shifts to Southern songwriters, most tend to agree: Isbell rocks.
Over the past decade, more and more of America’s finest athletic scribes have routinely hailed the Americana star as a paragon of … something? Perhaps calling him a “God” to sportswriters is overstating it, but he’s seemingly pulled off the impossible and supplanted a certain New Jersey septuagenarian as the musical Alpha and Omega for that particular group of people who love to consume and create content around sports. (Including some presently and previously at The Ringer.)
Things sports writers like, ranked:— Ben Baby (@Ben_Baby) June 22, 2017
1. Marriott points
2. Jason Isbell
4. Making bad jokes on Twitter
So, apparently Jason Isbell just dedicated a song during his set at Voodoo to Grantland.— Robert Mays (@robertmays) October 31, 2015
At Isbell concert in January I got sorta emotional during "If We Were Vampires," and I thought "I hope no one sees this." In the middle of the song the FIRE ALARM goes off, lights come on and I'm horrified and I look over at @jga41agher and he's going through the same exact thing— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) April 23, 2020
Getting grammar-policed by Jason Isbell over a stacked compound modifier in a tweet linking to a story about baseball players using boner pills really may represent the apex of my career. Long live gas-station romance.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) August 22, 2019
Is it the multiple Grammy Award–winning solo albums? Is it the song “If We Were Vampires,” which inspires instant, involuntary weeping? Maybe it’s his work writing music for Bradley Cooper on the film A Star Is Born? Or the cameo he made in the Deadwood film in 2019? Perhaps it’s because of the time he accidentally kicked off the whole “30-50 feral hogs” insanity on Twitter.
“It’s hard to tell if he’s actually more popular among sportswriters relative to other professions or if the echo chamber of those who post about him makes it seem that way,” said ESPN investigative writer and book author Seth Wickersham. Even if the sample size online is skewed, one thing remains undeniable: “It’s clear that a lot of my friends are fans of his.”
Thompson, who narrated the trailer for Isbell’s upcoming album Weathervanes, has a relatively easy explanation for Isbell’s sports-loving constituency. “I think it’s the same reason so many sportswriters like the E Street Band,” he said. “Smart words and loud guitars.”
I know a lot of people hate the fact that Springsteen said “speedball” instead of “fastball” in Glory Days but I think it’s perfect for the character- happy opening day— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) March 30, 2023
OK, but lots of people write smart words and play the guitar loud. There’s not a loud SEC-covering contingent online boosting the likes of Yves Tumor or Big Thief on their feeds. So, why Isbell? There has to be a deeper and more meaningful reason behind this phenomenon. And after talking to a few sportswriters and experts, I think I’ve come up with a few …
He’s a Fan of the Game
First and foremost, Isbell is a sports fan. There’s an element of game recognizing game at play here. He knows the score and can speak the language. Like the rest of us, Isbell expresses his agony and ecstasy with sports across social media. Baseball, for the most part. The Atlanta Braves extremely specifically.
And Braves/Dodgers are playing my favorite kind of baseball- strategic, passionate, respectful. Out there laughing with each other and apologizing for shit. It’s beautiful humanity and much needed right now.— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) October 17, 2020
“The Braves meant a great deal to a lot of kids growing up in the South,” said Kevin Van Valkenburg. “It was just on TBS and that was kind of your team, whether you were in Alabama or Atlanta or wherever.”
Van Valkenburg is the editorial director of No Laying Up and a veteran of ESPN. His recent nuptials were the impetus for that second sportswriter super-gathering at Isbell’s Red Rocks concert in 2021 that Thompson referenced. Van Valkenburg has a tattoo across his left arm with a line taken from Isbell’s song “Cover Me Up”: “river runs through.”
It’s much easier to relate to someone when you can understand what in the hell they’re talking about. It makes all the sense in the world that sportswriters would naturally gravitate toward an artist who writes in metaphors that swallow easy. It’s the same reason “Glory Days” and “Centerfield” have endured for so very, very long.
Sir I speak to sportswriters of all ages, thank you— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) March 27, 2019
A line from the Southeastern cut “Relatively Easy” stands out to Van Valkenburg:
“Remember him when he was still a proud man / A vandal’s smile, a baseball in his right hand / Nothing but the blue sky in his eye.”
Close your eyes, and you can almost smell the grape-flavored Big League Chew and fresh-cut grass.
Wickersham is even more effusive about a lyric from “Speed Trap Town,” off Isbell’s 2015’s record Something More Than Free. He cites a specific stanza from the song’s second verse as “the greatest-ever single sports lyric in rock.”
From the diamond to the gridiron:
Well, it’s a Thursday night but there’s a high school game
Sneak a bottle up the bleachers and forget my name
These 5A bastards run a shallow cross
It’s a boy’s last dream and a man’s first loss
“I love all these little winks at sporting elements that are universal,” Van Valkenburg said. “It’s not like he’s writing about professional sports. He’s writing about the things that made us want to be storytellers. He uses sports to tell other kinds of stories.”
Jason Isbell is the best lyric writer of my generation. He lives at a level where even great writers can only visit.— John Mayer (@JohnMayer) July 31, 2015
Writers can typically spot good writing when they see it. And more importantly, they know the talent and effort it requires to create it. “There’s a beauty and romance and spirit in the striving that’s inspiring. It reminds you of why you do what you do,” Wickersham said. “Sports might be a zero-sum game, but writing isn’t, and your competition is yourself.”
Thompson is more matter-of-fact. “I just thank God that Jason can play the guitar and didn’t decide to be a sportswriter, because we’d all be out of jobs,” he said. “He’s a legitimate sports fan. I think he needs to have a baseball podcast.”
The Duality of the Southern Thing
Stephen Deusner is not a sportswriter. He is the author of the book Where the Devil Don’t Stay: Traveling the South With the Drive-By Truckers. It’s a book-length profile of Isbell’s onetime band Drive-By Truckers, who first left their mark in September 2001 with the release of their third album, the magnus opus Southern Rock Opera. Isbell entered the lineup shortly afterward on guitar.
“He learned a lot from them about how to write a story song, how to put yourself into a song in a way that maybe doesn’t follow all the sort of confessional singer-songwriter conventions,” Deusner said. “I think he really picked up a lot from them about how to write about the South, and how to position yourself as somebody who loves the place, and yet finds so much about it that’s ugly. He even told me it was Patterson [Hood] and [Mike] Cooley that showed him it was possible to be bitter about where you came from and still love the place.”
Sense of place. Sense of history. Loving something while resenting it at the very same time. Victory. Defeat. Character. Themes that shine through in Isbell’s writing. Themes that also shine through when tabulating the score.
Isbell’s lived experience growing up in and around the South shaped his worldview. You can see that in the topics that he speaks and sings about, and what gigs he will and won’t play. What do you stand for? What do you stand against? That matters to people like Thompson.
“I think he is the North Star of how to be a creative Southerner, because he just always seems to put his own ethics and understanding about the change that needs to happen in the place above the Jason Isbell business,” he said. “I mean, he wouldn’t do some of the Masters voice-overs that I do. You know what I mean?”
At a time when so many public figures appear all too eager to sacrifice their ethics for the sake of profit or fame, Isbell has continued to call balls and strikes however he sees them on a diverse array of third rails. Guns. Racism. Women’s equality. He remains an unapologetic product of where he’s from, and his criticisms come from a place of wanting to make it better for everyone. Even if that means tangling with his home-state U.S. senator from time to time.
That matters to people. Putting your money where your mouth is? That matters a whole helluva lot more.
“I mean, he just played that big trans rights concert that Allison Russell put on [in March],” Deusner said. “To have somebody chronicle some of that and say, ‘This is fucked up,’ in the way that he has, I mean, I think he’s very careful about that, and he’s doing it in a way that is very approachable.”
Kevin Van Valkenburg frames the question as one between Isbell and Bruce Springsteen. You can draw easy similarities between the two—we have already—but there are major differences. Financial ambition is probably the biggest, and all of the mental and emotional baggage that entails.
“Seth [Wickersham] and I always have a sort of running debate about: Does Jason want to be like Springsteen?” he said. “I’m like, I don’t think he wants that. I think he likes being able to speak out about the things that matter. And I think he feels like he would be driven insane if he was having to please 60, 70,000 people in a football stadium.”
Truth comes at a price. Let’s just say if you framed the ongoing Ticketmaster debate between the inclinations of Cure frontman Robert Smith (a vocal opponent of the company’s price-gouging practices) and the Boss (someone who’s not that at all) Isbell would almost certainly come out on the side of the mascara-clad legend.
Robert Smith should always be included in the greatest living songwriter convo, and he truly seems like a fine individual. Let us celebrate him even though he doesn’t want us to https://t.co/7NNUMKo3qu— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) April 4, 2023
The 400 Unit
Much like Springsteen before him, when Isbell hits the road, he’s often accompanied with a mighty outfit of ace musicians. Taken together, their collective bond trumps the individual parts. The Boss has his E Street Band. Isbell has the 400 Unit.
Sadler Vaden on guitar. Jimbo Hart on bass. Derry deBorja on the keys. And Chad Gamble on drums.
The group’s name is derived from a nickname for the psychiatric ward of the now-shuttered Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital, in Florence, Alabama. The 400 Unit have appeared on pretty much all of Isbell’s records and remain important pillars of his musical and nonmusical identity.
“He really puts an emphasis on them and on their interactions together and on their sort of camaraderie in a way that Springsteen did,” Deusner said. “He’s been playing with some of them for a long time, and I think they kind of ground him in a way. I think they kind of maybe help reel him in a little bit and make him a little bit self-aware that he’s got people to answer to right there on the stage with him. But I think also they kind of anchor him to Alabama.”
In other words, it’s just a bunch of dudes being bros up there onstage, having a good time and ripping through some tunes. The appeal of adult male camaraderie can’t be overstated. Especially at a time when statistics show that men increasingly struggle to maintain friendships into adulthood. What better time to hang with your buds than a hangout with a band full of buds hanging out?
That actually brings up another essential element of Isbell’s appeal to a large portion of the sportswriter community. He’s white. And he’s a guy.
“I look around at my coworkers, and thank goodness this is blessedly changing, but ‘middle-aged white guy’ defines ‘sportswriter’ pretty well if you’re doing a Venn diagram,” Thompson said. “I mean, I’m a 46-year-old white guy. I want three guitars in the band I’m watching.”
And Isbell on sportswriters, lol pic.twitter.com/6YHUYoZF7U— Zach Baron (@zachbaron) April 23, 2020
To get a real sense of Isbell and the 400 Unit, the live experience is mandatory. Even more so if the band is accompanied for the evening by Isbell’s wife, songwriting phenom and fiddle prodigy Amanda Shires. The character of the performances changes every night, along with the set list.
“I’ll go to multiple shows on a tour and yeah, it’s different,” Thompson said. “They’re different every night and it feels like they’re having a human experience, which makes you feel like you’re having a human experience.”
Like the Grateful Dead, Springsteen, and Pearl Jam before him, Isbell is the kind of artist you can catch along multiple stops on tour and get a different hit each time. Isbell’s even recently modeled the behavior of some of those artists by releasing official bootlegs on the music hosting site nugs.net.
The sportswriter crew happened to be sitting in the same aisle with Isbell’s dad that night and were firsthand witnesses to something transcendent. “To watch him sing ‘Outfit’ is one of the most emotional things I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” Thompson remembered.
“We were just looking at each other and laughing,” Van Valkenburg added. “How surreal is this? He’s a guy who inspired Jason to write this song and the line ‘Don’t worry about losing your accent, a Southern man tells better jokes,’ and he is right over there singing those lyrics back to his son. We were like, God, this is really cool shit.”
That’s the kind of connection you might get at a Jason Isbell show.
He’s a Funny Dude
There’s no real big point to make here. The dude is hilarious. People like to laugh. Sportswriters are people. Simple as that.
Didn’t realize until I just heard the airport announcement that Australia is completely free of hand foot & mouth disease. We bout to raise some hell— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) April 2, 2023
Writing this down https://t.co/LZwO68SEfe— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) February 21, 2023
Yesterday morning the gym had three people in it: me, BeBe Winans, and Eddie Vedder. BeBe is strong. Ed is flexible. I have the shortest gym shorts.— Jason Isbell (@JasonIsbell) December 5, 2022
He’s Flawed, So You Can Be Too
There’s nothing more relatable than a person willing to be open about their flaws. Isbell has practically built his entire career around that fact. He ain’t perfect, and he’ll be the first to tell you. In song, and otherwise.
“I was there that night in the Ryman [in Nashville], and when he said, ‘And I sobered up and swore off that stuff forever this time,’” Wright remembered. “The crowd cheering was so loud and so extended that they couldn’t keep going. I’ve never seen that. They literally had to play through it all and come back to it. It’s the most emotional thing I’ve ever seen in a live show. I think a lot of fans feel invested in him. I just think he’s a nice, really talented guy and I think people feel invested in his story in a way. I mean, the reaction of that crowd in the Ryman that night … it didn’t feel like strangers watching a stranger.”
When you hear a Jason Isbell song, there’s usually just enough empathy to identify with one of the characters he’s created. The mournful Andy, watching his friend succumb to cancer on “Elephant.” The lovers pining for immortality on “We Were Vampires.” The person trying to put the shards of their life together after God threw them a pipe bomb in “24 Frames.”
But there’s more to it than that. It’s the guy himself too. Like it or not, Isbell has become a role model to a certain type of middle-aged dude just trying to make the best choices possible in this life. And if he also happens to be one of the best songwriters and performers of his generation … well, I suppose that helps too.
“He is one of the few rock stars who truly tries to be a present dad and a supportive spouse—an equal partner—at the expense of his own career sometimes,” Wickersham said. “Something that transcends most of his music is the gift of a second chance and the idea that you can do your best work in your 30s and 40s. That in music and sports—two arenas that value youth over experience—you can peak later in life. Or maybe never peak. He’s not just ‘lucky to have the work.’ He is the work.”
Even though they work in different mediums, Wickersham identifies with the struggle Isbell forces himself into. “The blank page is a great equalizer, whether it’s a song book or a screen in a press box,” he said. “How we fill it—that day, over the course of a year, or a career—is who you are and what you’ve got.”
Corbin Reiff is a music writer based in Seattle. His latest book, Total F*cking Godhead: The Biography of Chris Cornell, was released in July 2020. Running With Our Eyes Closed debuts Friday on HBO and HBO Max as part of Ringer Films’ Music Box documentary series.