Jason Isbell, Self-Doubt and the Album That Tested His Marriage
Jason Isbell, Self-Doubt and the Album That Tested His Marriage
A couple of weeks into coronavirus-compelled self-quarantine at his home on a rolling patch of land 30 minutes south of Nashville, Jason Isbell did something he hadn’t done in more than eight years.
That morning, he’d been arguing with his wife, the singer-songwriter Amanda Shires, and dealing with their 4-year-old daughter’s tantrum over not wanting to wash her hands again. Isbell was walking through his bathroom, the day’s petty frustrations spinning around his head, when he decided to rinse his mouth out. Isbell is a recovering alcoholic but hadn’t sworn off Listerine, despite its nearly 27 percent alcohol content. This time though, instead of swishing the mouthwash around and spitting it into the sink, he swallowed it like a shot of Jack Daniel’s.
“It wasn’t a conscious choice,” he said a few days later, during a FaceTime call from his home. “I just drank it without realizing what I was doing.” He quickly called Shires, who was in the barn that sits on their property about 100 yards from their house.
“I was concerned but not enough to be like, ‘Call somebody,’” Shires explained via a separate FaceTime call from the barn. “I said, “If today’s going to be the day, let’s find you a real nice bottle because I’m not going to let you just have Listerine.”
As it happened, there was no nice bottle procured, and no jitters for another swallow. “But for 20 minutes, I was a little drunk,” said Isbell. “It’s been a long time since I felt like that. I thought, ‘Might as well enjoy it. Probably the last buzz I’ll ever have.’”
Sobriety is an integral part of the 41-year-old Isbell’s career narrative. Back when he was drinking, he recorded three albums with the southern rock progressives the Drive-By Truckers, and three solo albums of alternately tender and raucous country-inflected rock. The first album he made after getting sober, “Southeastern” from 2013 — a raw chronicle of his boozy rock-bottom and fragile redemption — was his critical and commercial breakthrough. But the long shadow of his addictions has continued to haunt his music since.
His new album, “Reunions,” due May 15, includes “It Gets Easier,” a howling barroom stomp about the ongoing challenges of staying sober. “Maybe It’s Time,” a bleary-eyed ballad that Isbell wrote and the actor Bradley Cooper sang in the hit remake of “A Star Is Born,” lends depth to Cooper’s portrayal of a drug-addled singer-songwriter. Even as his writing has increasingly focused less on his own trials and tribulations and more on those of the world around him, Isbell’s years of hard-living have added a gravitas to his music that hasn’t gone unnoticed. His 2015 album, “Something More Than Free,” and his 2017 release “The Nashville Sound” each debuted at the top of the Billboard rock and country charts, and collected four Grammys between them.
“Jason has become one of the best writers in the country,” said David Crosby, who sings harmonies on “What’ve I Done to Help?” the opening track on “Reunions.” “And my idea of really good writers is Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan. His singing is emotional. It’s honest. He’s really trying to tell you the story.”
Isbell’s sobriety has come hand-in-hand with a more settled domestic life. He and Shires married in 2013. The couple share a creative partnership that works alongside their romantic one: Shires plays fiddle and sings backup in Isbell’s band, the 400 Unit, and Isbell plays guitar for Shires’s roots-rock supergroup, the Highwomen. They each serve as a first listener and editor on the other’s songs, and work deliberately to balance their separate career ambitions with their desires to spend time with their daughter. They’ve become the progressive ideal for successful, creative couples. From the outside looking in, Isbell looks very much like a man who has it all: sobriety, a beautiful family, the widespread respect of his peers, a thriving career doing exactly what he wants. And that’s a problem.
When Isbell first played “Reunions” songs for his wife, she could tell something was wrong. “We sat down on this fake grass right here,” Shires said, pointing her FaceTime screen toward the green artificial turf lining their barn’s floor. “He was already upset, angry and grumpy. I was like, ‘Why am I sitting here in this cloud of weird while you’re so unhappy about playing your songs?’” Shires had seen her husband go through the album-making process multiple times, but he’d never been like this. As she began offering feedback, he bristled.
“I was resistant to input in a way I haven’t been for the last few albums,” Isbell admitted.
Isbell, who grew up in the small town of Green Hill, Ala., is hyper-articulate and projects an air of infinite confidence, but is hardly an open book with his emotions. “A lot of times he’s curt and on-guard,” said Shires. “But I wasn’t used to him doing that with me.”
It took Isbell time to diagnose the problem, and even as we spoke in early April, he didn’t sound particularly certain of it. “For some reason, I felt really pressured,” he said. In part, the pressure was to make an album that lived up to the reputations of his previous three, but it went beyond that too. Isbell’s public image had become an albatross.
“You think, ‘If I make a record that’s not great, everybody’s going to dismiss me entirely. If I [expletive] up my relationship, everybody’s going to be so shocked that they’ll write me off completely.’ All those things, when you say them out loud sound ridiculous, but they stay in there and gnaw at you.”
At the time, Isbell refused to acknowledge these anxieties. “I got that male Southern attitude that still finds ways to sneak in where you have to pretend you’re in control when you’re not,” he said. He pushed everyone away — including his wife.
“He was impossible,” Shires said. “It was like he wanted help but didn’t want help.” Tension between the two simmered. At one point, recording at the legendary RCA Studio A in Nashville with his longtime producer, Dave Cobb, Isbell complained that Shires’s fiddle was too loud. “I was like, ‘Holy Christ! It’s acoustic. I can’t make it any quieter,’” she said.
The situation escalated, and Shires felt belittled. “I want him to make the best art he can but not at the expense of making me feel less,” she said. She decided to move into a hotel. “I needed space because lines were getting crossed,” she said.
Isbell recognized his marriage was in trouble but remained single-mindedly focused on the album. After 10 days at Nashville’s Thompson Hotel, Shires returned home, but hostilities lingered. “At one point, I said, ‘It’d be easier if somebody had cheated,’” said Isbell. “Then we could say, ‘You did this,’ or ‘I did this, and ‘Somebody needs to be real sorry.’ But it was more like, ‘We don’t know each other right now. We’re not able to speak the same language.’”
These weren’t splashy tabloid problems, they were the kinds of nebulous frustrations and quiet indignities that chip away at many marriages. “I just had faith that eventually he’d come to the realization that as good of a father and a person as he is, even not drinking, you can still inflict harm onto people,” said Shires. As Isbell acknowledged, “It took a couple months until I wrapped my head all the way around it.”
“Reunions” is not filled with songs about a marriage in crisis. In fact, one of the few new songs that clearly grew from the couple’s relationship is the warm, spare, acoustic “St. Peter’s Autograph,” which Isbell wrote about supporting Shires as she grieved the loss of her close friend, the singer-songwriter Neal Casal, who took his own life in August. “I was trying to say, ‘It’s all right to grieve the parts of your relationship you might think I’d be upset or jealous about,’” Isbell explained.
The song’s autobiographical roots have become more the exception than the rule for Isbell. Although he’s certainly written his share of confessional tracks over the years, he feels he’s graduated from needing to do that all the time. “There is a constant progression for me to try to take my own experience out of the work,” he said. “It’s what separates pros from beginners. Can you write about something other than yourself and not be vague, broad and clichéd?”
Isbell certainly can. Going back to his Drive-By Truckers days, he could write about murderous family rivalries (“Decoration Day”) and New Deal government assistance programs (“T.V.A.”) with an empathy and attention to detail that felt lived-in. But Isbell’s creative struggles and marital drama do cast some new songs in a different light.
“Overseas,” a wiry rocker about a couple separated by an ocean and the politics that make crossing that ocean impossible, feels like an allegory for any couple struggling to bridge the unbridgeable, with Isbell’s cries of “Our love won’t change/Our love won’t change/Our love won’t change a thing,” conveying both the undying faith and unbearable helplessness of navigating such a divide. The explosive “Be Afraid,” which is written in an accusatory second-person sneer, is, on one level, a straightforward indictment of political apathy among his musical peers and the country at large. But lines like “See every one of us is counting dice we didn’t roll/And the loser is the last one to ask for help,” could easily be pointing back at himself.
Sonically, Isbell wanted “Reunions” to be “more produced,” than its predecessors, with a sound reminiscent of bands he heard on ’80s rock radio growing up like Dire Straits, Crowded House and Squeeze. Cobb, who has produced Isbell’s last four albums, said the goal was for “it to sound bigger and slightly more polished. We used a lot of modern techniques that we’ve never touched before — crazy panning and stereo depth stuff.” Ultimately though, the changes are less a wholesale makeover than just some significant tweaks. As Cobb put it, “It’s Jason.”
After all the strife the album caused, it’d be understandable if Shires never wanted to hear it again, but that’s not the case. “It’s the worst recording experience I’ve ever been a part of, but it’s my favorite record he’s made,” she said. “I’d like to say we’re stronger because of it, but we’re not. We just know that our strength is more than we thought.”
Isbell doesn’t think the album was affected by the turmoil he underwent making it but allowed for the possibility he could be wrong. “Maybe you can hear it,” he said. “Maybe the record is better for it. I don’t know. I try not to ask that question because I don’t want to get in a pattern of [expletive] my life up to make better records.”
For the first month of their self-quarantine, Shires livestreamed a mini-concert daily from their barn. Nearly every day, Isbell was there beside her, playing guitar, making bad jokes, and chipping in his own songs. Domestic bliss seemed restored. But what was the price of that bliss — or at least a shot at it?
Isbell may not want to screw up his life just to make better records but would he be willing to make worse ones if it meant a happier home? He’d take that deal for his daughter, he explained, but not his wife: “She’s an adult. She can handle it.” She fell in love with him not just knowing his artistic ambitions, but because of them. “My wife wants me to do my best work,” he continued. “My job is to figure out how to do that and still be the best person I can be. Anything less is not what she wants.”