Jason Isbell on The Nashville Sound and Country Music’s Responsibility

Outside the RCA B recording studio on Music Row, there is a monument marker erected by Nashville’s historical commission that tells visitors of producer and guitarist Chet Atkins and the music that was made there.

The studio was established in Nov., 1957 with offices run by Atkins. And in its heyday through the ’60s, Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Dolly Parton, Jim Reeves and many others recorded there, establishing the site as ground zero for the Nashville Sound.

At the time, the Nashville Sound was a new form of popular music that had a middle of the road sound that would preserve the country aesthetic but that would also appeal to a broader audience that knew no experience of rural life.

It was a moment reading that same monument marker when Jason Isbell felt the initial spark of inspiration for the title of his latest album with the 400 Unit.

“I like things that open themselves up to multiple layers of meaning,” Isbell said over the phone during our CMT.com interview while on a break from cutting his yard. “And seeing, ‘Recorded at the home of the Nashville Sound,’ on the backs of all the albums that came out in those days, I thought, ‘That means something different to me now.’ And if it means something different to me, then we might as well say it means something different. So, I’m going to sort of take ownership of that. And try maybe to explain at least to my listeners that there’s a lot more going on here than meets the eye.”

Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Nashville Sound was recorded over two weeks at the larger RCA A studio, which was opened next door in 1964 following Studio B’s success. The 10-song collection’s producer, Dave Cobb, is the current producer in residence at RCA A where he recorded the Southern Family compilation, Chris Stapleton’s Grammy-winning Traveller and Stapleton’s From A Room double album.

“I think that definitely what Dave Cobb is doing at that studio, and before that at Sound Emporium and his house, is definitely reinventing what people see of country music. With Chris’ success, you can’t deny that country music sounds different now than it did a year ago or two years ago or three years ago.

“I’m not really trying to draw a line,” Isbell added. “I’m just seeing the lines that are already there, and trying to say, ‘Hey, everybody. Do you see this, too?’”

Isbell also mentioned other musicians who are contributing to a current reinvention of the Nashville Sound, listing the Black Keys, Paramore and Jack White as just a few of the acts who are active in today’s local music community.

“There’s all kinds of music that’s coming out of Nashville now that doesn’t have anything to do with what’s become traditionally popular country music,” Isbell said. “I like seeing the blend of all these things. I like seeing all the genres merge and move and I like to see people moving in a direction of musical and creative honesty.”

The Nashville Sound offers several moments of sharp honesty delivered in timeless storytelling using everyday language. In his blues on “White Man’s World,” he sings, “There’s no such thing as someone else’s war/Your creature comforts aren’t the only things worth fighting for/Still breathing it’s not too late/We’re all carrying one great burden and sharing one fate.”

In the album opener, “Last of My Kind,” he sings, “Mama says, ‘God won’t give you too much to bear’/It might be true in Arkansas but I’m a long, long way from there/That whole world’s an old and faded picture in my mind/Am I the last of my kind?”

In the lead single, “Hope the High Road,” he sings, “Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know/But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch/I’ll meet you up here on the road.”

Isbell and the 400 Unit are currently on tour through November. They join Willie Nelson’s Outlaw Music Festival for three shows starting July 6 in Rogers, Arkansas.

CMT.com: How did you become efficient with your use of language in your songwriting?

Isbell: It takes a lot of editing. I start out with a lot of words, a lot of melodies and a lot of things moving in a lot of directions and I try to whittle that down until I get to the root of what’s really necessary. To me, the most moving, the most touching, the most insightful and poignant lyrics are the ones that sound like anybody could have said them. Anybody could have said this line in a bar or in the grocery store or in the parking lot somewhere. You don’t have to be dealing with an intellectual to get that kind of insight.

The songs that Merle Haggard wrote, the songs that George Jones sang that he chose to sing or the ones George Strait chose to sing, you hear them and after the fourth or fifth time, you think, “Oh, wow, he said something really cool there.” It took me a minute to realize what it was they were singing about and it just sounds like a normal sentence. That’s really to me what matters.

Country music is about to lose a lot of legends who made the genre what it is. What inspired you to write, “The Last of My Kind?”

Well, “The Last of My Kind” really deals with a part of me that is afraid still of the size of the world. I grew up in a really small rural place in Alabama like a lot of country music fans. I held very tightly to the things that I knew — family, friends and those very intimate connections that you develop with the people in your community. And I was taught that you should be wary of big cities and the bustle of the world outside your door. And to a certain extent, there’s some truth to it but for the most part, that was something that I had to unlearn and I had to overcome when I started traveling through the world.

I realized to make a connection with people, you’re going to have to stop being afraid of them. So that song, “The Last of My Kind,” probably has 10 or 15 percent me in there. And the rest of it built around people that I know and people I’ve grown up around who just don’t feel like they belong in the world because the world is moving too fast for them.

I feel like today’s country radio sometimes neglects huge audiences who follow performers like you and Chris, who truly come from the rural experience. Do you feel like your audience has grown because of a fan demand for more of your style of music?

Yeah, as we get more popular, I see different types of people because when it started out, I was looking at lot of folks who were very in touch with independent music and audiences were a lot bigger in bigger cities where people had independent record stores and they had triple A radio stations and non-commercial radio stations. As things have grown, I see a lot more people who grew up in towns like I grew up in and that’s great because it means a lot to me to not only be writing songs about these folks but also be singing those songs to them on a regular basis.

I’m happy about that. I feel like that could be done on a bigger scale if the people in charge of making radio country music cared something other than the bottom line. But I realized a long time ago, that’s a business — just like selling cheeseburgers is a business. And they’re going to keep going by that formula as long as it works and, thankfully, we’re getting to a point where the formula isn’t working anymore. There’s not enough money behind it. They can’t go and put $500,000 behind every radio single.

But that behavior is actually getting worse for a little while because they’re very conservative with the type of music they put forward and the kind of music they support financially because they know they have to have something stick.

That’s bad behavior because they know that once we get through that, once we get through the period where that big system is really fully collapsed, then we’ll see out of the ashes of that, people like Sturgill Simpson, Brandy Clark and people who are out there touring hard and working hard and building their audience from city to city, I think we’ll have more of a broader use of the airwaves maybe.

Revolutions in music take time.

They do, and they’re bloody. And the thing is right there at the end before things get better, they get so bad at the end.

Talk about “White Man’s World,” and how does raising a daughter make you see the world in a different light?

Through my relationship with [wife Amanda Shires], that process started really moving forward a lot faster. I started realizing a lot of things that I had been ignorant of before and how the world is just not the same place for a woman as it is for a man. The doors aren’t all open. And a lot of things that have always been readily available to me haven’t always been available to my wife because she is a woman.

When you have a daughter, certainly, it lights the fire under you. You try to do whatever you can to change that. And hopefully use the privilege I was born with to take the audience that’s listening for whatever reason, and try to rile them up, too, and try to get them off their asses and maybe we can all attempt to make things a little bit more equal together.

I mean, compared to most people in the world, for all intents and purposes, my daughter will have it pretty easy. But compared to a boy child who grew up in the same circumstances as she has, she’s not going to have it easy at all. So, first of all, it’s all a matter of perspective, but I would like for her to have the same opportunities as a man. That’s for sure.

Do you hope your music inspires your fans to be the generation that when future generations of people remember them, they say, “They don’t make people like that anymore?”

I’m hoping I’m speaking to more than one generation, and I think that’s really the duty of country music. Sometimes I don’t call myself a country singer, because it’s a loaded term these days. But I’m certainly a country person, and I think the real beauty that’s still there with country music is that dads, moms, daughters, sons and grandparents, they can all go to the same shows together and they can all enjoy the same records together.

That’s the big reason why Chris Stapleton is having the success that he’s having is because I can listen to that music. My daughter can listen to it, my dad, my stepmom, my mom, my stepdad, all those people can enjoy that same record.

I hope we’re speaking to more than one particular age group. But I think it’s just compassion really. All I’m trying to do by telling my story and by making up stories with combinations of other people, is just trying to get people to be a little bit more empathetic and a little bit more compassionate through trying to explain myself to myself and to the rest of the world.

We interviewed Amanda for My Piece of Land last summer and one of the last questions I asked was if we’re lucky enough to be a live in 30 years, who you think we’ll be listening to and she said, “Well, of course we’re going to be listening to Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell.” And she said, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Leonard Cohen could live forever?” Are the feelings mutual for you?

Oh, yeah, definitely. I think my wife is not nearly as commercially successful as I am, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that she’s a woman. I really do. We’re not as bad as the movie motion picture industry right now, but all the entertainment business still has a long way to go. But I do think that time will show her work to be a very valuable work. I know I’ll never ever get tired of it. If I’m alive in 40 or 50 years, I’ll be listening to her records still. That’s for sure.

In this line of work, no one retires.

No. We don’t get to retire. We either die or we keep on going.

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.

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