Jason Isbell Forges His Own 'Nashville Sound'

Jun 15, 2017
Originally published on June 22, 2017 1:47 pm

Jason Isbell may not have his own key to Nashville's beloved RCA Studio A, but he is someone who can head in by the back door, warmly greeted by an engineer. That Isbell seems to have the run of the place isn't surprising: After all, this was where the guitar-slinging singer-songwriter and his band, The 400 Unit, crafted a brand-new album that also pays tribute to this space.

The album's title, The Nashville Sound, refers to the velvety production style made famous in part by legendary guitarist and producer Chet Atkins in the very same studio in the 1960s. All records made during that period carry a proud label: "Recorded in RCA's Nashville Sound studio, Nashville, Tennessee."

"That particular era's gone," Isbell says, "and it still remains that there's gonna have to be something that represents the way music that comes out of Nashville sounds."

Since his last album, Something More Than Free, topped the folk, country and rock charts in 2015, Isbell has reached an undeniable level of visibility. It's made him think about how he represents the Southern music scene he's part of, and the South in general. Growing up in rural Alabama, Isbell didn't leave the region until he was out of high school. Tours with the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers took him to New York City, and the hectic, intimidating pace there made him reluctant to venture out.

The turning point? "When curiosity defeated my fear," he says. "When I wanted to know what was out there more than I was afraid of it killing me, that's when I really made a step in the right direction."

During his time with the Truckers, Isbell also took note of how the band's more experienced songwriters humanized the Southern characters they wrote about. He refined his own approach to portraying blue-collar people like his dad, who Isbell says "gave up on politics years and years ago."

"He's put in decades of work, either making other people money or doing more work than he was getting paid for," Isbell says. "That's really, I think, who I'm talking about, [though] maybe not who I'm always talking to."

An empathetic songwriter, Isbell renders the characters in his lyrics with intimate detail, a practice that acclaimed novelist Walter Kirn appreciates.

"He gives everyone a kind of distinctiveness that doesn't occlude or obscure their individuality," Kirn says. "One of the reasons I feel he's such a necessary artist for these times is that in an age when people are kind of all in their bubbles and their little social media isolation chambers, he — like Walt Whitman did, say — gives us a portrait of ourselves as a collective, piece by piece, person by person."

Isbell sings in the first-person, and there's often a lot of him in his characters. After he and his wife, Amanda Shires (who also plays fiddle in The 400 Unit), had their daughter, and after watching the 2016 presidential election stir up anger and resentment around issues of race, he was moved to make some political statements of his own — like on the songs "White Man's World" and "Hope The High Road."

"Doors are open to me and I'll be damned if I'm not gonna walk through 'em," Isbell says, "but I'm also gonna try to hold 'em for somebody else before they slam in their face."

The very least he can do, Isbell says, is discuss sensitive issues of race and politics with people. And in this, he has an edge: His audience, captivated by his lyricism, is more likely to listen than ever.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Jason Isbell is the subject of this next one. His last album topped the folk, country and rock charts, and a new one comes out tomorrow. Jewly Hight of member station WPLN reports.

JEWLY HIGHT, BYLINE: Jason Isbell may not have his own key to Nashville's legendary RCA Studio A, but he sure seems to have the run of the place.

JASON ISBELL: Hey, Gena.

HIGHT: After he pulls into the parking lot, engineer Gena Johnson meets him at the back door with a friendly wave.

I'm Jewly. Nice to meet you.

GENA JOHNSON: Hey, I'm Gena. Nice to meet you. Come on in.

ISBELL: What's going on in here today?

JOHNSON: Not a whole lot - some mixing later and that's about it.

HIGHT: Guitars, amplifiers and drum kits are stacked along the walls of the massive tracking room. This is where Isbell and his five band members set up and tore through 10 new songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUMBERLAND GAP")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400: (Singing) There's an answer here if I look hard enough. There's a reason why I always reach for the harder stuff. It wasn't my daddy's way. He was down in the mines all day. I know he wanted more than mouths to feed and bills to pay. Maybe the Cumberland Gap just swallows you whole.

HIGHT: The album's title is "The Nashville Sound." It refers to the velvety production style made famous in part by legendary guitarist and producer Chet Atkins in this very studio in the 1960s. Isbell flips through a record rack in the corner that holds some of those albums.

ISBELL: If you look at one of these - let's find one of these records.

HIGHT: He pulls one out and reads what's on the back.

ISBELL: Let's see - yep. It says recorded in RCA's Nashville Sound Studio - Nashville, Tenn. And all the ones that were made in here during the Chet Atkins period all have that. And, you know, that particular era's gone. And it still remains that there's going to have to be something that represents the way music that comes out of Nashville sounds.

HIGHT: Jason Isbell has reached a level of visibility that's made him think about how he represents the Southern music scene he's part of and the South in general. He grew up in rural Alabama and didn't leave the region until he was out of high school. Then, tours with the Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers took him to New York City. And the hectic pace there intimidated him enough that he was reluctant to venture out.

ISBELL: Yeah. When curiosity defeated my fear really, that was the trick. When - yeah, when I wanted to know what was out there more than I was afraid of it killing me, that's when I really made a step in the right direction.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAST OF MY KIND")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400: (Singing) I couldn't be happy in the city at night. You can't see the stars for the neon light. Sidewalk's dirty, and the river is worse. Underground trains all run in reverse. Nobody here can dance like me. Everybody clapping on the one and the three.

HIGHT: During his time with the Truckers, Isbell also took note of how the band's more experienced songwriters humanized the Southern characters they wrote about. And he refined his own approach to portraying blue-collar people like his dad.

ISBELL: He's put in decades of work, you know, either making other people money or doing more work than he was getting paid for. But that's really, I think, who I'm talking about, maybe not who I'm always talking to.

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400: (Singing) Tried to go to college, but I didn't belong. Everything I said was either funny or wrong. Laughed at my boots, laughed at my jeans, laughed when they gave me amphetamines. Left me alone in a bad part of town, 36 hours to come back down. Am I the last of my kind? Am I the last of my kind?

HIGHT: The intimate details in Isbell's songwriting have attracted such literary types as acclaimed novelist Walter Kirn.

WALTER KIRN: He gives everyone a kind of distinctiveness. And his intimacy and naturalness with the settings and the regional qualities communicates instantly with people who've never been to them. And one of the reasons I feel he's such a necessary artist for these times is that, in an age where people are kind of all in their bubbles and their little social media isolation chambers and so on, he, like Walt Whitman did say, gives us a portrait of ourselves as a collective, piece by piece, person by person.

HIGHT: Isbell sings his songs in the first person, and there's often a lot of him in the characters. He's made albums influenced by sobering up and settling down. After he and his wife had their daughter and watching election stir up racial resentments, he's put his first-ever protest songs on an album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE MAN'S WORLD")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400: (Singing) I'm a white man living in a white man's world. Under our roof is a baby girl. I thought this world could be hers one day, but her mama knew better.

ISBELL: Doors are open to me, and I'll be damned if I'm not going to walk through them. But I'm also going to try to hold them for somebody else before they slam in their face. And at the very least - at the very least - discuss it, you know. Discuss it with people.

HIGHT: And an audience that swears by Isbell's lyrics is likely to listen. For NPR News, I'm Jewly Hight in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE THE HIGH ROAD")

JASON ISBELL AND THE 400: (Singing) I know you're tired, and you ain't sleeping well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.