Jason Isbell’s new album The Nashville Sound rethinks that historical phrase and sees the songwriter contemplating the mood of Middle America, post-Trump.
WPLN’s Jason Moon Wilkins sat down with Isbell to discuss how the last election changed the direction of his music and how where he recorded is changing the sound of Nashville.
The Nashville Sound was made in the same studio that used to stamp that phrase on every album recorded there. Now, Jason Isbell says a new wave of artists making records at the old RCA Studio A, is reconfiguring the sound of the city.
Wilkins: (The Nashville Sound) is a loaded title.
Isbell: It is yeah.
Wilkins: So what does that term mean to you?
Isbell: Well, that things are changing. I think anybody who tries to keep up with what’s going on currently in a place like Nashville — it becomes obvious to you that there’s a big shift in what matters as far as the music that’s being made here.
Obviously, we can all tell Chris Stapleton has done to country music whether he wants to admit or not, he sounds different from the other guys. He’s too nice a guy to say and I understand that, but I wanted to make people think about that a little bit too. That the Nashville Sound is different than what everybody expected it to be.
Wilkins: For Isbell, this album doesn’t mark a big musical change but it does see the songwriter stepping outside himself for subjects to sing about more often than past records. He says some of that shift is due to what his life is like now.
Isbell: I can’t be sitting here with a really happy healthy family and a nice house and singing the blues anymore. It’s just not gonna work. I don’t have that inside me anymore. I got it out. The songs did their job. That’s gone. So now my job is to use whatever I have to empathize with people outside and write songs about that and tell those stories. And that’s hard. That’s a hard step to make.
Wilkins: I think you did a particularly good job of that (character stories) in the opening track, “Last Of My Kind.” I wonder if, in some ways, this is a story of one of the folks that people really tried to put a box around before and after the election, that they wanted to label “white working class.” Do you feel like this guy is part of what some of those people were trying to picture?
Isbell: Maybe so. This guy wouldn’t have voted at all though. He would’ve given up on political representation a long time ago. I don’t know enough about people who voted for Trump to try to write their stories. I thought that I knew more about everybody in Middle America than I did. And then after the election happened, and everything before it and after it, I thought ok, I’m starting over with this.
Wilkins: How many of these songs were written before the election?
Isbell: It was probably about half and half. I definitely kicked into high gear after the election. The day after the election, I wrote “White Man’s World.”
But that’s setting. If you’re gonna tell a good story you’ve gotta be honest about the setting and you’ve got to set it up in a way that takes your listener or your reader or your viewer into that particular world. So for me to do that, I had to discuss what the atmosphere was like at that point in time.
Wilkins: I hear some of the characters in the songs, and I think about them, and I think about where we are right now (politically) and I wonder if they’ll hear this? And not just hear it but (really) listen to it.
Isbell: Hear it yeah, with a capital H. Maybe. Maybe not. I think I’m in a unique position. Well, not a unique position but a rare position. Because I do have an audience that’s made up of people from small towns, people from Middle America, Southerners, people who aren’t normally listeners to independent rock and music. They’re not gonna get their mind changed by those types of artists (he mentioned Kendrick Lamar or Mac Demarco) because they’re not going to expose themselves to it. And I have an opportunity to actually get into those people’s living rooms. At least a few of them.
Wilkins: Most artists coming out of Nashville now steer clear of politics outside the occasional, acceptable patriotic tune. But like Johnny Cash and Steve Earle before him, Isbell says keeping quiet about his political feelings is not an option.
Isbell: I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I just kept my mouth shut on things that mattered to me. No matter how many records I sold or how many fans I had or how many people I didn’t piss off, it would never be enough.
Enough for me is feeling like I’ve pushed back or I’ve said my piece or I’ve tried to do the right thing as often as possible. And to me trying to do the right thing is trying to encourage compassion — to get people to think of what it might be like to be somebody else every once in a while.