The Song's the Thing for Singer-Songwriter Jason Isbell


1 comment
  • Alleyesmedia/David McLister
Hearing singer-songwriter Jason Isbell tell the story, it’s pretty clear he was destined for a career in music from a very early age.

“There was always music around. My parents didn’t play instruments, but they always listened to a lot of music,” he remembers during a phone conversation in advance of his upcoming show in Akron.

“My mom listened to a lot of songwriters, and my dad really liked ‘70s rock, arena rock and old country music,” he says. “My grandparents played music in church and all of their brothers and sisters played and my aunts and uncles all played and sang, so it was around for me from the start. I think probably around eight or nine years old, I started thinking that there were people who made a living at it. You know, before that, I kind of thought everybody had that same kind of experience. Once I got in school and realized that not everybody was musical, that was a bit of a shock to me. But yeah, I never really wanted to do anything else. I never wanted to be a fireman or an astronaut or anything like that. I just always wanted to play the guitar and sing.”

It’s an interesting story as far as how that guitar made it into young Isbell’s hands for the first time. His grandparents and uncle would show him some of the initial ropes, but Isbell suspects it’s possible that they might have had some ulterior motives.

“I think maybe it was kind of a form of childcare as much as anything else, because when I was little, I would stay with my grandparents most of the time,” he says. “My granddad would teach me how to play different instruments, and [it was] probably as much to keep me occupied and keep me from breaking anything as anything else.”

It all paid off for Isbell, who logged a number of miles as a member of the Drive-By Truckers before eventually going solo in 2007. Battling addiction issues, Isbell would later pull it all together to release the well-received solo album Southeastern, his fourth, in June of 2013. Barely two years later, he was back with his latest album, Something More Than Free, which nabbed two Grammy Awards for the 37-year-old Alabama native earlier this year.

“I just went in with a set of songs, and I wanted to serve the songs. I didn’t have too many preconceived notions, because you know, Dave Cobb was producing this record again. So I wanted to let him do his job,” he says. “I essentially just came in with a set of songs that I’d already written and we went from there. I like doing it that way. Some people write when they’re in the studio and I write maybe one or two songs while we’re in the process of recording. But for the most part, I like to show up with my homework done because that takes the pressure off. I can just enjoy my time in the studio.”

He’s happy for the recognition and the awards, but it’s not something he thinks about when he’s in the midst of the creative process.

“As far as how the record’s been received, you can’t ever really plan on that. It’s not something that you can count on when you’re in the studio recording,” he says. “Not if you’re making the kind of music that I make. I try not to target anything and I try not to aim at any certain audience or anything like that. I just follow the songs and the songs are really just documents as much as anything else. You know, I’m very happy with the way the record’s been received, that’s for sure. It’s made it a lot easier for us to travel and go out and play the songs for folks. You know, it feels good to think that you’re not alone in the world, that the things that are on your mind are also on the minds of at least a couple hundred thousand other people.”

Lately, Isbell has been performing Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home” in tribute to the legendary country artist, who passed away in April.

“There’s nothing wrong about that song, you know? I mean, every word in it is perfect,” Isbell says. “It’s emotional without being maudlin and there’s something that really rings true there, whether you know that Merle’s been in prison or not. There’s definitely an authenticity in that song and I think it’s something that everybody can relate to, just because everybody has that feeling of wanting to go back to their childhood and whether you’re in the worst possible spot you could be in or not, that’s still something that I think everybody longs for.”

He refers to Haggard as “probably the best country songwriter there ever was.”

“I think George [Jones] was probably the [better] singer and you know, Willie [Nelson] and Merle really struck me as the best country songwriters,” he says. “Willie had a lot of high points and he was really good at writing songs that translated to people, but Merle, there was something really, really smart about those songs and something really genius, I think, about the way he continued to represent working people even after he was a very successful person himself.”

Isbell was scheduled to play a couple of co-headlining shows in Georgia with Haggard earlier this month that were cancelled after his death. Unfortunately, he never had the chance to get to know the country legend, but he has plenty of good memories.

“I’d been around him a couple of times and we played some festival dates. The last time I saw him was at Willie’s Picnic last 4th of July. You know, he was great. He was definitely, you could tell in his performance that he had gotten older and he was a little bit short of breath, but he still gave everything he had. It was a really great show. Every time I’ve seen him, it’s been a really great show. I think that’s probably a testament to how good his songs are. You know, as long as you can get up and play, if you’ve got songs that are that good, you can entertain people.”

In the days and months that are ahead, Isbell is looking forward to the chance to continue to entertain the people who enjoy his own music — and he’s got new songs on the horizon.

“We’ve got quite a bit of touring. I’m hoping I can get back in the studio by the end of the year. I’ve got a few songs that I’ve been working on, so hopefully I’ll be in a place where I can record another record by year’s end.”

Jason Isbell, Hiss Golden Messenger, 8 p.m. Saturday, June 4, Goodyear Theater, 1201 East Market Street, Akron. Tickets: $30-$45,

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Cleveland Scene. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Cleveland Scene, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Cleveland Scene Press Club for as little as $5 a month.