How Jason Isbell Keeps Hope Burning in a World of Despair
White vapor curls out of Jason Isbell’s mouth and plays in the bristles of his mustache. He’s humming away at an e-cigarette in front of a lineup of home amplifiers that he happily calls “disgusting.” A 1961 Vox AC-15. One of the first 10 Marshall Bluesbreakers ever crafted by Jim Marshall himself. “If people saw this, they would lose their mind,” he says, more to himself than me.
This gear has deep connections to the beginning of rock music, with enough decades of history between them to fill out an exhibit in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Someday, they might do just that. Isbell is on the kind of torrid run that would have fans talking about Cleveland in the same tones that others might mention heaven.
From his early days as Drive-By Truckers' hard-charging prodigy through a solo career; the formation of his electrifying band the 400 Unit; the creation of his own label, Southeastern; and now, with Weathervanes, eight original albums to his name, Jason Isbell has built his audience one fan at a time, lick by searing guitar lick.
In the process, he’s also turned his personal life into a private sanctuary. More precious than all that gear, he has a ferociously talented partner and wife in Amanda Shires; a beloved daughter; and despite an antagonistic relationship with country radio, Isbell’s trophy case continues filling up. He’s also banished many a personal demon, something well-documented in his songs. These days, it’s our communal demons that won’t let him be.
“There's not a whole awful lot of positives out there,” he tells me over Zoom. “We have the same problems that we had 10 years ago, and I think that's a really bad sign. The severity of those problems has changed, but most of them have gotten more dire.”
He dives into many of these issues on Weathervanes, though he writes about characters first. All the public tragedies – the school shootings (“Save the World”), the insidious racism (“Cast Iron Skillet”), the medical establishments that profit off addiction (“King of Oklahoma”) – are inflection points in his characters’ journeys. As they are in his own life. “I feel like I'm constantly pushing against a brick wall,” he says. “And I think a lot of people feel that way.”
When he’s recalling a memory or geeking out about gear, he tends to look just past the camera, as if conjuring the stories out of the air. But when the conversation turns to our cloudy present, he locks on the phone, eyes drilling into mine.
His previous album, 2020’s Reunions, glowed with a quiet optimism. Even the self-indictment of the opening track, “What Have I Done to Help?”, was rooted in the idea that help is possible, growth is possible. That’s gone from Weathervanes. Now, the narrators don’t seem to expect things to get better.
In a separate call, Shires says, “It sounds tougher to me than it does pessimistic.” It’s certainly tougher on its characters, from the scorching “Death Wish,” through the sunshine guitars and nightmare lyrics of “Middle of the Morning,” and the mournful recollections of “White Beretta.” Even the sweetest song on the album, “Strawberry Woman,” ends seeing the title character “with your back to me.” Where did this come from? What changed for Isbell?
“That hope,” he replies. “I feel guilty for feeling the way I have. I'm ashamed of the loss of hope.”
“Because I'm supposed to keep hope,” he continues. “I'm supposed to stay hopeful. And that's changing for me. The next phase after losing hope is not caring anymore. And I don't want to get there.”
As he says this, he sounds far from hopeless. His eyes burn bright. “I think I would rather die than get there.”
''THE NEXT PHASE AFTER LOSING HOPE IS NOT CARING ANYMORE.
AND I DON'T WANT TO GET THERE.''
Isbell discovered politics as a high school student while “pushing buggies” at the Walmart Supercenter in Florence, Alabama. At the time, it was the largest Walmart in the world, with a parking lot so vast that today it’s visible from satellite layers of Google Maps. In 1996, on a particularly dark Black Friday, he watched grown men and women lose their minds over Tickle Me Elmo dolls. “Women fighting, knocking each other out of the way,” he recalls. “It was a war in there.”
But mostly, he remembers the scorching hot blacktop and endless rows of cars. In part because of his thick northern Alabama accent, his managers assumed he wasn’t smart enough for the cash register. “I'm not really, really dumb,” he remembers pleading. “And still, they put me out there with an orange vest in the parking lot.”
One day, a man named Wayne Parker set up shop in that same lot and tried to befriend everyone who entered it. Two years prior, Parker had lost the race for Alabama’s 5th Congressional District by less than 1% of the vote, and in 1996 he tried again. Part of his effort included Isbell and his coworker, Tim.
“We went up and started asking him a bunch of questions,” Isbell recalls. “Eventually I got sort of politically motivated. This was like the Young Republican Party in Alabama.”
Ever a person of conviction, Isbell put his own resources towards the cause. “I saved up my money from working at Walmart and I paid to go to this dinner that he was hosting to raise funds for his campaign,” he says. “Newt Gingrich was the featured speaker. Me and my friend were 16, 17 years old, and we went, and the dinner was bad. And what Newt Gingrich said did not make a whole lot of sense. And I realized that I had been conned out of $250 that had taken me a couple of weeks to earn pushing buggies at Walmart. That was the end of my affiliation with the Republican Party in Alabama.”
As for Parker, he lost the Congressional race in 1996, and was defeated a third time in 2008. Losing so many times, Isbell remarks dryly, “is quite a feat for a Republican in Alabama.”
Isbell eventually found causes he could believe in, and as his profile has grown, so have his efforts. Earlier this year, he teamed up with Allison Russell to host the Love Rising concert, a fund-raising event fighting back against a Tennessee law that targeted some members of the LGBTQ+ community. Governor Bill Lee signed the Adult Entertainment Act, which specified that “male and female impersonators” should be legislated like “topless dancers, go-go dancers, exotic dancers, [and] strippers,” attempting to prevent drag and trans performers from appearing in front of minors.
In response, Love Rising “felt more like a celebration than a protest,” Isbell says. “I saw a lot of kids in that audience who wouldn't feel comfortable going to see [country superstar and Trump supporter] Jason Aldean in that same venue. That made me very happy to have a small part in getting all those people together.”
In his activism, Isbell values process over results. “If I focus too much on the results, I'll be disappointed. That law still passed, and those things still happen, and people are still fucking hateful. I don't think that any amount of concerts is going to change that.”
As of June, the law was ruled unconstitutional by a Federal judge, though higher court challenges are expected. In the meantime Isbell won’t lie down. “What are my options?” he muses. “What can I do? Well, I can put these shows together or participate in the shows, and make people feel like they're welcome. So that's what we continue to do.”
Sometimes, though, it’s hard to find solace in the process. Sometimes, it’s all he can do to not fall apart.
To the best of Isbell’s memory, his wife Shires roused him on May 24th, 2022, and alerted him that something was wrong.
“I think Amanda told me that morning, ‘Get up and look at the news on your phone,’” he recalls. Isbell read the latest chapter of a familiar horror: the mass murder at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas that ultimately became the third-deadliest school shooting in US history. Nineteen students and two teachers perished while police mulled about outside, unwilling to act.
Isbell says the incident left him “terrified, horrified, frustrated, sad, and confused.” He references Wordsworth, who wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Isbell eventually sought his own “moment of tranquility,” trying to “get out of the initial shock of what moved you and get to the point where you want to write about what moved you.”
''I didn't get a chance to check the news
Somebody shot up a classroom again
And when you said the cops just let them die
I heard the shaking in your voice
And for a moment you began to cry
Then I heard you make a choice''
Uvalde was the inciting incident, the first domino to fall, but “Save the World” is about his relationship with Shires. “Swear you’ll save the world when I lose my grip,” he pleads on the hook, “Tell me you’re in control.”
“It's a love song,” he says to me. “Depending on someone to give you this news, then you tell them, ‘I can't handle this right now. Not that I want to ignore it, but that it's too much and I'm overwhelmed and I need you to take over.’”
Along with addiction, desperation, and death, Shires is one of Isbell’s most enduring subjects. They married in 2013, and she’s inspired two of the greatest love songs of this millennium, “Cover Me Up,” and “If We Were Vampires.” In some ways, “Save the World” is more intimate than those tracks, exploring the vulnerability of mature love.
Their relationship became even more public with the 2023 HBO documentary Jason Isbell: Running with Our Eyes Closed. The film tracked the couple's ups and downs through the recording of Reunions, including the aftermath of a fight when Isbell slept in a hotel. But that proved to be a short blip in a partnership that bends long before it breaks, and their happiness together never felt in doubt.
Shires is a former teenage fiddle phenom turned powerhouse songwriter, with her 2022 solo album Take It Like a Man and her 2019 country supergroup collaboration The Highwomen standing out as rich, rewarding listens. She has also, as Isbell explains, left a lasting influence on his own craft.
“You know, she primarily comes as a musician from a lead instrument perspective. That makes her melodies have a lot more power, I think, than they would otherwise with me,” he admits. “I come from a guitar player's perspective. So I started out just strumming chords, and then the melodies that I come up with aren't always directly connected to the musicality of the song in the same way that hers are.
“Also, she's very open about her internal life when she's writing a song. She's not a grizzled old man from Alabama. So it doesn't take her so long to get to the heart of what she's actually singing about. And that's probably the thing that's been of the most value to me: Say what you mean. Say what you actually feel rather than dancing around it.”
That clarity has served Isbell well, even -- and perhaps especially -- when what he’s trying to say is more complex.
Weathervanes came together slowly: in the isolation of quarantine, on the set of a $200 million movie in dusty Oklahoma, and in Nashville’s legendary Blackbird Studio. Isbell’s songs, too, coalesce in different spaces and perspectives. The title, Weathervanes, comes from the track “Cast Iron Skillet,” which is both an intimate character study and an impressionist poem about the tension between our intuition and what we are taught.
The song references received wisdom which may not hold up under scrutiny. “Don’t wash the cast iron skillet,” as he sings, is common advice; soap and water can strip the pan’s natural seasoning, and salt is a perfectly good skillet scrubber. But the seasoning can easily be reapplied with a little oil and heat, and sometimes soap and water work much faster than salt. Over time, “You don’t have to wash the cast iron skillet” lost its way and hardened into a warning: “Don’t.”
Then there are the characters. He sings of old acquaintances back when they were “10 and 12 years old/ He was soft and sweet/ Shied away from the inside fastballs/ And ended up doing life without parole.”
“To be afraid of fastballs, that's intuition,” Isbell explains. “Growing up and murdering somebody, that's something you learned.”
The title lyric comes in the second half of the song, about a girl who “found a boyfriend/ With smiling eyes and dark skin/ And her daddy never spoke another word to her again.”
Isbell concludes with a reflection on the sorry state of race relations in America:
''Don’t wash the cast iron skillet
This town won’t get no better, will it?
She found love and it was simple as a weathervane
But her own family tried to kill it''
Weathervanes are “a good symbol for trying to predict what's coming down the line,” according to Isbell. “I think a weathervane is a good stand-in for intuition.
“The learned bigotry, that's something that really is against intuition,” he says. “The intuition in there is falling in love.” Taken together, the song becomes a lament about the limits of intuition and what love can’t do – and how easily something pure can be tainted.
A similar theme cropped up in another of Isbell’s artistic endeavors, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon. In between playing the character Bill Smith, filming scenes with Robert De Niro, and watching Leonardo DiCaprio act his head off in the hot Oklahoma sun, Isbell wrote songs for Weathervanes and watched Scorsese tell a story.
“The way Marty works is really egoless,” Isbell explains. “He's not Martin Scorsese, the greatest film director of all time, while he's out there at work. He is a man trying to tell a story. It seems like a simple lesson and one that you can wrap your mind around pretty quickly. But it's really not. There are infinite challenges to releasing the ego when you're working on a creative project… That was huge for me to see.”
Isbell says he “definitely” took inspiration from Scorsese when, months later, he stepped into Blackbird Studio to record Weathervanes. And the timing couldn’t have been better, because the longtime bandleader was set to take on a new kind of leadership role.
The 400 Unit is made up of Sadler Vaden on guitar; Jimbo Hart on bass; Chad Gamble on drums; Derry DeBorja on piano, accordion, and anything else with keys; and Shires, off and on. If there was one unofficial member of Isbell’s band, it might have been Dave Cobb.
Cobb produced the run of Isbell’s records that included Southeastern, Something More Than Free, The Nashville Sound, and Reunions. According to DeBorja, Cobb would often be “listening for a particular thing,” and pushing the musicians “to do a particular thing to get there.”
Isbell, meanwhile, first stepped behind the boards with Josh Ritter’s 2019 record Fever Breaks, on which the 400 Unit served as backing band. After that positive experience, Isbell produced his own 2021 covers album, Georgia Blue, which fulfilled a promise he’d made during the 2020 election: “If Biden wins Georgia I’m gonna make a charity covers album of my favorite Georgia songs,” he pledged, “And damn is that gonna be fun.”
He wasn’t wrong. “It was really fun to make that record,” Isbell tells me. “Once the Georgia Blue record was done, and I listened to it, I thought, 'Well, I didn't screw that up. So I think I could do this again with the album of original songs.'”
One difference between Isbell’s producing style and Cobb’s will be obvious to anyone who hears Weathervanes: “He has put more guitars on it,” Shires states bluntly. And there were other subtle changes in how recording took place.
“In Jason's workflow, there's a lot more flexibility and a lot more trust,” DeBorja says, highlighting many of the same qualities that Isbell had praised in Scorsese. “He's a very open guy, very casual, very laid back. And he's a great listener. He's one of the sharpest listeners I know.”
Again, Isbell focused on process instead of results. In keeping with his preferences, his method had less, “what do I want to do?” and more, “what can we do together?” Because of that, Weathervanes showcases the 400 Unit’s personality more than any album to date. And while they're sure to have more moments to shine on their upcoming tour dates, that doesn’t make for less of Isbell. Quite the opposite: By reflecting the way he treats other people, he reveals even more of himself.
''I STILL CONSIDER THE WORK TO BE A CELEBRATION OF ITSELF…
IF THAT'S ALL YOU HAVE, THEN THAT HAS TO BE ENOUGH.''
“There's not a whole awful lot of positives out there,” Isbell said during our first conversation -- but luckily, he’s not the kind of person who waits for good things to happen. The same teenager who donated weeks of Walmart wages to a cause he thought he believed in grew up to be a tireless agitator for love and acceptance. He doesn’t always expect the world to get better, but he’s a long way from giving up. And for all the darkness in Weathervanes, it was made in an act of riotous joy.
Isbell arrived at Blackbird Studio still buzzing from collaborating with a great storyteller he admired, and with his own collection of tales that he was eager to tell. Some were factual and some were merely true, but they were all good stories.
During the session he spent time with his partner in music and life, Shires, who contributed to five songs on the record, plus one of the most stone-cold bands in the business. To top it off, he brought a dizzying collection of historical gear and guitars: a 1959 Les Paul, a 1953 Black Guard Telecaster, his own signature Fender, and more; he was the main character in a music nerd’s Night at the Museum. Everything he had been thinking about and many of the people he loved had arrived in one place to do the thing he enjoyed more than just about anything. Isbell was moving like a man with a soul on fire.
“I still consider the work to be a celebration of itself, you know? I still think that a blues song, for example, is a positive thing to put out into the world, because of the fact that you're able to sing it, that you're there to document that.
“If that's all you have,” Isbell says, “then that has to be enough.”
Portrait photos by Danny Clinch
Live photos by Josh Weichman and Ben Kaye
Illustration by Steven Fiche
Editing by Ben Kaye