Watching him in recent weeks out front of the “no vaccination = no attendance/no request for vaccination proof = no shows” movement in the USA, taking the abuse with equanimity as usual, just reinforced how admirable Jason Isbell.
The man can write a fair tune too, and is always a thoughtful interview. So why not dip in there again, even if only briefly?
Wind Back Wednesday lands in 2014 as the career-defining album, Southeastern, was marking its spot in the albums-of-the-year discussions. A quick chat ensued.
That Jason Isbell has made one of the most attractive sad records you’ll hear this or any year in Southeastern might suggest someone revelling in despair. In fact it’s the opposite for the Alabama native.
The sadness in these country rock songs which feel close cousins to those of another southerner, Ryan Adams, comes from regrets, sure. But there is a line on it which may sum up the album or the man who came to make the album: "I'm tired of answering to myself".
It’s someone saying being responsible to and for someone else is a good thing. It's an adult thing and adulthood is being embraced. And that isn’t sad at all.
"Yeah, I think so. It can be lonely if you don't have any rules. And for a long time I felt like I didn't have any rules and felt about as free as a person can be in current society and I didn't have to answer to anybody [as] I'd had a certain amount of success," says Isbell, who is frank about his status as a recovering alcoholic.
Given these days we think freedom is the ideal state, what's the benefit of rules and having someone you want to owe a debt or responsibility to?
"Happiness is really the only benefit of anything and for me to be happy at this point in my life I need to feel like I'm doing things right," he says. "I think there is a difference between right and wrong. I'm not a particularly religious person but I do feel like the way you treat people affects your overall well-being."
The songs on this album seem to be about the way we earn the right to not be alone, the things you have to do to justify someone allowing you to be part of their life and entering into yours.
"Yeah, I needed to earn the right to talk about it at the very least and then to write about it well," says Isbell. "I definitely, at this point in my life, would rather be a recovering alcoholic than never have been an alcoholic at all because it gives me an insight I wouldn't have had otherwise. I think if you don't go through that period in your life where you are not connected to anybody or anything then you are going to have a hard time not necessarily appreciating it but writing about the appreciation of it.”
Not that everyone in his songs is him but his emotional landscape definitely informs the feeling around the characters. And he knows it’s no coincidence that after a reasonably successful career with firstly Drive-by Truckers and then his early solo work, Southeastern has lifted him above the pack.
"Looking back I always felt like I was being treated unfairly. I always felt that music I was making was great and just not enough people had caught onto it or people wanted to listen to something that wasn't as good as what I was doing. I had a chip on my shoulder," he says.
"In the time since, in the couple of years since I have gotten sober, even that part of my life has gotten better, tenfold probably. I have to look at that and say it was my responsibility."