The last time Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit visited Indianapolis, they had to book it to the Grammys in New York City following their show at the Murat Theatre. According to Isbell, the overnight trip was a success.
“We won a couple,” he says. “It was a long haul, but it was good. We had a good time.
On Saturday, Sept. 15, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit will return to Indy for a second time in 2018, this time playing a gig at the Farm Bureau Insurance Lawn. Ahead of the show, we caught up with Isbell for a phone interview.
NUVO: I’ve read that you grew up playing music with your family. Can you give me any early recollections of that? Was country music part of your upbringing?
ISBELL: My granddad was a Pentecostal preacher, so it was a lot of gospel and old country music. That was sort of the first stuff I learned how to play. Our family would get together at least once a week. Aunts, uncles, and everybody would be around. But mostly, it was during the day. My parents were really young. They both worked, so I would stay with my grandparents for childcare. My granddad would occupy me by teaching me how to play musical instruments. It was really a good way to grow up.
NUVO: Are there any specific country artists that you remember your granddad showing you?
ISBELL: Yeah. All the ones that everybody’s grandfather listened to. George Jones, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson.
NUVO: You went to college for creative writing. Was writing something that was ingrained in you from a young age as well?
ISBELL: I don’t know if that’s something that’s really ingrained in anybody, but it’s something that I enjoyed a lot. And I knew I was going to write songs. So I went in to be an English major so I would have to read more and practice more different kinds of writing. I think it helped, I do. I think it made me more aware of literary editing and how to make a phrase do exactly what you want it to rather than just settle.
NUVO: What lasting impact did playing in Drive-By Truckers have on you?
ISBELL: I learned from that band that it’s not a lottery ticket—that nobody can make you stop being a musician. There’s no level of success that you have to reach to continue to do this job. Now, it might not be comfortable. But, when I joined that band, Patterson Hood was booking the shows himself, riding down the rode in a van with the one cellphone that we all shared. He had a notebook, and he was calling promoters and venues, booking the shows while we were going from town to town.
So I learned at that point that it’s not the kind of thing that American Idol makes it look where you either succeed or fail. There’s a whole lot of room in between for actually being a musician and being a songwriter and being a creative person. You don’t have to either be a rock star or nothing. That was really important to me at that point in time.Had I not known that, I might’ve given up and done something different.
NUVO: Your wife Amanda Shires is actually playing Indianapolis soon as part of the first-annual Holler on the Hill festival. What have you enjoyed about working with her on music?
ISBELL: All of it. We’re really fortunate that we get to play music together, especially when we’re traveling together. She’s on her own separate tour right now, and we come together when we can. So if I’m off, I’ll go out with her, and if she’s off, she’ll come out with me. She’s a great songwriter, and her process is very different from mine.
When she’s writing, if you come in the room, there’s going to be notes all over the wall and paper scattered everywhere. It’s really interesting to me because I don’t feel like there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. It’s nice to see how somebody else works. It really gives you insight into how different people write songs.
NUVO: You have the song titled “Anxiety” on your most recent album The Nashville Sound. Mental health treatment has come up a lot in politics lately. Is mental health treatment something that you are passionate about at all?
ISBELL: Yeah, I think everybody is. I don’t think I know anybody who doesn’t need therapy, whether they’re getting it or not. I think the more you talk about those things the less stigmatized it becomes and the more comfortable people are with going in to get some sort of help when they need.
For me, especially once I got sober, it was something that I started talking about a lot just because I think that’s the type of example people need to provide. The example that shows that it’s all right to discuss those things, and it doesn’t make you a bad person or a weak person when you ask for help. It’s actually the opposite.
NUVO: You recently were the artist in residence at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. What did that honor mean to you?
ISBELL: It was a big deal. I was the youngest person that had ever done that at that point. Now, Miranda [Lambert] has got me beat because she’s the artist in residence currently, and she’s a little bit younger than I am. But it’s not something I expected. The people who have done that in the past, like Ricky Skaggs, Rosanne Cash, and Tom T. Hall, are just incredible, legendary musicians and songwriters.
So it was a big honor for me. It was also really good to have a reason to call people like Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Dave Rawlings, Mac McAnally, and Jerry Douglas. I asked them to come out and perform with me, which they all said yes to. I assume that was because it was at the Hall of Fame. So it was good. It was a really, really great thing.
NUVO: You are a favorite songwriter of many. That being said, who are some songwriters that you are currently excited about?
ISBELL: I love Damien Jurado. I think he does really, really good work. I think Josh Ritter is really good and really talented. I’m producing a record of his, and there are a lot really great songs on it. Neko Case is still making really, really great music. Her last album is very good.
You just sort of have to seek out song-driven music now a little bit more than you used to because it’s not getting played on major radio stations like it was 30 years ago. But it’s still out there, that’s for sure.
NUVO: Being that you’re visiting Indiana, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on John Mellencamp and his work. Are you a fan?
ISBELL: I’m definitely a fan. In a lot of ways, I think he was responsible for popularizing roots-based rock music, and I think that’s sort of what we make now. I don’t think he gets enough credit for that.
400I actually spent some time with David Grissom a couple weeks ago, and David was in Mellencamp’s band for a long time. John didn’t drink. He smoked a lot of cigarettes, but he wasn’t a partier. He worked really hard, focused on music, and doing the best that he could do at every show. I’ve always been impressed by that kind of work ethic. And I love those songs. I think he’s written some beautiful songs.