Looking back on his 2017, Jason Isbell says he was fortunate. In an exclusive interview with CMT Hot 20 Countdown, Isbell says his audience continues to grow, his latest album with the 400 Unit is well received and his family at home is happy and healthy. On Sunday’s (Jan. 28) Grammy Awards, The Nashville Sound won best Americana album and “If We Were Vampires” won best American roots song.
“It’s hard to completely sit back and enjoy the success and the good fortune that we’ve received as a family when I have people that are really close to me that aren’t in the same situation,” he says. “I try to talk as much as I can of people who don’t necessarily have a voice, and that is very natural for me to discuss those topics because that’s what I’m talking about throughout the day with my wife, my friends, with my bandmates.
“So when I sit down to write a song, topics that other people might consider political topics are really just things that I believe. That’s going to come out in the music that I’m making. And I think it makes for better songs.”
On the difference between artists and entertainers
Isbell: There are a lot of people that call themselves artists that are entertainers, there’s nothing wrong to be an entertainer. I love to be distracted just as much as the next person does but there’s a big difference between art and craft.
On his songwriting process
I’m the kind of person that writes better the more time I spend on each individual song. They don’t just fall out. Every once in awhile one will but most of the time there’s a lot of editing. But the real focus for me is trying to be a creative person and trying to fill my role in my family, and I think I if I can do those things the music will follow.
If you stay in touch with society, culture, people’s needs and with the directions that people are moving in in order to get heard and get what they want, then you’re going to write good songs. As long as you’ve written enough of them. If you’ve only written a couple it’s going to take a while. But if you’ve written thousands of songs and you pay attention to people, then you’re going to write good songs.
On being considered the Bob Dylan of the 21st century
Bob Dylan is still alive. He is the Bob Dylan of the 21st century … When someone says you’re the next Bruce Springsteen or the next Bob Dylan, I dismiss that just as quickly as somebody who says, “These songs are too sad,” because either of those things means you’re not really putting a whole lot of thought into it.
On whether he thinks he’d do well writing mainstream country hits on Music Row
I’m not good looking enough to be a country artist. But I think as far as songwriting, I could have found the right people and could have done pretty well I think — not as good as some of the great ones because there are a lot of people in that world who can do things that I’m not capable of doing. I admire that, and they work really hard.
And some of them start out at the very bottom as far as ability goes, and within a couple years of writing every single day with people who have written hits, you’re going to learn how to do it. They’ve put the hours in. I can respect it. I don’t necessarily listen to most of that stuff on the radio, but I can definitely respect the craft of it.
How fatherhood has influenced his music
With songs like “White Man’s World,” I could have written that song with my system of beliefs and priorities years ago, but I was a little bit afraid to. But then I thought about having this little girl, and if there’s anything you can do to make the future a little brighter for her, then you have to do it; whether it helps or not, you have to at least try so she’ll know you tried. So it pushes me to do those things that I was afraid to do a decade ago, and that’s a really good thing for a songwriter. It’s a side effect of what I’m trying to do, trying to treat her as well as possible.
On staying creative
A big part of being creative and staying that way is jostling your mind loose from regime and things that you think about every day. That’s why a lot of us are better at writing when we wake up in the morning because everything you’re going to do that day hasn’t made its way into your head yet, into your consciousness. And having a two-year-old knocks you out of that world of worrying about yourself and worrying about little things that don’t add up to nothing, as Tom Petty said.
On his goals for 2018
I think we might try to put together a live album in 2018. We haven’t started yet, but we are recording a whole bunch of shows. So we might go back to some of those. I’d like to do a live album that includes material only from the last three albums because we did one right before we did Southeastern and then there was a shift in the music we were making and the audience we were reaching. So if maybe we can put one together from the last three albums that would be good.
An all-new CMT Hot 20 Countdown, airing Saturday and Sunday (Feb. 3-4) at 9 a.m. ET, will have Isbell’s full interview, plus recaps of the 60th annual Grammy Awards and Nashville episode five.