“Last year was a son of a bitch for nearly everyone we know.” So Jason Isbell proclaims in the middle of “Hope the High Road,” the resilient lead single from his brand new LP, The Nashville Sound. It’s something of a mission statement for the record, which is very much informed by 2016’s shit storm of political division and deep-seated anger. However, that lyric only gains its resonance from the line that follows it: “But I ain’t fighting with you down in the ditch, I’ll meet you up here on the road.” Being pissed off and dwelling on everything that went wrong last year might feel good, but it isn’t productive. Looking forward and striving to do better and be better is what’s necessary to effect change.
As a lead single, “Hope the High Road” is not indicative of what this album sounds like. It’s bright and anthemic where much of the record is dark and jagged, opting for Springsteen-style uplift instead of following the record’s lead of addressing all those nagging thoughts that you don’t want to talk about at parties. However, the message of the song—that maybe it’s a good idea to take a look inward instead of casting blame for once—is what gives the LP its beating heart. The Nashville Sound is the third masterpiece in a row from Isbell, and it gets there by never giving easy answers to the hard questions.
I had a chance to chat on the phone with Americana star, Jason Isbell, about his album release, Something More Than Free. We talked about his philosophy on songwriting, the challenge of following up his magnum opus (2013’s Southeastern), the prospect of him becoming a father, his opinion on why women make better artists than men, the role producer Dave Cobb plays in creating his records, and the idea of blending fiction and non-fiction for songs that always strike a chord.
Is Jason Isbell the best songwriter of his generation?
The former Drive-By Truckers member certainly made a case for the affirmative on Southeastern, his breakthrough solo LP from 2013. Southeastern was the kind of remarkable record that only grows in stature, importance, and personal impact over time. Written in the wake of Isbell getting sober and taking control of his life, Southeastern was at once both mournful and hopeful. Within those songs was a man with a suitcase full of doubts about himself, but also someone with the resilience to push forward and be better—at least with the helping hand of the person he loved most. “Home was a dream, one that I’d never seen, until you came along,” Isbell sang on “Cover Me Up,” Southeastern’s stirring mission statement, and the best song of the decade so far. He wrote it for Amanda Shires, the woman he married just months before Southeastern dropped, and the person he credits with saving him from the darkness.