“I’m in Nashville, I’m close to home,” Jason Isbell tells Uncut. “But I just finished my residency at the Ryman Auditorium last night, so I haven’t driven out to the house yet. We did eight shows. The openers were amazing, the audiences were great and my voice held up. So yeah, a huge success!”
Isbell has other reasons to celebrate. He’s just released Georgia Blue – a covers album of songs by Georgia artists ranging from REM to the Allmans, Otis Redding to Cat Power. Recorded to celebrate the state’s contribution to ousting Donald Trump by turning Democrat blue, its proceeds will benefit civil rights groups including Black Voters Matter. As you might imagine, the guest artists Isbell invited to join him and his band The 400 Unit on the record are suitably diverse, with ex-Black Crowe Steve Gorman alongside Adia Victoria and self-described “gay sober Christian” Julien Baker. Like Isbell’s own songwriting, first in the Drive-By Truckers and then in the searching character studies and confessionals of his solo records, they paint a nuanced, modern picture of the American South.
Fresh from the Ryman shows, Isbell is also naturally thrilled to be touring again. “Last fall we did a few shows where everybody was in pods and socially distanced, which was better than nothing,” he says. “But to actually play regular venues in almost regular ways was pure pleasure. I started requiring a Covid test or vaccine cards and had some arguments about that.” He’s unperturbed by the anti-vaxxer outrage. “Most of them would never have come to one of my shows in the first place. But the people who did were really excited to be able to see a show and feel relatively safe.”
This taste of musical freedom follows months under lockdown with his family. “We were pretty much in the house for a year,” he says. “We had probably the best version of a quarantine lockdown situation that you could have, but it was still really emotionally taxing on all of us.” Isbell characteristically dealt with his lockdown blues by heading out to his barn and making a fearsome electric racket. “Yeah, I played guitar a lot,” he laughs. “We’ve got a six-year-old daughter, so I spent a lot of time with her. I also spent a lot of time with guitars, with really loud amps. That was good for me.
It wasn’t the same as playing with my band, but it was in a lot of ways the same as I was when I was 14 years old. Back to being a teenager wishing I could be in a rock band going on tour? That’s not so bad. Playing the guitar always has been the most obvious outlet for me.”